President Chernobyl

William C. Brumfield)

Monument to the Victims of Chernobyl, Petrozavodski, Russia (William C. Brumfield)

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.

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Posted by Brian on October 28th, 2008 • • 3 comments

3 Responses to 'President Chernobyl'

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  1. driftwood said, on October 29th, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    Everything you say in this post is true, but you don’t include the huge cost in lives shortened and destroyed by the pollution from coal plants. The explosion (actually more of a fire) at Chernobyl was terrible and very visible; the deaths from pollution are silent and anything but visible. But no less unpleasant.

    Also, you neglect the fact that Chernobyl was an antique and very dangerous design (graphite-moderated). No Western-designed nuclear plant has ever led to a single documented death. And modern designs are much safer than the plants we are currently using.

    Also, we have to remember the dangers of global warming. If we upset the planet enough to kill ourselves off (which seems possible to me) it won’t be only human beings that suffer.

    My opinion is that we should pick one or two modern, conservative designs and replicate them as fast as we can. Remember that France did this 30 years ago with great success. I see no reason why we shouldn’t get 100% of our electric power from them in 20 years.

  2. Brian said, on October 31st, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    I really appreciate you taking the time to reply. I regret it if the substance or tone of my post suggests I have written off nuclear energy or that I know anything about current state of the technology—neither is the case. And I hope not discussing the adverse health effects of our existing energy infrastructure did not signal to others my ignorance of them. From London’s killer fogs to our urban asthma epidemic, fossil-fuel pollution has visibly and invisibly taken its toll. And global warming has already given us the recent heat waves in Chicago and Europe and less visible desertification and spread of malaria—just the tip of the quickly melting iceberg, to be sure.

    Rather than begin the debate, my hope was to inject history into it. Chernobyl was very visible in 1986; our memory of it is fading. And this allows its history to be more easily manipulated , its multiple meanings to be truncated, as evidenced in your suspicion that I was using Chernobyl to represent the fate of all nuclear reactors and my suspicion that you are using it to signify Soviet backwardness, a straw man for your modern, safe technology. Exposing such oversimplifications is the job of historians and having a full picture of Chernobyl, one not facilely co-opted by either side of the debate can only help us get out of this mess.

    Chernobyl was a human disaster, not simply bad technology. When Ukraine gained independence, they called on the nations of the world to recognize it as genocide. They blamed the Soviet state, not half-baked engineers. In as much as state power in Russia, western Europe, and the United States operates much as it did during the Cold War, I wouldn’t say we’re out of the woods yet—with Hurricane Katrina only the most salient example. Katrina was more than a storm; Chernobyl was more than mistaken science.

    State power uses a rhetoric of progress, be it technological, medical, cultural, or what have you. And so thinking of the Army Corp of Engineers promotion of those levees throughout the 20th century, the postwar boosterism of “Better Living Through Chemistry” with the invisible longterm toxic expose that followed, and the way the Russian scientists talked about their reactors (often putting the odds of disaster at 1 in a 10,000 years), you’ll forgive me for be unsatisfied by your paean to “modern designs.”

    State power is more concerned with self-preservation than with democracy. When you assure me, “No Western-designed nuclear plant has ever led to a single documented death,” I wonder who gets to do the documenting. To get that number, we can’t count the cancer-ravaged Navajo living amidst the ruins of a picked-over uranium claim. And we must ignore the testimonies of the workers of the Santa Susana Sodium Reactor, which melted down in 1959. When you “we pick” a design and get building “as fast as we can,” I wonder who the we will be. And where will we mine, build ,and dispose of the waste? And how will we view the objections of those who dissent? How much of this will play out in the same way such stories have gone in the past, with the privileged more capable of keeping themselves insulated from the risks and the underclass cast as enemies of progress?

    I worry that in the interest of finding a simple replacement for fossil fuels we rewrite the past and endorse violent state action in the present, both of which do injustice to the most vulnerable portions of our population. The current state of energy politics, reflected in your comments, turns all attention to production, neglecting consumption. If we’re going to have violent state action, wouldn’t it be nice if it enforced conservation by those whose abundant resources make them resilient rather than demand the poor to suffer from the externalities of a new, convenient brand of production?

  3. driftwood said, on November 1st, 2008 at 6:00 am

    Fair enough, on all counts. As in all human endeavours we have to balance costs and benefits. 300 years ago, we were causing a lot less environmental harm. Nobody was dying of radiation poisoning; wars were fought with relatively simple weapons and killed far fewer people; and in fact there were far fewer people. But, and it’s a big but, those people were a lot poorer than we are now. Take a look at the way people live in the countryside in China or India and decide whether that is a better social arrangement than adopting technology with its risks and its remarkable payoff?

    Consider that in 1929 the US had a per capita GDP of about $10,000 measured in year 2000 dollars. Countries that have that per capita GDP today include Dominica, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Hardly places one would wish to live.

    So, yes, I overstated my case; nuclear power has real problems including the ones that you mention. But I still maintain that the problems are not as bad as the problems associated with our current energy sources.

    And, yes again, conservation is important. I believe that the Bush administration has demonstrated clearly that voluntary controls simply don’t work. Energy usage will respond to price. We ought to lay out a plan to increase the cost of energy steadily over a period of years by promising to tax it until it reaches stated prices. This would eliminate a lot of uncertainty and wild swings in the price, it would allow the economy to react over a period of time, and, yes, we would use a lot less energy than we do now. We might think of instituting a Federal Energy Reserve to regulate the price of energy the way the Federal Reserve Board regulates the price of money.

    The question of “violent state action” is an interesting one. Certainly centrally directed action, of the kind I’ve been advocating here, has a very bad record, and may be a disastrous approach. On the other hand, we face horrendous problems and I’m not sure I see any other way to address them. Consider the alternatives!

    So, what should we do??