On the night of 25-26 April 1986, unknown to most of the world, scientists were busy testing Chernobyl's reactor No 4 to determine whether its coolant pumps would keep running in the event of a loss of power. Within minutes of beginning the test, a power surge caused a chain reaction which lead to a massive explosion and meltdown of the reactor's core. Two days later Tass, the then-Soviet state news agency, acknowledged there had been an “incident”.
Given the political climate at the time it's perhaps not surprising that the Soviet Union was rather reticent in its initial statements on the disaster. Hopeful messages on how they were working to “eliminate the consequences of the accident” were released to an anxious western world, whose monitoring stations had been picking up the radioactive fallout for days and whose populations knew which way the wind was blowing.
Twenty years on and the dire consequences of Chernobyl are becoming more apparent. At the site, workers have been busy shoring up the crumbling sarcophagus - intended as a short-term measure to contain the radiation, but at times over the past twenty years seemingly on the brink of complete collapse. A new “shelter” is due to be in place by 2008.
The nearby town of Pripyat remains deserted - a ghost town offering a snapshot of mid-1980s life in Soviet Ukraine - and hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced across Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
In the intervening years an estimated 25,000 workers - of 800,000 who participated in the clean-up operation - have died. In April, Greenpeace published a report in which they estimate that there could be between 90,000 and 270,000 cancer cases as a consequence of Chernobyl. The literal and metaphorical fallout of the disaster is substantial.
In Britain a debate over securing stable and carbon-minimal energy supplies continues to be played out, with nuclear power being endorsed not only by the usual suspects within the pro-nuclear lobby, but also by a number of supposedly “greens”.
However, while generating nuclear power itself may not be belching out the carbons, it is not without both actual and potential negative environmental consequences. For a start, there's already around half a million cubic metres of radioactive waste without any storage solution. Then there's the discharges: while the nuclear industry has worked hard to clean up its act over the past fifty years, discharges - authorised and otherwise - remain inevitable and the impact of low-level radiation in the environment remains an ongoing investigation.
The possibility of a meltdown as witnessed in Ukraine may seem far fetched, and the industry claims it an impossibility given modern reactor design. Mind you, didn't the Titanic's backers say something similar?
Meanwhile in Iran...
The belligerence shown by the Iranian government in the face of UN Security Council demands for it to return to the negotiating table over its nuclear ambitions should be both condemned and understood.
The theocratic state which - rightly - believes it is under threat of military attack by the US and diplomatic pressure from EU member states, can't resist putting two fingers up to the lot of them. The hypocrisy and blatant manouvering of the west isn't even thinly-veiled, and his seemingly intractable stance plays well to the home crowd for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
If the US does undertake some form of military action against Iran, on an official level at least the British government may, given the lack of public support for such action, attempt to distance itself from the sharp end of US aggression. However, given the number of US bases in Britain and the vital role they can play in supporting any US air war, it is quite possible that bombers from Fairford, bombs from Welford, and reconnaisance and tankers from Lakenheath could be pressed into service.
Other nearby options for basing a US strike force and logistical support are Incirlik in Turkey and Ramstein in Germany. Both were used in the first and second Gulf Wars though, due in part to public pressure, the Turkish government refused complete co-operation for operations from US bases on its soil during the 2003 war.
Stop the war?
Without directly participating in an attack on Iran, the British government could well facilitate one. The only way this could be stopped in its tracks is by making it clear in advance that do so would be political suicide. Once support is given, the only way to stop it will be to take our opposition out to the bases and physically stop the warmongers. Marching around London after the bombing started would be worse than meaningless: merely reinforcing the idea that this country is a democracy in which dissenters are allowed out to play periodically.
If we really want to “stop” something (as in “stop the war”), that means complete non-co-operation with the violent state that perpetrates such atrocities and the direct blocking of military activity.
Surely, it's worth risking a few days in the clink, rather than accepting a lifetime of complicity and (yet more) blood on our hands?