Tuesday, December 15, 2015

IN ORDER TO HAVE A FUTURE: We MUST Study Chernobyl . . .

Map of radiation levels in 1996 around Chernobyl
(map scale is about 300 miles across)
My participation in the World Nuclear Victims Forum in Hiroshima (WNVF) made me pay renewed attention to Chernobyl.

There is something out of whack about the way the Chernobyl disaster keeps getting "put into perspective."

For instance, I have learned that a UN report (Chernobyl Forum) puts a number of four thousand on the total number of deaths attributable to the accident. It is hard to square this with the suggestion in Voices from Chernobyl that "[t]wo hundred and ten military units were thrown at the liquidatino of the fallout of the catastrophe,which equals about 340,000 military personnel." (p. 131).

Similarly, the testimony of speakers at WNVF, like Alexander Velikin (who had himself participated in the cleanup as a "liquidator"), Anton Vdovichenko (Radymich, Russia, representative of Chernobyl Nuclear Accident Victim Support NGO), and Anatolii Chumak (Ukraine: Vice Director of the Institute of Clinical Radiology of National Research Center for Radiation Medicine) gave glimpses into specific aspects of the health effects of Chernobyl, but could not begin to encompass the whole.

As a brief review of the section on "deaths due to radiation" at Chernobyl on Wikipedia indicates, the estimates range widely and its hard to get your arms around the truth.

Svetlana Alexievich,
Voices From Chernobyl:
The Oral History of a
Nuclear Disaster
As suggested in my post about the "human nexus" in addressing the challenge of global hibakusha, I pointed to the importance of personal testimony. Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster is an immensely rich resource for anyone concerned with nuclear issues, and, in fact, with protecting our future.  (It's author/compiler, Svetlana Alexievich, was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. just a few months ago.)

The examples from Voices from Chernobyl that I share below give just a glimpse of the richness of this resource.

Just another "battle"? ("We'll defeat Chernobyl!")

An unmistakable element of account after account in Voices from Chernobyl is the way in which response to the Chernobyl disaster was conditioned by the wars and threats of war that the Soviet Union experienced in prior years.

Over and over, reference is made to World War II, and how it shaped people's response.  "You can't compare it to a war, not exactly, but everyone compares it anyway. I lived through the Leningrad Blockade as a kid, and you can't compare them. . . . ." (p. 119)

Closely associated with the war years were the years of Stalin's terror. "Stalin's old vocabulary has sprung up again: 'agents of the Western secret services,' 'the cursed enemies of socialism,' 'an underminingof the indestructible union of the Soviet peoples,' Everyone talks about the spiesand provocateurs sent here, and no one talks about iodine protection." (p. 124)

Memorial to Chernobyl liquidators (Moscow)
The closest referent was the expectation of nuclear war. "You know, we all had a military upbringing. We were trained to block and liquidate a nuclear attack. We needed to be ready for chemical, biological, and atomic warfare. But not to draw radionuclides out of our organisms." (p. 119) "People didn't understand. They'd been frightened over and over again about a nuclear war, but not about Chernobyl."(p. 168)

This was essential to bolstering a spirit of cohesion, with strong statist and militant character. "[w]e were a Soviet generation." (p. 182) "My neighbor told me in a whisper that Radio Free Europe had reported an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I didn't pay her any mind. I was absolutely certain that if anything serious happened, they'd tell us." (p.202)

And the enemy of cohesion, of course is "panic".  "We got telegrams from the Central Committee, from the Regional Committee, they told us: You must prevent panic. And it's true, a panic is a frightening thing. Only during the war did they pay so much attention to news from the front as they did then to the news from Chernobyl. There was fear,and there were rumors. People weren't killed by the radiation, but by the events. We had to prevent a panic." (p. 196)

All this adds up to a war-based attitude and response toward Chernobyl. "We were all part of that system. We believed! We believed in high ideals, in victory! We'll defeat Chernobyl! We read about the heroic battle to put down the reactor that had gotten out from under man's control. A Russian without a high ideal? Without a great dream? That's also scary." (p.197)

Soviet military badge (left) and medal (right) awarded to liquidators. (Wikipedia)

Wasn't anybody thinking?

As Voices from Chernobyl progresses, the accounts touch more and more on the question of the personal responsibility of the people involved. Yes, there were external factors -- the government, the legacy of the past -- but at some point someone has to start to ask: How come no one spoke up? Why did people go along with the government's approach to the disaster, especially all the hiding and silencing?

I focus on this question because it is one we all have to face in our own lives. What are the distractions and excuses that we use to enable us to look the other way?

One can't help noticing that vodka is a big factor.  Vodka was pushed especially hard at the people with direct access to the disaster -- "It will counteract the effects of the radiation" -- and a lot of people in Voices from Chernobyl describe escaping the call to think independently through serial inebriation. "If we weren't drinking like crazy every night, I doubt we'd have been able to take it." (p. 157)

Detail: "Chernobyl. Last Day of Pripyat"
(See full work and additional close-ups.)
Of course, people were dazzled with incentive pay, too. "[P]eople talked more about the rubles than the radiation." (p. 205)

(In the West, of course, we obtain our inebriation from a more varied buffet of intoxicants and inducements, but the resulting paralysis is the same . . . . )

Another big factor was the need to belong.  Over and over, people in Voices from Chernobyl refer to their "Party card." "That evening on the way back to Minsk on the institute bus we rode for half an hour in silence, or talking of other things. Everyone was afraid to talk about what happened. Everyone had his Party card in his pocket." (p. 178) It took me a while, but I began to understand that the need to continue being part of the system, to not be shunned, was so strong that people couldn't really bring themselves to contemplate going against the mainstream.

(Is it so different in our society? You don't have to have a Party card in your wallet to feel the gnawing sense that "people will turn their backs on me if I'm difficult" . . . . )

The converse of this, of course, was the medals and certificates handed out for "heroic service" in the cleanup.

Do we need a radical re-examination of our material culture simply to assure that our minds can truly be free to see (and communicate!) a clear path to a healthy future?

In order that the truth be told . . .

from Chernobyl Children:
"On UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities
we think of those affected by the Chernobyl disaster."
Voices from Chernobyl
is itself a rock upon which to build a global effort to tell the truth about Chernobyl and the hibakusha of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.

The short film The Door dramatizes one of the accounts in Voices from Chernobyl. (The Door made me realize, "My city could become off-limits -- a ghost town -- if there was a nuclear accident here!")

The novel All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a dramatic entry point into understanding the Chernobyl disaster. For one thing, it makes clear that, once radiation is released, it is a monumental (and nearly hopeless) task to contain it.

Some of the facts are being publicized by charities helping the survivors, such as Chernobyl Children International.

In fact, there is a continuing stream of video, images, and other information being shared via Twitter using the hashtag #Chernobyl.

The question is how to lift up the questions of Chernobyl into the larger #GlobalHibakusha discourse.

Some of the images shared on Twitter at the hashtag #Chernobyl.

Related posts

Upon returning from the World Nuclear Victims Forum in Hiroshima, I introduced 10 of the post prominent examples of "global hibakusha" about which I learned at the conference.

(See NUCLEAR RADIATION VICTIMS: 10 Dimensions of the #GlobalHibakusha Phenomenon)


Three factors have played a big part in Germany's decision to go 100% "zero nuclear" by 2022 has relied on : the threat posed by the big powers, soul-searching within a very "bourgeoise" society, and organizing.

(See GERMANY TURNS OFF NUCLEAR: The long road to freedom . . . . )


According to the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, "Illinois is by far the most nuclear state in the United States . . . . Illinois was also home to the first commercial power reactor . . . one of the first commercial power reactors to close prematurely . . . . ComEd’s two large PWR reactors in Zion, IL also had to close prematurely . . . . We also have the first and only commercial storage facility for high level waste . . . Besides the 3 plants which closed prematurely, Illinois currently has eleven operating nukes – far more than any other state . . . etc. etc."

(See Chicago, IL: Zero Carbon AND Zero Nuclear! )

After removing a thin layer of soil from just the residential areas, the workers had produced acres of garbage bags full of contaminated soil.

(See Radioactive Waste: "What are you gonna do with it?" )

It can all happen very fast . . . . No one really knows ahead of time what will happen . . . . That's why it's so important for people to get together and talk.

(See The Lesson of Reykjavik: TALK About Nuclear Disarmament (You Never Know) )

"It's not enough to remember this just once a year; it's not enough that we make a single book -- Hiroshima -- required reading, and never go beyond that. There should be a whole canon that people study progressively, year by year, to grasp and retain the horror of this."

(See FIRE AND BLAST: A Curriculum that Confronts Nuclear Danger?)