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The Politics of Invisibility

Public Knowledge about Radiation Health Effects after Chernobyl

Olga Kuchinskaya

Publication Year: 2014

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. In The 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.

Published by: The MIT Press

Series: Infrastructures

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

This research started in 2003, when I discovered online reports and press releases by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) claiming, in essence, that Chernobyl was a myth.1 In its objective scientific voice, UNSCEAR argued that there was no evidence that radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident had significant effects on the health of the affected populations. Only one...

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pp. xi-xii

I am deeply grateful to everybody in Belarus who participated in this research by sharing his or her perspective and by helping establish further connections. I especially thank the following individuals, who were particularly generous with their time and information year after year: the late Vassily Nesterenko, Vladimir Babenko, and Mikhail Malko. I also received support from many other individuals who worked or continue to work in Chernobyl-related research institutes, nongovernmental organizations and...

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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...

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1 Articulating the Signs of Danger

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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 ...

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2 The Work of Living with It

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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...

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3 Waves of Chernobyl Invisibility

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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. By anthropological 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...

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4 Twice Invisible

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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...

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5 No Clear Evidence

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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...

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6 Setting the Limits of Knowledge

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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...

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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 ...

Appendix: Data and Methodology

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pp. 165-174


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pp. 175-206


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pp. 207-224


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pp. 225-250

E-ISBN-13: 9780262325417
E-ISBN-10: 0262325411
Print-ISBN-13: 9780262027694

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Infrastructures