On 26 April 1986, an exercise at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine went badly wrong.

Operators lost control of the reactor unit and the cooling systems failed.

The rapid rise in pressure and heat caused a fire and an explosion that blew apart the reactor’s containment shield.

Uncontrolled radiation spewed from the plant and was carried in the smoke of the dark night sky over a swathe of eastern and western Europe, and far beyond.

Firefighters and emergency service responders were the first to fall.

They were followed by numerous ‘liquidators’ – army conscripts with scant training or safety gear – who were sent in to contain the contamination.

Tens of thousands of community members were relocated – some forcibly – from areas near the stricken reactor.

But greater distance did not neatly translate into lesser danger. The radiation plume was erratic and unpredictable, but always damaging.

Chernobyl starkly demonstrated that radiation does not respect political borders or need a passport to travel.

The last leader of the then Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, reflected that Chernobyl “was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later” and that the disaster “showed the horrible consequences of nuclear power, even when it is used for non-military purposes. One could now imagine much more clearly what might happen if a nuclear bomb exploded.”

Thirty-eight years later, adverse health, economic and environmental impacts persist. The Chernobyl complex remains a radioactive running sore, complicated by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

There has also been active fighting at Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear plant and a disturbingly frequent battleground between Russian and Ukrainian forces.

Earlier this month the director-general of the pro-nuclear International Atomic Energy Agency spoke of a “major escalation of the nuclear safety and security dangers facing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant” and a significant increase in “the risk of a major nuclear accident.”

Whether by accident in 1986 or artillery in 2024, there is no question nuclear power is the world’s most easily weaponised energy system. Reactors have been described as pre-deployed terrorist targets.

On a good day nuclear power means high level radioactive waste. On a bad day Chernobyl. And the very bad day of nuclear weapons is the stuff of nightmares.

On the anniversary of Chernobyl and against a backdrop of deep global uncertainty and conflict, we need to heed the lessons of history and build a safer future.

Our shared planet’s energy future is renewable, not radioactive.

Dave Sweeney

Nuclear free campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation.