Thirty-three years ago, one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant melted down, creating one of the worst man-made disasters of the 20th century, prompting fears that Europe could become a devastated wasteland and hastening the end of the Soviet Union. The most catastrophic outcomes were avoided, but that accident triggered in many countries a reassessment of nuclear power. The passage of time has provided little clarity about the effects of the meltdown even though an accurate understanding of nuclear power is needed now more than ever.

The Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was considered a flagship technology, one that demanded the best trained workers who were given, with their families, five-star treatment in a country that was better known for its deprivations. A planned expansion in 1988 was to turn the facility into the largest nuclear power complex in the world.

Yet during a routine test on the night of April 25, 1986, there was a power surge at the No. 4 reactor that triggered a rupture in the reactor vessel and a series of explosions. It is alleged that one worker was "vaporized" on the spot and 30 more died slow, lingering deaths as a result of radiation poisoning. It is reckoned that the accident released more than 100 times the radiation created by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.