Twenty five years ago today, the peace and tranquillity of the small Russian town of Pripyat was shattered when reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded.
Within minutes a toxic blend of radioactive dust and smoke spewed across the local area.
Across Europe, government agencies struggled to deal with the contamination to land and water as the winds spread the radioactive dust across the continent. The contamination affected 14 countries - sheep in north Wales were found to have dangerous levels of radioactivity, while crop farmers across Europe (pdf) had to abandon their harvests. The financial costs arising from the disaster continue today and will run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Twenty five years on and epidemiologists still argue about what the final death toll of the Chernobyl explosion will be - some claim the human cost will be in the low thousands while others estimate it will be in the high hundreds of thousands. The reality is we are unlikely to precisely know the actual number of deaths and cancers caused by the Chernobyl explosion.
The question today is what should the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster be. With heroic emergency workers still struggling to bring the reactors at Fukushima under control and Japan's economy thrown back by long-term rolling blackouts, this generation of decision makers and investors face some stark choices.
After Chernobyl, relatively few new reactors have been built. The median age of nuclear reactors is about 27 years. Today, less than 14 per cent of the world's electricity is generated by nuclear power.
But after years of stagnation, the nuclear power industry had been planning a revival. Its PR departments have began working overtime selling the idea that nuclear power is a necessary weapon against climate change, that it is a cost-effective and reliable energy source. In Britain, the government has given the go-ahead in principle to 10 new nuclear reactors to replace all but one of the existing reactors due to shut down by 2023. But remember Margaret Thatcher promised 10 as well, but only one got built.
Even before the inevitable rising nuclear costs following Fukushima, global investment patterns have begun to shift towards cleaner, safer alternatives. For the past two years, more has been invested in renewable energy than nuclear power or fossil fuels as countries compete to become more resource efficient and to get a share of the rapidly growing market in safe, low-carbon goods and services.
This investment is driving down the costs of renewable energy and scaling up manufacturing output of products like wind turbines and solar panels. Bloomberg New Energy Finance say that in 2010, $243 billion was spent on clean energy, up 30 per cent on 2009.
Today in parliament, on the anniversary of Chernobyl, the government is introducing a new bill that would introduce new hidden nuclear subsidies, despite all its promises. MPs from all sides of the house, who stood for election on a platform of no new nuclear subsidies, must start by voting down this attempt to create a £1.3 billion windfall for existing nuclear power plants.
No new subsidies for nuclear power must also mean that disposal costs of spent fuel should not be borne by the UK taxpayer. Nuclear power companies can't, on the one hand feed, from the trough of taxpayer subsidised profits and then wash their hands of the environmental legacy nuclear leaves behind for hundreds of thousands of years.
Twenty five years and two huge nuclear disasters later, the UK government has so far failed to grasp the opportunity of renewable energy. The UK's ability to produce sustainable, safe and cost-effective energy remains largely untapped. With over 7,700 miles of coastline, wind, wave and tidal alone has the ability to dwarf what nuclear contributes today in meeting the UK's electricity needs.
For the UK, developing a renewable strategy is a win-win for the country. Not only does renewable energy provide a secure and safe alternative, it provides the opportunity to revitalise the UK economy. Yet today we are dramatically falling behind our international competitors. In March this year, research by Pew found that Britain had fallen eight places (pdf) in 12 months in the global league table of countries investing in alternative and clean technology.
With investment and commitment, the UK could increase jobs in viable green tech industries while at the same time weaning the energy market off nuclear power.
In the town of Pripyat, there's a monument to the dead of Chernobyl. Three metal plates form the central structure and on one of those plates are some of the names of those that died. The other two plates have been left empty so names can be added as time and cancers take the lives of the local community and those who valiantly fought to bring the fire under control.
There's a greater monument we can provide for the victims of Chernobyl and Fukushima - a world free of the heavy burden of nuclear power. We know how to do it, we know we can do it, all we need now is for governments - including the UK's - to be honest, turn their backs on a dangerous and expensive energy source, and start realising the untapped resources on their own doorstep.