How we remember historical events has a lot to do with how we make future decisions. Take the Chernobyl disaster. Everyone agrees that the 1986 nuclear meltdown was horrific, the worst in history. But the exact causes—and lessons—are still debated. To some, Chernobyl was the product of faulty design and a dysfunctional Soviet system. To others, it showed something more fundamental: the inherent unsafety of nuclear power.
Until the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which was the only other "level 7" episode on the International Nuclear Event Scale, a lot of people probably accepted the Soviet-bumbling version of history. There was a tendency to downplay nuclear's risk, especially as we need carbon-free energy to replace fossil fuels. Now, it seems governments aren't so sanguine: several countries, particularly in Europe, have scaled back their nuclear building plans. In light of Fukushima, Chernobyl, which is in Ukraine, doesn't seem like an aberration of a dying regime, so much as something that can happen anywhere to anyone.
That's certainly how Gerd Ludwig sees it, anyway. But he probably has more right to speak on the subject than most of us. The L.A.-based photographer has been into Chernobyl's Exclusion Zone several times, and even inside the sarcophagus itself. On several reporting trips for National Geographic, he's catalogued the contamination, cancer deformities, and ongoing administrative disorder (the site is still covered by its original containment dome, which is crumbling by the day). "I'm not walking around with a button saying 'I'm against nuclear energy.' But what I've seen in Chernobyl is that we're really not capable of handling it at this point," he says.
Ludwig's book of photos, which he's campaigning for on Kickstarter, includes 111 images in all as well as CIA documents from the time, interviews with local people, and an essay by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev says Chernobyl was a more important factor in the fall of the Soviet bloc than Perestroika, his program of liberal reform. And he agrees with Ludwig about the signal from Chernobyl for future energy. "The Chernobyl catastrophe reminds us that we should not forget the horrible lesson taught to the world in 1986," he says. "We should do everything in our power to make all nuclear facilities safe. We should also start to work seriously on the production of energy from alternative sources."
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