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The Politics of Invisibility

The Politics of Invisibility: Public Knowledge about Radiation Health Effects after Chernobyl

Olga Kuchinskaya
Series: Infrastructures
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    The Politics of Invisibility
    Book Description:

    Before Fukushima, the most notorious large-scale nuclear accident the world had seen was Chernobyl in 1986. The fallout from Chernobyl covered vast areas in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in Europe. Belarus, at the time a Soviet republic, suffered heavily: nearly a quarter of its territory was covered with long-lasting radionuclides. Yet the damage from the massive fallout was largely imperceptible; contaminated communities looked exactly like noncontaminated ones. It could be known only through constructed representations of it. InThe Politics of Invisibility, Olga Kuchinskaya explores how we know what we know about Chernobyl, describing how the consequences of a nuclear accident were made invisible. Her analysis sheds valuable light on how we deal with other modern hazards -- toxins or global warming -- that are largely imperceptible to the human senses.Kuchinskaya describes the production of invisibility of Chernobyl's consequences in Belarus -- practices that limit public attention to radiation and make its health effects impossible to observe. Just as mitigating radiological contamination requires infrastructural solutions, she argues, the production and propagation of invisibility also involves infrastructural efforts, from redefining the scope and nature of the accident's consequences to reshaping research and protection practices. Kuchinskaya finds vast fluctuations in recognition, tracing varyingly successful efforts to conceal or reveal Chernobyl's consequences at different levels -- among affected populations, scientists, government, media, and international organizations. The production of invisibility, she argues, is a function of power relations.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-32541-7
    Subjects: General Science, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident is one in a list of many: Sellafield (England, 1957), Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania, 1979), and Fukushima Daiichi (Japan, 2011), along with numerous minor accidents. As of this writing, Chernobyl is the largest accident in the list. The fallout from the accident covered vast areas in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in Europe. Belarus, which at the time was a Soviet republic north of Ukraine and its Chernobyl nuclear power plant, received most of the fallout (Ukraine itself and areas of the Russian Federation were also heavily affected). According to the official numbers, 23 percent of...

  6. 1 Articulating the Signs of Danger
    (pp. 19-38)

    A local member of an international Chernobyl project, a young man who grew up in one of the more contaminated areas, asked me why foreigners were interested in solving the problems of Chernobyl. “It is mostly foreigners who are passionate about Chernobyl problems, and not the local people,” he observed. The attitudes of visitors might change, however, as they witness the actual circumstances in the contaminated areas. Another local resident and member of the same Chernobyl project argued that foreigners “come here and see that everything is normal. Radiation is scary only the first time you go to the [Chernobyl]...

  7. 2 The Work of Living with It
    (pp. 39-64)

    More than two decades after the accident, the paradoxical fact about Chernobyl radiation is that individuals are responsible for their own internal contamination doses. The state food infrastructures have entrance and exit radiation monitoring, but people create their internal accumulation of radionuclides by consuming contaminated food from forests and private garden plots. The official media sometimes argue that people in the affected territories “have gotten used to radiation” because one cannot live in fear all the time (see chapter 3). At the same time, local perspectives on radiation danger are remarkably diverse, and individual contamination doses vary greatly. Who does...

  8. 3 Waves of Chernobyl Invisibility
    (pp. 65-94)

    In a May 1986 essay entitled “Anthropological Shock,” Ulrich Beck reflected on the aftermath of Chernobyl as a “media event” in Germany. Byanthropological shock, Beck was referring to the experience of the inadequacy of our senses when faced with radiation danger—human senses register nothing when exposed to increased levels of radiation. Individuals’ own sovereign judgment is rendered impossible. Without the information provided by the media and other social institutions, laypeople would not even notice the increased levels of radiation. Beck describes this as “the experience of cultural blinding.” Another aspect of the shock is that “those who until...

  9. 4 Twice Invisible
    (pp. 95-114)

    Because radiation is not directly perceptible to the unaided human senses and we do not encounter it as a tangible phenomenon, formal representations of what should be considered dangerous become doubly important in defining the scope of contamination and its risks. By formal representations I refer to standards, categories, and thresholds used in radiation protection. They help us interpret raw numbers by providing a context of what constitutes radiation risks. I also refer to visual maps that systematize quantitative data into graphic representations based on these definitions. These formal representations—including such things as acceptable thresholds of human exposure and...

  10. 5 No Clear Evidence
    (pp. 115-136)

    Of all the different perspectives on the scope of Chernobyl’s health effects, the perspective of the UN nuclear experts has been the most unyielding. According to a September 2005 joint news release issued by three UN agencies that were members of the Chernobyl Forum—the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)—“fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers.”¹ According to these agencies, the accident’s only observable health effect on the general population was an increase in...

  11. 6 Setting the Limits of Knowledge
    (pp. 137-158)

    Professor Yuri Bandazhevsky relocated from Grodno to Gomel to become, in 1990, the first rector of the Gomel State Medical Institute, a position he held until 1999.¹ A pathologist by training, he led a group of researchers studying the effects of the internal accumulation of radionuclides—that is, radionuclides consumed with contaminated food products—on pathogenesis in the cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, reproductive, and other systems.²

    Bandazhevsky conducted autopsies to show that the concentration of Cesium-137 in vital organs, including the heart, was higher than average in the organism. He found that children residing in contaminated communities had higher dose burdens...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 159-164)

    Clear, visible clues about possible actions and their potential consequences help us navigate the use of various objects we encounter; we tend to run into trouble when our environment does not make connections between possible actions and outcomes obvious.¹ Radiation is a treacherous hazard because it gives us no clue to its increased levels in the environment, in our food, or even in our bodies; nor do we get any sense of what the consequences of staying in such an environment or consuming such food might be. One of my interviewees, a researcher at the Sakharov Institute of Ecology, emphasized...

  13. Appendix: Data and Methodology
    (pp. 165-174)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 175-206)
  15. References
    (pp. 207-224)
  16. Index
    (pp. 225-250)