Friday, April 21, 2006

Chernobyl: A remembrance for the future

April 26th marks the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl - the worst nuclear accident in human history. At the time, many hoped that it would mark the beginning of the end of our dependence on nuclear power. Sadly, like so many of our darkest days, the tragedy of Chernobyl has faded into our collective unconsciousness. The problem is that we are ill equipped to imagine the consequences of such tragedy.

"We did not ... possess a system of imagination, analogies, words or experiences for the catastrophe of Chernobyl," explained Svetlana Alexiyevich, a writer from Belarus. So instead, most of us simply forgot.

"Chernobyl is a word we would all like to erase from our memory. It [opened] a Pandora's box of invisible enemies and nameless anxieties in people's minds, but which most of us probably now think of as safely relegated to the past," said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000. "Yet there are two compelling reasons why this tragedy must not be forgotten. First, if we forget Chernobyl, we increase the risk of more such technological and environmental disasters in the future. Second, more than seven million of our fellow human beings do not have the luxury of forgetting. They are still suffering, every day, as a result of what happened. Indeed, the legacy of Chernobyl will be with us, and with our descendants, for generations to come."

It would appear that our inherent desire to put the nasty stuff behind us far outweighs our compassion or our common sense. The result is that we have not only forgotten the tragedy of Chernobyl, but thanks to the spin doctors in the nuclear industry, we are on the verge of a global nuclear revival. Ontario is just one jurisdiction where nuclear power is experiencing a renaissance. Ontario's Energy Minister Donna Cansfield is expected to announce any day that new nuclear constructions will be part of the Liberal government's new energy plan.

Cansfield's statement that nuclear is part of a "...reasonable and prudent plan for energy in this province," is neither reasonable or prudent. But like so many other decision makers, she has bought into the nuclear industry's carefully crafted misinformation campaign that has positioned nuclear as the environmentally responsible alternative to the burning of fossil fuels, the primary cause of climate change.

"New nuclear reactors will not contribute to a sustained reduction in global warming, nor will they be able to keep energy prices down over the long term," writes Gerd Rosenkranz. Rosenkranz's comments are found in his research paper, Nuclear Power - Myth and Reality, that will be presented at the upcoming international conference, Chornobyl 20 - A Remembrance for the Future, taking place in the Ukraine, April 23 to 25.

"Artificial warming of earth's atmosphere will surely pose one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. But there are less hazardous ways to deal with this problem than by using nuclear power. Nuclear power is not sustainable, because its fissile fuel materials are as limited as fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Moreover, its radioactive by-products must be isolated from the biosphere for periods of time that defy human imagination," continues Rosenkranz.

There's that word again: imagination. Finding an energy solution isn't about manipulating the technologies that we already have in place; it's about having the courage and the vision to imagine a better, more sustainable future. The nuclear industry knows this. That's why it has invested so heavily, (and apparently successfully), in convincing governments, like Ontario, to breathe life into what were the dying embers of the nuclear industry.

As Rosenkranz points out, "Nuclear energy is not only a high-risk technology in terms of safety, but also with respect to financial investment. Without state subsidies, it does not stand a chance in a market economy. Yet companies will continue to profit from nuclear energy under special, state-controlled conditions."

Rosenkranz says that instead of investing public money to resurrect an otherwise dying industry, we should be investing in renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency measures.

"The future of nuclear energy is past, whereas the future of renewable energy is just beginning." Lest we forget.


Chornobyl 20 - A Remembrance for the Future is an international conference being held April 23 -25, in Kyiv, Ukraine. The conference website includes excellent background materials and presentations, including Gerd Rosenkranz's paper.

Chernobyl Info is the international communications platform on the long-term consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.

Children continue to be the most seriously affected victims of Chernobyl. Visit The Chernobyl Children's Project

Monday, April 17, 2006


I woke up early Easter Sunday, strangely unsettled by the events of the night before. The members of my extended family - those close enough to get there - had gathered at my mother's house for a family dinner.

It was a predictably lovely evening. My 84 year-old mother had managed to prepare an amazing meal, resplendent with enough food for the Roman army. My father, 20 years divorced from my mother, filled out his part of the conversation with war stories that he'd been busy resurrecting in time for his annual pilgrimage to France for D-Day celebrations. My brother sat chatting with my husband Brian, while the grandkids bandied back and forth, eating, laughing, and enjoying each other's company. At the end of the meal, my sister-in-law and I assumed our post in the kitchen, scrubbing pots and catching up with life and each other.

Just as we leaving, my sister called from Alberta to wish us all a Happy Easter. When it was my turn to talk to her, I sang the same totally annoying Easter song that I sing to her every year. "Make a wish upon a bunny and your wish will come true," I crooned into the phone. She groaned. We both laughed.

It should have been a day that brought comfort and joy, but as we headed out on the highway, I felt strangely sad. The closer we got to home, the greater the funk that surrounded me. Exhausted by my own melancholy, I went to bed early, hoping to put my sadness to rest, only to have it follow me into my dreams.

Easter Sunday arrived early in a glory of pink and white. A deep frost the night before had created a pastel landscape that sparkled in the pre-dawn light like pure confection. I looked out the window and sighed. After a night of unsettling dreams, my funk was still fully intact. I decided to creep downstairs to make a cup of tea - the British panacea for all woes - and reflect on my misery.

Fortunately, I didn't have to suffer in solitude. Despite my best efforts, my early morning puttering had awakened Brian and he joined me at the kitchen table that was still heaped with the stuff we'd brought back from my mother's the night before.

Sitting in the middle of the table was a large decorative box. Stacked inside was a series of ever diminishing, beautifully crafted boxes, much like a Russian babushka doll. The boxes were a gift from my mother who knew that they would delight me. As I re-examined the boxes, I began to understand the prevailing sadness that had been following me. The boxes were scale images of each other, dwindling down until at the core there was nothing.

And therein lay the mystery of my sorrow. Our lives are marked by a series of predictable events - holidays and celebrations, routines and obligations, each one building on the previous one, collectively creating both order and meaning in our lives. But what happens when the rituals mask the meaning, the originality of each day? I suddenly realized that in falling into the ritual of Easter dinner at my mother's, I had lost sight of the miracle of a family's love. How amazing that an 84-year old lady could prepare a sumptuous feast for ten. How incredible that we possess technology that can bring everyone together, if only over the phone, from thousands of miles away. How wonderful that a family, torn by divorce two decades earlier, can still gather to break bread and share love.

The paradox of Easter, of spring, is that we can predictably count on the return of new life each year, and yet we cannot explain the unfathomable miracle of the new life that we celebrate. We build comfort into our lives with ritual, and in doing so, rob ourselves of the joy of spontaneity and discovery.

I was suddenly reminded of a poster that I had in my bedroom as a child. It pictured the pastel perfection of a morning much like the one that I was experiencing. Written beneath the picture was a quote from the 19th century philosopher Johan Wolfgang von Goethe which read, "Nothing is worth more than this day."

Somewhere between the known and comfortable, and the unknown and the miraculous, lies the secret of resurrection. Like a tiny green shoot poking up out of the still frozen ground, that secret reminds us that all of life exists only in the magic of this exact moment, never to be duplicated, always to be celebrated.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Earth Day is for Kids

April 22nd is Earth Day. The very first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22nd, 1970 as an environmental awareness teach-in at colleges and universities across North America. Earth Day is now the largest, most celebrated environmental event worldwide. This year it's expected that more than six million Canadians will join a half a billion people in over 180 countries who will be participating in local community events throughout the month of April.

Celebrating Earth Day provides a great opportunity to teach our children about caring for the planet we call home. Helping our kids learn about taking care of the environment teaches them stewardship and responsibility. It's also a wonderful way to spend time together. You can check with your local school, community group or municipality to find out if there are any special events planned for your area, or you can organize your own events. Here's a list of family-friendly activities that can help protect Mother Earth. As an added benefit, most of these activities cost little or no money.

* Visit your local community park and pick up litter. Take along two bags: one for garbage and the other to collect recyclables such as plastic water bottles and pop cans and put them in your blue box. Make sure that you and your children wear safety gloves. An alternative version for younger children is to collect all of the litter into one garbage bag. Dump the contents out when you get home and ask your children to identify which items are recyclable and which are not.

* Host an Earth Day yard sale. Encourage your children to sort out any unwanted toys or outgrown clothes. Donate any proceeds to an Earth-friendly organization such as Earth Day Canada. You can also donate used clothing and toys directly to a local charity such as Goodwill.

* Plant a tree together. Trees provide shade in the summer and help to keep our homes warm in the winter, as well as provide shelter for birds year-round. Trees also help combat the harmful effects of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

* When selecting a tree, make sure to pick a tree that is native to southern Ontario. Your local garden centre can help you identify native species or you can visit the Tree Canada Foundation. The site is filled with great resources for parents, teachers and kids.

* Challenge your family to go green during the month of April. Help reduce greenhouse gases by leaving the car in the driveway. Take public transit, go on family bicycle trips or walk whenever possible. You'll also get the added benefit of sharing some healthy activities together. If you're taking along a picnic lunch, make sure to only use reusable or recyclable containers.

* Start a compost heap. Composting is nature's way of recycling. It's also a terrific way to teach children about the natural life cycle. You can purchase a compost bin at a local garden centre, or create your own by piling uncooked organic leftovers such as potato peelings, apples cores, eggshells and coffee grounds in corner in your garden. For more information, visit The Composting Council of Canada.

* Bike to your local library and learn about the environment together. Pick a subject such as endangered species, water or energy conservation, or waste reduction. Learning how to use library resources is a skill that will serve your children throughout their lives. Ask the librarian to help you research a topic.

* Cultivate seeds for May planting. You can purchase an inexpensive seedling starter at your gardening centre and start seeds that can be transplanted into your garden later in the spring. Vegetables such as tomatoes, green peppers or broccoli are good bets. Once planted, encourage your children to care for their plants by weeding and watering them. Come harvest time, they can enjoy the fruits of their labours. Cultivating flowers from seeds is much less expensive than buying bedding plants later in the season.


For more information on Earth Day activities for kids, visit Ecokids.This kid-friendly site has great year round suggestions, activities and educational games for children of all ages, or check out Earth Day Canada