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Remembering Chernobyl

It's now a distant memory -- a long flight to Bali, 20 years ago tomorrow. I was on the White House press plane, accompanying President Ronald Reagan on a trip to an Asian summit in Indonesia. To give you an idea of how much has changed, the press charter was arranged by Pan Am. En route, the press corps was in an information vacuum and obsessing over a media dispute: Indonesia had banned two Australian broadcasters credentialed to the White House press corps from that portion of the trip because a Sydney newspaper had criticized Indonesian dictator Suharto's corrupt regime.

We were seized with the issue of censorship, banding behind our fellow journalists, especially because President Reagan's summit theme was that the "winds of freedom" were blowing on Southeast Asia. It was becoming a major embarrassment, despite the best efforts of then U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz to negotiate a solution.


Anticipating a Today show news deadline almost immediately after we were to land, I spent the flight talking to White House officials and writing a story about how the Reagan administration was already being put on the spot by its corrupt and totalitarian Indonesian host.   

In those days before cell phones or blackberries, we arrived at night, on the other side of the world from our New York studios. I was greeted at the foot of the plane's steps by an NBC producer. There was "breaking news." The Today show needed me right away to go live with Bryant Gumbel and give them the White House reaction to Chernobyl.

What was a "Chernobyl," and why would the Reagan White House care about it? We, and the world, quickly found out. Eight years later, another American president, Bill Clinton, confronted the after-effects of the nuclear disaster, this time on a trip to Belarus. Because of the prevailing winds, 75 percent of the plant's radiation had blown from Ukraine to Belarus.  So all of us in the White House press corps were given radiation dosimeters to wear for the duration of our stop, to measure whether we were exposed to excessive amounts of the residual contaminants still in the air. Later, as we watched Clinton place a memorial wreath on a mass burial site for Stalin's victims, Hillary Clinton visited a 1,500-bed surplus American military hospital that had been transported to Belarus from Germany to serve the victims of the Chernobyl disaster.    

Now, two decades later, doctors in Boston are volunteering to treat young adults still suffering from the effects of that radiation. My colleague Preston Mendenhall recently traveled to Chernobyl to document for Nightly News what has been happening there in the intervening years. And fairly or not, America's nuclear industry is still trying to persuade the public that nuclear power is an economic and safe alternative to imported oil -- despite the legacy of Chernobyl -- and before it, Three Mile Island.

Editor's note: The broadcast will feature some of Preston's reporting this week. For more, and a video and photo retrospective of the Chernobyl disaster, visit our special section Chernobyl.MSNBC.com.