04/25/2016 12:02 EDT | Updated 04/26/2017 05:12 EDT

The Shadow Of Chernobyl Looms Large 30 Years Later

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All gone

Thirty years on from the world's worst nuclear accident, millions of people are still living with radioactive fallout from Chernobyl.

In contaminated areas, radiation touches every aspect of people's lives: it's in the food they eat, the milk they drink, and in the schools, parks and playgrounds their children play in.

The human toll of reactor accidents is why nuclear power may never gain widespread acceptance, no matter how much the industry tries to reassure us that risks are low.

Nuclear scars

Chernobyl is the disaster the industry hoped we would have forgotten by now. But the meltdown of Fukushima's reactors in March 2011 reminded the world that nuclear accidents can happen anywhere.

Five years since Fukushima, we're seeing the same social upheaval that followed Chernobyl. Radioactive contamination has forever changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Sadly, we know from Chernobyl that the social scars caused by Fukushima will continue for decades.

Every day, five million Chernobyl survivors in the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus must make decisions on how to reduce or limit their exposure to radiation. Every day parents in contaminated areas have to wonder whether they are doing right by their children.

History repeats

We've seen how nuclear accidents are unique in their ability to permanently displace large populations, tear apart communities, and leave survivors burdened with stress caused by their chronic exposure to radiation.

We've also seen how expansion of the nuclear power industry can be stopped in its tracks:

Before Chernobyl, nuclear power was expanding fast. In 1985 alone, 33 new reactors were connected to the grid worldwide. After the Chernobyl explosion and fire in 1986, growth of the nuclear energy industry flatlined.

Italy shut down all of its reactors after a referendum in 1987. Then in 2000 Germany - the world's third largest economy - committed to phase out its reactors and ramp up renewables, calling the policy "a logical response to Chernobyl."

Fukushima and Chernobyl revealed the real risk of nuclear power to the world. Millions globally have decided this risk is socially unacceptable, in spite of technocratic assurances from the industry.

These disasters spurred countries to rethink their reliance on nuclear energy and in some cases abandon it all together.

That's what we're seeing in Japan right now. The Japanese - although not their government - are demanding renewable energy in response to Fukushima.

Renewables rising

The Fukushima meltdown spurred countries to not only to shut down reactors but also to accelerate investments in safer renewable energy.

Not long after the disaster began, Deutsche Bank predicted the combination of the oil price shock and the Fukushima accident would likely mark 2011 as "a key inflection point in the global energy mix" in a transition towards sustainable energy.

Five years later we're starting to see the truth in Deutsche Bank's prediction.

In Japan, nuclear power has become socially unacceptable, applications to restart reactors are meeting significant opposition, and people are empowering themselves with renewables.

While the Abe government tries to push reactor restarts on an unwilling public, between 2010 and 2014 more than 850,000 Japanese families installed solar panels on their homes.

In just five years, Japan's solar output has grown from almost nothing before Fukushima to match the output of almost six reactors. Germany also accelerated it nuclear phase-out and immediately closed its 8 oldest reactors. The remaining nine will be closed by 2022.

This accelerated investment in renewables in the world's third and fourth largest economies is driving innovation, investment and increasing political support for renewables internationally.

Nuclear power? No thanks!

Worryingly, there are still more than four hundred aging reactors around the world putting millions at risk. And the nuclear industry is trying hard to divert funds and political support from the renewable solutions we need to tackle climate change. This has to be fought at every opportunity.

The human toll caused by nuclear disasters is why nuclear power can never be part of a just, sustainable and low-carbon future.

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