The explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine 35 years ago forged a strong safety culture that underpins nuclear energy today. At a time when the world was divided profoundly by distrust, the accident prompted nations to collaborate and communicate as they became more transparent and open about their nuclear power programs. After the tsunami of 2011 hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in northern Japan, the international community came together again to reinforce the global nuclear safety regime. These anniversaries are reminders of the ever-evolving efforts to strengthen nuclear safety. This is especially important today because public trust is a prerequisite for nuclear power to play its part in mitigating climate change. Too often, the debate about how to move the world onto a more sustainable energy path is framed in the false dichotomy of “either we invest in solar and wind power, or in nuclear energy.” Reaching netzero carbon emissions will require investment in all of them.
The seeds of Chernobyl's tragedy were secrecy, opacity, and lack of accountability. Out of the accident's ashes grew transparency, accountability, and a degree of openness that did not exist before April 1986. Engineers, managers, and regulators reassessed and upgraded existing reactors where necessary. For the first time, the world's nuclear power plant operators came together and established networks of cooperation that still exist today. Not even the Iron Curtain could withstand these new branches of international cooperation. Under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), safety standards, norms, and data became part of international collaborative structures with the IAEA at their center. Nuclear safety conventions were passed, and the IAEA created a system of mutual peer reviews in which experts from different countries openly put questions to one another. Substantial progress was made, but upholding those safety norms and procedures remains the responsibility of operators and their countries' regulators.