George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  The same may be said of those who fail to understand the past or to learn from it. If we failed to learn the lessons from the nuclear power plant accident at Chernobyl more than three decades ago or to understand its meaning for our future, perhaps the more recent accident at Fukushima will serve to underline those lessons. Here are ten lessons drawn from the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.

  1. Nuclear power is a highly complex, expensive and dangerous way to boil water. Nuclear power does nothing more than provide a high-tech and extremely dangerous way to boil water to create steam to turn turbines.
  1. Accidents happen and the worst-case scenario often turns out to be worse than imagined or planned for. Although the nuclear industry continues to assure the public that nuclear power plants are safe, the plants continue to have accidents, some of which exceed worst-case projections.
  1. The nuclear industry and its experts cannot plan for every contingency or prevent every disaster. Although it was known that Fukushima is subject to earthquakes and tsunamis, the nuclear industry and its experts did not plan for the combination of a 9.0 earthquake and the larger-than-expected tsunami that followed.
  1. Governments do not effectively regulate the nuclear industry to assure the safety of the public. Government regulators of nuclear industry often come from the nuclear industry and tend to be too close to the industry to regulate it effectively.
  1. Hubris, complacency and high-level radiation are a deadly mix. Hubris on the part of the nuclear industry and its government regulators, along with complacency on the part of the public, have led to the creation of vast amounts of high-level radiation that must be guarded from release to the environment for tens of thousands of years, far longer than civilization has existed.
  1. Nuclear power plants can catastrophically fail, causing vast human and environmental damage. The corporations that run the power plants, however, are protected from catastrophic economic failure by government limits on liability, which shift the economic burden to the public. If the corporations that own nuclear power plants had to bear the burden of potential financial losses in the event of a catastrophic accident, they would not build the plants because they know the risks are unacceptable. It is government liability limits, such as the Price-Anderson Act in the US, that make nuclear power plants possible, leaving the taxpayers responsible for the overwhelming monetary costs of nuclear industry failures. No other private industry is given such liability protection.
  1. Radiation releases from nuclear accidents cannot be contained in space and will not stop at national borders. The wind will carry long-lived radioactive materials around the world and affect the people and environment of many countries and regions. The radiation will also affect the oceans of the world, which are the common heritage of humankind.
  1. Radiation releases from nuclear accidents cannot be contained in time and will adversely affect countless future generations. The radioactive materials from nuclear power plant accidents, as well as from radioactive wastes, are a legacy we are bequeathing to future generations of humans and other forms of life on the planet.
  1. Nuclear energy, as well as nuclear weapons, and human beings cannot co-exist without the risk of future catastrophes. The survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have long known that nuclear weapons and human beings cannot co-exist. The Fukushima accident, like that at Chernobyl before it, makes clear that human beings and nuclear power plants also cannot co-exist without courting future disasters.
  1. The accidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl are a wake-up call to phase out nuclear energy and replace it with energy conservation and more human- and environmentally-friendly forms of renewable energy. For decades it has been clear that various forms of renewable energy are needed to replace both nuclear and fossil fuel energy sources. Now it is clearer than ever. The choice is not between nuclear and fossil fuels. The solution is to disavow both of these forms of energy and to move as rapidly as possible to a global energy plan based upon various forms of renewable energy: solar cells, wind, geothermal, ocean thermal, currents, tides, etc.

The nuclear power plant accident at Chernobyl was repeated, albeit with a different set of circumstances, at Fukushima. Have our societies yet learned any lessons from Chernobyl and Fukushima that will prevent the people of the future from experiencing such devastation? As poet Maya Angelou points out, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage doesn’t need to be lived again.” We need the courage to phase out nuclear power globally and replace it with energy conservation and renewable energy sources. In doing so, we will not only be acting responsibly with regard to nuclear power, but will also reduce the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation and strengthen the global foundations for the abolition of these weapons.