Several major environmental disasters, those that are man-made rather than naturally occurring, have taken place after the World War II due to the emphasis on heavy industrial development. In developed countries in the late 1960s, environmental movements led the public to be more concerned about the pollution of air, water, and soil, and the danger of chemical agriculture. Several governments developed more policies for the preservation of the environment. The issues of environmental concerns became internationalized at the Stockholm conference in 1972, the United Nations National Conference on the Human Environment. Environmental, nongovernmental organizations started to play an important role in the deliberations. During the period 1971–75, 31 important national environmental laws were passed in the OECD countries. In 1983 the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), also known as the Brundtland Commission, was created to seek sustainable development.
In December 1984 the world’s worst industrial disaster occurred in Bhopal, a city located in the northwest of Madhya Pradesh in central India. The leakage of a highly toxic gas (methyl isocyanate) from a Union Carbide pesticides plant killed more than 3,800 persons and affected more than 200,000 with permanent or partial disabilities. It is estimated that more than 20,000 people have died from exposure to the gas. Union Carbide was manufacturing pesticides, which were in demand because of the Green Revolution in India.
This environmental disaster raised the public’s concern about chemical safety. Similar concerns are related to severe accidents in nuclear power plants such as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in the Soviet Union on April 26, 1986. The accident occurred at the block number 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. This nuclear power complex is located 100 kilometers northwest of Kiev, close to the border of Belarus. The initial explosion caused the reactor to melt down for 10 days. The result has been the discharge of radionuclides, which contaminated large areas in the Northern Hemisphere.
This release of radioactive material has damaged the immune system of people in the area and has contaminated the local ecosystem. While natural processes, some as simple as rainfall, have helped restore the local environment, problems are still widespread. More than 750,000 hectares of agricultural land and 700,000 hectares of forest have been abandoned. In 2000, 4.5 million people were living in areas still considered radioactive. Two opposing explanations, poor reactor design and human error, have been advanced for the Chernobyl accident.
The Chernobly accident occurred during the glasnost/perestroika era of the Soviet Union. So, while the government performed its own investigations of the tragedy, additional citizens advisory boards, some without any government involvement, were set up.
Chernobyl was not the first civilian nuclear power plant disaster. Accidents in nuclear power plant installations occurred in Windscale (in Great Britain) in 1957 and in the United States, such as in the Three Mile Island Unit 2, which was damaged during an accident in 1979. Since Chernobyl, other accidents, like those at Tokaimura (1999) and Mihama (2004)—both in Japan—have occurred.
These accidents have brought the nuclear industry under greater scrutiny from the general public. Many feel that not only should the overall safety of such plants be improved, but also the preparedness and response to such disasters need to be more fully developed. The Bhopal and Chernobyl cases are disasters of similar magnitudes in terms of damage to people and the environment. The concerns go beyond safety to local populations. Today, such questions as environmental impact and sustainability have become at least as important as concerns over health and human welfare.
See also environmental problems.