With the election thankfully only a week away, we’ll soon be able to reflect on what we’ve learned about the terrain of the political debate of a raft of contemporary problems. What will surely pop out is that nuclear power is certainly back on the table, up for consideration in a way it hasn’t been for decades. The presidential candidates are in agreement over its necessity (see here and here), though one is, admittedly, more strident in his endorsement.
It will be up to conservationists and environmentalists to force policy makers to place value on individual people and organisms, cultures and ecosystems, when the weighing of costs and benefits begins. All are easily lost in the statistical rhetoric of risk, the preferred scale of populations and millenia, and the ideology of technological promise.
But just how ahistorical will this debate be (assuming there’s a debate at all)? The youngest who can remember Chernobyl are entering their 30’s. And it is hardly common knowledge that from its debris was released more radioactivity than from both atom bombs dropped on Japan, that it contaminated an area the size of Kentucky, that the produce from the neighboring agricultural region titillated Geiger counters for fifteen years, and that deformed babies are still being born and fill the wards of Soviet Bloc hospitals and asylums. Restoring the disaster and its wake in the public memory might be one of the most useful things scholars can do to help us find a equitable, sensible, and sustainable way out of the current (but quite old) energy crisis.
Anthropologist Adriana Petryna has begun this work with her Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. She reminds us that in Ukraine Chernobyl is called a tekhnohenna katastropha, and argues that its damage only began with the explosion and the reactor’s engineers. Its deathly legacy was made by the delayed announcement of the event, the politics of medical science, the manner and methods of the clean-up, the structure of the food system, etc.
Photojournalist Paul Fusco has assembled a numbing photo essay on the children of exposed mothers in Belarus. I urge everyone, including the next president and new batch of lawmakers, to watch it, as this is history neglected at our peril. But be warned, these images are very hard to look at, impossible to forget.
Which is exactly the point.