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30 Years after Chernobyl, Public Split on Nuclear Power

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the most catastrophic nuclear disaster in history. On April 26, 1986, one of the four reactors at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, spewing radiation into the atmosphere.

The disaster occurred following an “experiment” to determine whether the cooling pump system could function using low reactor power (in the event of an electricity failure). For the experiment, staff lowered additional control rods into the reactor core to reduce output to 20%. But they lowered too many and output dropped rapidly—to the point of almost complete shutdown. To counteract the drop, the staff raised more and more rods until, unexpectedly, power levels surged to 10+ times the normal level! Two explosions followed, rupturing the containment vessel and causing a fire that lasted 9 days.

The explosions released over 5% of the reactor core into the atmosphere, contaminating large swaths of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and Scandinavia. Within 3 months, at least 31 people succumbed to acute radiation sickness and over 350,000 fled their homes. Another 4000+ people contracted thyroid cancer in ensuing years. (Going forward, experts believe that long-term radiation exposure will cause 9000 – 93,000 additional cancer deaths).

These horrific effects led to a burst of activity to improve atomic safety. Among other things, the nuclear community created the World Association of Nuclear Operators to review 430 reactors worldwide for problems. The International Atomic Energy Agency “beefed up” its role as UN nuclear watchdog and expanded its safety standards. Moreover, countries signed various international agreements, including the Convention on Nuclear Safety.

These efforts were “critical”. Yet, they have failed to prevent all further nuclear accidents. In March 2011, for example, the second largest nuclear disaster occurred at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi power plant. In this case, a massive earthquake off the coast triggered a 13-15 metre tsunami. The waves exceeded the seawall, flooding key buildings and destroying equipment needed to prevent nuclear meltdown.

Such incidents have prompted more and more countries to phase out the use of nuclear energy. These countries include Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, and recently, Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel explained “After what was… an unimaginable disaster in Fukushima, we have had to reconsider the role of nuclear energy”. The country now plans to close all of its 17 nuclear reactors by 2022.

But despite its risks, nuclear energy has many redeeming qualities. It is energy dense, producing far more energy per unit of mass than any other source. It is cost-competitive thanks to low fuel costs. It provides more reliable base load energy than solar and wind power, which are weather dependent. And unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power generation produces minimal greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. In the words of Christine Todd Whitman, a former EPA Administrator, nuclear energy is “the country’s largest source of clean-air energy that’s available 24/7″ and is “a critical tool in combating climate change“. For these reasons, nuclear energy remains a key part of our energy mix, accounting for 20% of US electricity generation.

Where do you stand on nuclear power? To learn more, contact the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, and Clean Air Cool Planet.

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Helping the Residents of Texas through Opinions4Good

The devastation in Texas from the recent floods and tornados is difficult for most of us to imagine. The images and information coming out of this event remind us how often strangers and our neighbors are willing to help in a moment’s notice. Our thoughts and prayers are directed to the families who have lost precious loved ones.

Our members carry a spirit of volunteerism, charity and concern. To help families in Texas cope with the disaster today and in the months and years to come, simply select the America Red Cross as your chosen nonprofit. This gives you the opportunity to apply survey earnings directly to an organization providing boots-on-the-ground service to the affected families.

The Red Cross has opened emergency shelters throughout the Texas Gulf Coast region. They are also helping residents cope with the emotional toll of the disaster. The Red Cross will continue to provide disaster relief and emotional counselling as long as they are needed.

To donate directly Text REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10 to American Red Cross Disaster Relief or donate by phone at 1-800-RED CROSS.

You can also provide assistance through a donation directly on their website.

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Word on the Street: New Muppet Promotes Female Empowerment

It’s not easy being a girl – especially in Afghanistan. Due to deeply entrenched cultural and religious beliefs, Afghan females are widely viewed as subordinate to their male peers. As a result, 85% of females receive no formal education. Moreover, only 12 – 24% of females are literate – one of the lowest rates in the world.

But “sunny days” may be on their way to the central Asian country. Afghanistan’s version of Sesame Street (Baghch-e-Simsin) is debuting its first Afghan character: a 6 year old girl!

Zari (meaning “shimmering” in Pashto and Dari) is a curious, lively, and confident girl with purple skin and a mop of colorful hair. She wears causal and traditional clothes, as well as a headscarf where appropriate. With characters like Elmo and Big Bird, Zari will appear in all 26 episodes, doing segments on health, exercise, and well-being. She will also interview a doctor and other professionals to determine “what she would need to do to become one herself”.

Zari’s role is not just to teach children who may lack access to other educational content. As a girl, she is also there to promote female empowerment and serve as a role model. In the words of Sherri Westin, Vice President of Sesame Workshop, “She is modeling for young girls that it is wonderful to go to school and that it’s ok to dream about having a career”. Program Manager Clemence Quint adds “we thought it was really important to emphasize the fact that a little girl could do as much as everybody else”.

Zari also has the potential to influence the attitudes of Afghan males in a non-threatening way. Research suggests that depictions of confident, educated girls “help shaped boys’ opinions as well”. According to Westin, the first 4 seasons of Baghch-e-Simsin have already “begun to open the minds of Afghan fathers about the value of educating their daughters”.

Of course, Zari’s success in redefining gender norms will depend greatly on viewership. Currently, Baghch-e-Simsin is the most watched program among young children in Afghanistan. Approximately 81% of children aged 3 to 7 have seen the show. However, TVs are less common in rural areas, where Zari is perhaps needed most.

Still, we have great hope for little Zari (as well as Chamki in India and Kami in South Africa). Maybe one street can change an entire nation!

Want to support female education and empowerment? Please give to Sesame Workshop, Plan International, or our partners, WorldTeach, DIVAS/Florida Girls Mentoring Program, and Girls Incorporated of New Hampshire.