Chernobyl – a location of nuclear disaster on its way to recovery?

Dr. Konstantin Kaminskij and Charlotte Adèle Murphy

Many scientists believe that the CO2 targets set during the Paris Agreement can’t be met without nuclear power, among them environmentalist and author Paul Hawken, who considers this approach a “regret solution”[1]. Today, nuclear power is generally still considered a relatively clean, relatively reliable and relatively cheap energy source. Since the nuclear disaster of Fukushima in 2011, there have even been international voices stating that catastrophic events such as these can be tolerated given the importance of nuclear energy for humanity. Today, Chernobyl appears as a dark memorial to this never-ending dilemma between energy security, economic growth and environmental impact assessment.

Memorial to the liquidators of Chernobyl, Chernobyl. “To those, who saved the world.”

chornobylmonument© Ludwig Schubert

Much has already been said and written in remembrance of the events around Chernobyl. It is a place which already produces its very own cultural memory discourses. It is for this reason that while planning our excursion, we decided to lay the focus of our research interest on the concept of resilience – on the gradual recovery of ecological and social systems after the catastrophic nuclear accident of Chernobyl.
Following this question, we spent three very intense days in different key places connected to and affected by the greatest nuclear accident of mankind. We spoke to different experts and people who personally experienced and participated in the events around the nuclear catastrophe, trying to understand and visualise what it actually means and feels like to live with an ecological disaster.

After having visited these different affected places and memorial sites, we were able to discern these three central places and their respective discourses:

Kiev – Musealisation

The National Chornobyl Museum[2] in Kiev was founded in 1992 as a museum and an educational centre aiming to help the public understand what happened on April 26, 1986 and to preserve the memory of the disaster. With its exposition and routine offer to organise meetings with surviving liquidators, the museum conveys a powerful message:

We – the liquidators – saved the world. We made sacrifices. You’ve forgotten us in our suffering.

This became especially evident during our meeting with the former liquidator Andrii Oleksandrovych Misko, a retired Soviet Air Force colonel. In the days after the catastrophic nuclear accident, he – then a young Soviet Air Force flight lieutenant – and his unit received the order to drop sacks filled with led onto the damaged and smouldering reactor with their Mi-6 military helicopter. After the operation, his unit was sent to a special clinic in Leningrad that dealt with the consequences of their radioactive exposure. A few months later, in September 1986, Misko was deployed to Afghanistan.[3]

Meeting with the liquidator Andrii Oleksandrovych Misko, National Chornobyl Museum, Kiev

misko group© Saskia Heller

misko 2.jpg© Saskia Heller

Information on the liquidators, image of the young Andrii Oleksandrovych Misko to the right, National Chornobyl Museum, Kiev

liquidators© Saskia Heller

This inner conflict was also touched upon during other meetings with liquidators: on the one hand, they want to draw attention to their poor social situation, but, on the other hand, they feel ashamed to be asking for international attention as military officers, while not even able to receive any attention from within their own country.

This year, many former liquidators and Afghanistan veterans took to the streets to fight for their rights, calling for higher pensions, benefits, and simply for recognition. In December 2014, the law “on the social status of Chernobyl victims” was changed by the Supreme Council of Ukraine and a number of benefits were cut, leaving the victims and veterans to live far below the poverty line. Over the last few years, many of them have been trying to draw attention to themselves with protests and rallies – without success. In July, the constitutional court of Ukraine declared the benefit cuts as unconstitutional as it was the duty of the Ukrainian state to deal with the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. This can be seen as a small victory for the liquidators – but it is also especially important to preserve the memory of the victims and of the catastrophe.[4]

Ultimately, everyone must simply fend for themselves – says Serhii Mirnyi, a former liquidator who facilitated the evacuation of contaminated areas with his NBCP (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection) troops as a junior lieutenant in the months after the accident.[5]

Pripyat – Commercialisation (Carnivalization)

Mirnyi later founded the company Chornobyl Tour – its modern Kiev office is located near the Chornobyl Museum on the steep and picturesque descent up Andriyivska Hill in the historic district of Podil. The brand-conscious company presents a very different image of Chernobyl than the museum:

the zone is adventure, the zone is fun, go to the zone!

You can’t overlook the Chornobyl Tour logo in the exclusion zone. Although there are other tour operators, Mirnyi and his company have basically created this sort of tourism themselves along with the infrastructure it requires. The guided tour through the zone is expertly prepared and highly professional… to such an extent that some of the participants soon feel that it somehow seems staged… all these haunting dolls and decaying portraits scattered around the main square and the amusement park in Pripyat… somehow, we’ve seen it all before… in the exact same way… the imagery of Chernobyl is automatically reproduced. We take 19 almost identical photographs of the Ferris wheel and of carefully arranged still lifes in an abandoned kindergarten. By the end of the day, they have been posted on Facebook and Instagram, liked, commented on. Neutralised.

Amusement park and Ferris wheel, Pripyat

funpark

ferris

Bunk beds in an abandoned kindergarten in the exclusion zone

kindergarten

© Ludwig Schubert

As the last stop of our tour through the zone we visit Valentina Borisovna, a 79-year-old local, who returned to the town of Chernobyl shortly after the reactor accident and now lives in the exclusion zone with other so-called “self-settlers”. She doesn’t complain, there is enough of everything, she says, there is electricity and she has access to regular medical checks. It was definitely worse during the war… Serhii and his assistant Kate share their own impressions and the members of our group ask questions as we all sit in a circle in the living room of Valentina Borisovna’s house. She seems happy enough to welcome tourists into her home. As the end of our meeting approaches, she brings out her accordion and begins to play a few Soviet evergreens with her dog Dana howling along to the music. This scene at the edge of the Chernobyl exclusion zone is bizarre and somehow disturbing.

Self-settler Valentina Borisovna in her house in the town of Chernobyl

lady dog© Ludwig Schubert

We leave her a tip and drive back to the checkpoint, where we have the last chance to buy merchandise from the Chornobyl Tour booth.

Slavutych – Operationalisation

The following day we drive to Slavutych – a town somewhere between the hectic pace of Kiev and the eeriness of Pripyat. Constructed within two years for the evacuated personnel of the nuclear power station, Slavutych is the last Soviet planned city built to impress with modern architecture and the involvement of architects from eight Soviet republics. It reflects the contemporary ideal of Soviet city planning – concentrated, open, modern. A feeling of tense normality hangs in the air.

The Chornobyl Center[6] is a modern radiobiological research institute, which does excellent work and has managed to establish an international reputation within specialist circles despite its limited resources. Our contacts from the centre are focused and factual, they operate with numbers to demonstrate the recovery of different ecological systems within the forests of Chernobyl. The notion of a vast natural park  stretching across the borders of Ukraine and Belarus isn’t anything new. But they are still far from initiating a concrete planning process for the sustainable management of the zone in accordance with international standards…

Slavutych

slavutych.jpg© Ludwig Schubert

So, what will become of the zone? A nuclear disaster memorial? A post-apocalyptic amusement park? A disposal site for European nuclear waste? The possibility of a wind and solar energy park is also under discussion…

As far as our research interest is concerned, it was a good moment to focus on Chernobyl. Overall, the social aspect of dealing with the catastrophe seems to have been completed and ticked off. It has been dealt with. Unpleasant elements such as medical care for the victims of Chernobyl and social care for the liquidators have been pushed out of sight to the edge of society.

The new sarcophagus above the destroyed reactor also conveys a calming message – we’ve got it under control! And the relatively fast recovery of natural ecosystems sends out another reassuring signal: There can be life after apocalypse. A poster from the early period of the Cold War comes to mind: After total war can come total living.

total war

And maybe this is also the reason why, today, we seem to be talking more and more about nuclear weapons and nuclear deals…[7]

Sarcophagus II, covering the destroyed reactor IV

sarc 2© Ludwig Schubert

In conclusion, one last remark seems appropriate:
For thirty years after the nuclear accident of 1986, the name Chernobyl could be heard as a serious signal of warning. Today, the same name has increasingly become synonymous with a danger passed.


[1] Hawken, Paul (2017). Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming / edited by Paul Hawken. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

[2] Official website of the National Chornobyl Museum, Kiev: http://chornobylmuseum.kiev.ua/en/about-us/ (last accessed 15.08.2018).

[3] Book of Memory to the liquidators of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster, National Chornobyl Museum, “Andrii Oleksandrovych Misko”: http://memory.chornobylmuseum.kiev.ua/print.php?id=11723 (last accessed 15.08.2018).

[4] Recent reports concerning the liquidators in the Ukrainian media: https://riafan.ru/1043716-ukrainskim-pensioneram-zazhali-6-mlrd-griven-za-likvidaciyu-posledstvii-vzryva-na-aeshttps://korrespondent.net/ukraine/politics/3981963-stychky-pod-radoi-o-chem-dohovorylys-s-vlastiamyhttps://ukraina.ru/news/20180718/1020649353.html (last accessed 15.08.2018).

[5] Book of Memory to the liquidators of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster, National Chornobyl Museum, “Serhii Mirnyi”: http://memory.chornobylmuseum.kiev.ua/print.php?id=10863 (last accessed 15.08.2018).

[6] Official website of the Chornobyl Center: http://www.chornobyl.net/en/ (last accessed 15.08.2018).

[7] The most prominent example is the current discussion about the Trump and Iran nuclear deal. Der Spiegel: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/donald-trump-und-der-iran-atomdeal-worum-es-bei-dem-streit-geht-a-1206668.html; BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43902372 (last accessed 15.08.2018).

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