By the time of its collapse in 1991, the Soviet Union had become the poster-child for all that ails socialism.
Despite being one of two world superpowers, armed with thousands of nuclear weapons, a dominant presence in space travel, and blessed with untold mineral and human resources, the Soviet Union was by every measure a backwards nation.
In a 70-some year span it had never contributed a single, solitary technological advancement to the world in manufacturing, or medicine, or science of any sort. Every technological achievement of the U.S.S.R. was in actual fact cribbed from technology stolen from the West.
There is one achievement of the Soviets, though, that is still chugging along like the Cold War never ended.
Think about this: in 1986, the Soviet Union had not even mastered such technology as, say, building a decent bicycle.
They couldn’t even build a car as good as the eternally dismal Italians; even after Fiat had sold them the entire factory with which to build a Soviet knock-off Fiat 124, a car synonymous with being stranded by the side of the road.
In spite of that, the Soviets thought they could build nuclear power plants.
Thus, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster was not a matter of “if” but “when.”
Chernobyl directly killed some 30 people. Most died from severe radiation poisoning incurred during attempts to stabilize the crippled reactor and fight the attendant fires.
There are conflicting theories about the numbers of deaths from the fallout and radiation plume from the explosion and fire, but the best estimate is fewer than 1,000, with most of them being children living within a very well-defined fallout path within a short distance of the reactor.
Had the Soviets chosen to act quickly, those deaths as well as several thousand other cases of radiation-related thyroid disease in the same small region would have been prevented.
Aside from Chernobyl, less than a dozen people have died from nuclear power plant accidents since the mid-1950s. Because of the nature of the Soviet regime, it’s not possible to speculate on the number of people killed by nuclear accidents in the early days of their nuclear program.
By comparison, the Chinese coal industry kills about a dozen people every day.
All that said, the Soviets managed one stunning victory against the West. The Soviets spent millions of dollars funding a propaganda war against nuclear energy, and managed to convince millions of Westerners to equate nuclear power with nuclear weapons, along with instilling a deep-seated fear of atomic energy that persists to this day.
The fact is, the Soviets are the true fathers of the present-day “green” movement.
Consequently, some 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we see the German government choosing to shutter a number of nuclear power plants in the not-too-distant future.
There is tremendous irony in the so-called “green” movement forcing the shuttering of German nuclear plants, forcing Germany and her neighbours to rely even more heavily on coal-fired power plants in the former East Germany.
The bottom line here is that nuclear power is pretty much harmless, so long as your engineers and operators stay out of the vodka.
In spite of all that, there is constant clamour from the left to eradicate it, supposedly due to all the deaths and diseases it causes.
So far, one organic farm in Germany has killed dozens, and hospitalized thousands of innocent victims across most of Europe. As at Chernobyl, some of those stricken by the E. coli bacterium will suffer for weeks and months before succumbing to kidney and liver failure.
The difference between the after-effects of Chernobyl and the contaminated bean sprouts is that beyond the young people afflicted with thyroid problems, there have not been any measurable radiation-related health effects to the citizenry at large, whereas the number of regular citizens who will suffer lifelong and debilitating injury from food poisoning will eclipse the effects of Chernobyl.
The point here isn’t that organic produce should be outlawed. The point is that conventionally grown produce kills no one.
Nor does nuclear power.
Given all that, isn’t it just a little strange that some countries are going to mothball their nuclear power plants in the name of public safety?
Bill Greenwood is a local freelance columnist.