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The Politics of InvisibilityPublic Knowledge about Radiation Health Effects after Chernobyl$

Olga Kuchinskaya

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780262027694

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262027694.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
The Politics of Invisibility

Olga Kuchinskaya

The MIT Press

Abstract and Keywords

The introductory chapter explains the problem of post-Chernobyl contamination, which is described as chronic, pervasive, and imperceptible, and outlines how the recognition of Chernobyl’s consequences in Belarus fluctuated historically. The chapter introduces the concept of the production of (in)visibility of Chernobyl’s consequences: different ways of representing Chernobyl can make radiation and its effects observable and publicly visible, or they can make them unobservable and publicly nonexistent. Articulation and its infrastructural conditions are emphasized as the main aspects in the production of (in)visibility. The chapter also discusses the potential scale of the production of invisibility and argues that the production of invisibility is a function of power relations. The chapter concludes with a brief description of the author’s methodological approach and a chapter outline.

Keywords:   Chernobyl, radiological contamination, chronic hazards, imperceptible hazards, production of invisibility, articulation, infrastructural conditions

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 the Belarusian territory was covered with long-lasting radioactive isotopes.1

The 2005 commemorative calendar published by the Belarusian government and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) tells us that 2.3 million people were affected in Belarus; 135,000 residents and 415 communities were permanently relocated.2 Plants, factories, farms, schools, and medical facilities had to be closed in the most contaminated areas. The economic damage from the Chernobyl disaster amounted to $235 billion, “which amounts to 32 annual [Belarusian] budgets for 1986, the year when the accident occurred,” the calendar stated. This description resembles descriptions of natural disasters, with their evident and often spectacularly dramatic consequences. Yet radiological fallout does not destroy houses. There is no immediately visible destruction. Contaminated forests and communities look exactly like uncontaminated ones. For the vast majority of the affected, no health problems are immediately obvious.

The official numbers describing the accident reveal some consequences of Chernobyl, but these numbers do not tell us how anybody came to identify these consequences. These numbers do not tell us about the scientific and administrative assessments and decision making that had to follow the fallout, as well as many effects of the decisions that were made—or not made. The broad purpose of this book is to critically examine how we (p.2) recognize and learn to respond to imperceptible environmental hazards, when neither the hazard nor its consequences are immediately observable.

The analysis in this book is based on the following insight: the imperceptibility of Chernobyl radiation by the human senses means that individuals' experience of it is always highly mediated.3 There is no direct component to one's experience of radiation, no simple sensory (and commonsense) evidence of the kind referred to in the old joke, “How do you know that something exists? Kick it really hard.” Our experience of imperceptible hazards is always necessarily mediated by measuring equipment, maps, and other ways to visualize it, but also with narratives. Different ways of representing Chernobyl can make radiation and its effects observable and publicly visible, or they can make them unobservable and publicly nonexistent.

How these representations are produced matters. Much of the analysis offered in this book describes the production of invisibility of Chernobyl's consequences—that is, the practices of producing representations that limit public visibility of Chernobyl radiation and its health effects.4 This is a question of what does not appear in public discussions. Simply put, I describe the double twist: how imperceptible hazards, such as radiation, are made publicly invisible.

Limiting public visibility of Chernobyl radiation prevents the construction of links between radiation and its health effects, which can in turn be described as the “social construction of ignorance.”5 As a result, what could under other circumstances be identified as Chernobyl radiation health effects dissolves into individual health problems of unspecific origins. The production of public invisibility of imperceptible hazards can be thought of as a process opposite to that of the discovery of microbes. Microbes also escape our perception, and they existed before Louis Pasteur's experiments, but not as socially recognized actors that can cause somebody to fall sick and that must be dealt with through a variety of precautionary measures. Microbes had to be made visible.6 I demonstrate that making something visible is not a one-way process: imperceptible phenomena can also be made publicly invisible, and this production of invisibility is both work and a consequence of particular structural conditions.

I approach post-Chernobyl radiological contamination as one example of modern environmental risks. These risks pose particular challenges; German sociologist Ulrich Beck gives us a good starting point for considering them. Radiation is one of Beck's paradigmatic examples, although one can find many similar imperceptible risks in our daily lives, including pesticides in our food, chemical toxins in our environment, and even global warming. (p.3) The problem of modern risks for Beck is at least partly a question of the role of experts and the future of democratic decision making. Identifying these hazards as such requires establishing complex causal connections. To use a common expression, we need to “connect the dots.” Science experts play a disproportionately significant role in that process, from establishing the fact of exposure to evaluating health effects. According to Beck, risks not recognized scientifically “do not exist legally, medically, technologically, or socially, and they are thus not prevented, treated or compensated for.”7 Beck also argues that laypeople, even when directly exposed to risks, are “culturally blind” to them. Perhaps if radioactivity made us itch, one could make sense of it more easily—it would fall “within the orbit of cultural experience.” Without such natural perceptibility or some “culturally manufactured perceptibility,” simply judging for ourselves, without replying on experts, has become impossible.8

Beck's discussion of Chernobyl gives us more reasons for concern. He ponders the consequences of Chernobyl in the context of Germany and argues that “the number of Chernobyl dead will never be counted.” For a person wishing to learn about the consequences of the accident, the experience might bring to mind Franz Kafka's story “The Trial.” The labyrinth of bureaucratic, organizational complexity and irresponsibility makes such attempts self-defeating. At the end of Beck's ironic exposé, the person acknowledges his own naive mistake of bringing up such a difficult and complex matter in the first place.9 I am reminded of this exposé whenever some students in my environmental communication class decide to learn more about, perhaps even get to the bottom of, a particular environmental issue, such as what exactly is in the air they breathe in Pittsburgh or how fracking affects the water in their home communities. They often report feeling overwhelmed and discouraged by complexity—that of the phenomenon itself, but also scientific and bureaucratic complexity. I certainly had that experience as I sought to learn more about the consequences of Chernobyl.

This book does not offer a definitive account of Chernobyl's health effects. Instead, I look at the nature of the challenges and the possible systematic problems of “seeing” and learning about imperceptible environmental risks. I trace systematic omissions and biases, along with their effects on identifying these risks. Neither public visibility nor invisibility of environmental hazards—even those as massive as post-Chernobyl fallout—is a natural, spontaneous process. Recognizing radiation danger and its effects is not necessarily a linear process, leading to increasingly more accurate and more comprehensive understanding. Similarly, risks disappear (p.4) in public discussion not necessarily because the danger has abated. Public recognition of hazards can be altered, redefined, and reframed, or it can shift with changes of historical context. Indeed, as we will see, the scope of recognized post-Chernobyl risks has fluctuated historically.

The commemorative calendar mentioned above says nothing about the scope of radiation-related health effects. Such an omission is not unusual for the official descriptions of the consequences of Chernobyl in Belarus. Yet ignoring the health effects of radiation exposure—and potentially ignoring them systematically—would make it an issue of social justice. Somebody's past, present, or future suffering might be ignored. From this perspective, the invisibility of imperceptible hazards connotes not disregard for reality as much as injustice and a lack of social mechanisms to ensure that representations of imperceptible risks are adequate—that is, socially just.

Let us now consider what factors complicate or render the public visibility of imperceptible risks less desirable.

Catastrophe after the Accident

The late Vassily Nesterenko, one of the most outspoken nuclear experts in Belarus, told me, in a personal interview in 2005, “The problem is the nature of the problem. No government would be able to take adequate measures if faced with a situation like this, where the effort required far exceeds the state's capacity.” The problem of Chernobyl for Belarus—what happened after the explosions at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant—can be described as a chronic postaccident catastrophe.

Radiological contamination was the direct consequence of the accident, but it was not the only consequence. Indeed, what was officially emphasized as Chernobyl's consequences in Belarus had more to do with the outcomes of the early mitigation of the accident, including the evacuation and resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people and the resulting destruction of the local infrastructures.10 The Chernobyl accident was officially given the status of catastrophe in Belarus in 1989, after three years of isolated measures and attempts to obscure the extent of the accident by the Soviet authorities. During 1989–1991, Chernobyl was at its most visible in the Belarusian media and official discourse, and in Belarus it was the discourse of tragedy. The direct consequences of the accident could not be fully fixed, and attempting to fix them—including through evacuation, resettlement, and monetary compensation to keep people from abandoning the affected areas—produced consecutive ripples of other consequences, adding to and (p.5) transforming the original problem of chronic and pervasive radiological contamination.

Put another way, the problem is that recognizing and mitigating the radiological aftermath of the accident created massive waves of secondary effects. In an interview in the newspaper Gomel'skaya Pravda on August 1, 1990, Mikhail Savitsky, a prominent Belarusian artist, explained the interpretation of Chernobyl as a catastrophe by referring to consequences that essentially could not be fixed:

It appears to me that the word “accident” does not fit what happened in Chernobyl. Based on its consequences, it's a catastrophe; and in relationship to people's fates, it's a tragedy. An accident can be taken care of [fixed], “liquidated.” But catastrophe … if it occurs, what has happened is not fixable. Here, all the paths that we've been traveling have intersected with each other, collided together.

Responses to the predicaments created by the accident changed during different historical periods. Indeed, the history of articulating and attempting to mitigate the effects of Chernobyl is the history of political transformation in the region, where significant changes to (in)visibility correspond to historical shifts in politics and the economy. The Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 made the socioeconomic circumstances worse and triggered new processes and practices in the production of Chernobyl (in)visibility. In the mid-1990s the discourse about the consequences of Chernobyl was transformed once again, facilitating the subsequent “disappearance” of the actual and potential health effects of the accident.

At the same time, the Belarusian government's approach to Chernobyl's effects was not entirely a local phenomenon. The newly independent Belarusian state lacked the resources to fulfill its program of mitigating Chernobyl's consequences; this program had been adopted during the last years of the Soviet Union in the hope of attracting international assistance (see chapter 3). Such assistance never materialized to an extent remotely close to what was needed, but the hope for help from outside affected the relationship of the state to non-Belarusian experts—especially those affiliated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organization (WHO), and other UN organizations—and its relationship to local experts, to the directions of local research and the support for it. As chapters 5 and 6 show, this three-way relationship of the Belarusian government, Belarusian scientists, and international organizations has changed over time, but the economic needs of the Belarusian government have ultimately made it more receptive to the perspective advocated by the IAEA and UNSCEAR. The history of articulating the effects of Chernobyl is the (p.6) political history of the region, but it has not been walled off from the power influences from outside.

It might be tempting to explain the production of the invisibility of Chernobyl's consequences in Belarus simply as an inevitable result of the lack of resources—the poverty of the Belarusian state and of its people. After all, material desperation might lead one to ignore long-term problems, such as radiological contamination and its delayed health effects. At the same time, poverty is relative—too many regions in the world are considered poor compared to Western lifestyles and resources—and historically specific. Even more important, material considerations and lack of resources are not necessarily antithetical to public discussion of risks. As mentioned above, Chernobyl was at its most visible in the very last years of the Soviet Union, which were economically dire times. Indeed, Adriana Petryna has demonstrated that, in Ukraine, Chernobyl-related injuries were not ignored even as the state became poorer with independence and the transition to a market economy. The affected populations received monetary compensation for their Chernobyl-related injuries. Chernobyl thus came to serve as an economic resource for the affected populations in Ukraine, helping them survive (Petryna uses the term “biological citizenship” for the process in which the affected individuals claim protection and compensation from the state based on their injured health). But she also notes that things started changing toward the end of her research in Ukraine.11

The period of greater visibility for Chernobyl's effects was followed by the gradual production of invisibility in both Ukraine and Belarus, where the national intelligentsia and local scientists had aspired to document and demonstrate the scope of the fallout and its consequences. The circumstances in the two countries were different, and the trajectories of changes were not exactly parallel, even though the period of visibility in both cases stemmed from a reaction to the same past—the Soviet secrecy around the accident, along with the downplaying of the accident's scope and the nearly criminal negligence of protection for the affected people. Reactions in both the Ukrainian and Belarusian republics were fueled by political transformations in the last years of the Soviet Union.

Yet there were significant differences, including in what Chernobyl meant for the two countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Belarus, a smaller country with no significant history of radiological research, faced a greater scope of contamination, but without the physical presence of the Chernobyl power plant that would act as a source of visibilization of the accident even as it posed a whole set of other significant challenges.

(p.7) Chernobyl is not the only case in which the consequences of a catastrophe have been rendered invisible. Petryna has commented on the difference between her fieldwork, conducted during a period of relative visibility and openness in Ukraine, and “the closing down of fieldwork frontiers” faced by anthropologists studying risks-related justice in more recent contexts.12 Nor are Western democracies immune to the “disappearance” of hazards. Recent studies describe the lack of public and official recognition, or the delayed recognition, of such risks as tobacco smoke, global warming, air pollution, and hormone disruptors in the food supply. In a particularly relevant study, Michelle Murphy has described the production of imperceptibility—the inability to detect chemical hazards—using the example of sick building syndrome.13 Science, which we trust to provide us with relevant knowledge, is increasingly an object of outside political pressures, especially from interested industries creating areas of uncertainty and ignorance.14 Indeed, it is not the disappearance of Chernobyl, but the surge of its visibility in the last years of the Soviet Union that might be atypical.

The Production of Invisibility: Articulation and Infrastructural Conditions

I will refer to the process of defining the scope and character of radiation danger and its actual effects, along with how to make them observable, as articulation. I do not isolate scientific research or representations of post-Chernobyl radiation; instead, I consider them part of an overall picture of the layers of practices and processes that affect public visibility of the post-Chernobyl contamination and its health effects.

In practice, several dimensions of representing radiation and its effects are particularly important to their visibility. The first dimension is the temporal and spatial scope of the consequences: Where are the consequences of Chernobyl, when do they appear, and how long are they going to last? As noted above, the consequences of Chernobyl in Belarus (defined by, among other things, formal criteria of what is considered dangerous) came in waves: the scope of recognized consequences fluctuated from very limited during the first several years after the accident, to vast and long-lasting in the two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, to gradually shrinking in the mid-1990s. The areas recognized as contaminated were later scaled down to, as one of my interviewees put it, “about the size of an airport” (see chapters 3 and 4).

Second, the visibility of Chernobyl depends on how the problem is identified and framed: What kinds of consequences did Chernobyl have? For (p.8) example, starting from a particular historical point, Chernobyl in Belarus has become almost exclusively an economic problem.

Third, the visibility of Chernobyl depends on what expert and lay practices are used to make it observable: How does one observe Chernobyl's consequences? Scientific research methods that are less sensitive to the complexity of the situation on the ground might allow for ignoring all or most of the “incongruous” data as anecdotal or unverifiable, thus ignoring what could be Chernobyl's health effects (see chapters 5 and 6).

The answers to these questions—where, when, and what are the consequences, and how to make them observable—often involve complex social negotiations, power struggles, and technoscientific work.

Articulation is both a discursive and a material process.15 Representations of Chernobyl-associated radiation and its effects are shaped in the course of interactions between different social perspectives. At the same time, articulation requires appropriate tools and material conditions organized in a particular way—it requires infrastructural conditions. Addressing these as two separate aspects of the same process allows for some important distinctions. Articulations as discursive definitions of danger are not absolute (accurate or not accurate) but relative and dialogical: they make radiation more or less visible. Infrastructural conditions define the limitations of this process, and the production of invisibility might become irreversible if the infrastructural conditions required for articulating the presence of radiation and its connection to health effects are disrupted.

Thus, in some respects, articulation—and consequently, the production of (in)visibility—is dialogical and relative, specific to particular dialogues and contexts.16 The same proposed thresholds, for example, might expand the visibility of a hazard in one context but limit it in different circumstances. Dialogues are always local—with unique contexts, ranges of topics, and perspectives.17 Perspectives on particular issues are always part of a dialogue: they are grounded in certain social positions (and can thus be described as situated viewpoints), but they are also developed in the course of interaction with other perspectives and reflect the history of this interaction.18 The theoretical significance of the dialogical approach is precisely in this acknowledgment of the coshaping of different perspectives, as well as the situated and embodied character of interpretations.

This approach also reminds us that dialogues are constantly evolving. New perspectives on Chernobyl continue to appear even two decades after the accident. Some older themes can be overshadowed or (temporarily) disappear, while other perspectives can reemerge. Yet new interpretations do not fully replace the existing ones; they supplement them. (Even with (p.9) the most radical historical transformations, the whole discourse cannot be assumed to change and be transformed into a new discourse.)

There are two ways of interpreting what is being articulated, and I will use articulation in its more inclusive sense. On the one hand, articulation refers to defining the hazard—that is, learning the difference between the presence and the absence of effects (which requires appropriate tools and conditions). On the other hand, articulation extends beyond defining the hazard and includes explicating the work that has to be done to mitigate it, along with the conditions and resources available for this work. In this sense, articulations not only define radiation risks and effects but also account for existing infrastructural resources and shape future ones.

At the same time the very possibility of articulation often depends on the existence of adequate infrastructural resources (e.g., meters for internal and external radiation, stable databases, or even just public spaces for articulation). By infrastructures I specifically mean the information systems and equipment that support the practices of articulating Chernobyl-related effects by expert and nonexpert communities. These infrastructures are embedded in existing institutional arrangements, and they invisibly support research tasks and the accumulation of data.19 Lack of adequate infrastructural conditions might disrupt data collection, preclude areas of analysis, and foreclose opportunities for articulation. Indeed, radiation and its health effects become strictly unknowable precisely at this level of disruption of material conditions.20 With the disruption of the material conditions for research and accumulation of data, the invisibility of radiation health effects is no longer relative, and the construction of ignorance comes to be irreversible.

Perhaps we do not always need much public visibility of a hazard, in the sense of rampant public discussion about it, as long as its visibility, the recognition of the hazard, is built into infrastructures of radiation protection and there are adequate mechanisms for research and decision making. This would not address all questions of social memory about the scope of the accident, but it invites us to consider what protection mechanisms there are and what view of radiation risks these mechanisms enact. From this perspective, the ultimate problem is not that Chernobyl has disappeared from public view but whether and to what extent it has worked itself into various kinds of infrastructures.

In the post-Chernobyl context, the systematic disruption of the infrastructural conditions necessary for knowledge production and the limited articulation opportunities for groups that could potentially resist the dominant articulations (e.g., laypeople affected by the Chernobyl fallout, civic (p.10) movements, political opposition groups, or local scientists) are the two main obstacles to making radiation health effects publicly visible. Among the most troubling signs of limited articulation opportunities is the growing lack of Chernobyl experts in Belarus—that is, scientists who would publicly claim expertise in Chernobyl-related research (see chapter 6).

Our interpretation of invisible hazards is also likely to build on past discourses. What was deeply lacking in Belarus as part of the Soviet Union was any history of public discussion about invisible hazards, along the lines of, for example, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

Invisibility and Power

So far this introduction has focused on defining the production of invisibility. The rest of the book describes actual practices and conditions that can enhance the public visibility of hazards or, on the contrary, make them less visible. This section discusses the scale of the production of invisibility: To what extent can imperceptible hazards be made publicly invisible and unobservable? To what extent does the production of invisibility affect what we ultimately know? Would not a massive wave of health effects still somehow reveal itself? When asked this last question, a Belarusian physician who used to work with the affected populations (until political changes in the Chernobyl health-care administration system described in chapter 6) replied, “It depends on who's in charge, doesn't it?” The production of invisibility is a function of power relations. At the same time, there is a certain “resistance from reality” that makes this process more or less constrained and effortful.

Relations of power and the interests of those in power matter; even easily diagnosed and observable health effects can be made publicly invisible under conditions of institutional or political secrecy. Furthermore, what is “easily observable” reflects certain properties of the hazard and its health effects—but always in relation to observational practices and established knowledge (which also represents the history of articulations, in this case). Consider, for example, what would happen if the international nuclear industry, local governments of the affected countries, and various groups of experts were as interested in identifying and keeping track of Chernobyl effects as, for example, the U.S. banking industry is in identifying and keeping track of all credit-related activities. If Chernobyl-related data collection infrastructures were as extensive, and the underlying categories as consistent, then one might expect data losses to be minimal as well, thus ensuring a greater scope of registered effects.

(p.11) If we define the reality of Chernobyl's radiation effects along the lines of Latour's definition of reality as that which resists—in the sense of resisting arbitrary statements and productions—the reality of the accident's consequences is in a kind of interaction with infrastructural conditions and history and opportunities for articulation.21 One example is thyroid cancer in children, the only Chernobyl-related radiation health consequence acknowledged by the international nuclear experts—who recognized it only after several years of discrediting the data of local scientists and their expertise. For the local scientists, it simply “could no longer be denied”: the rate of this notably rare condition was demonstrated to have greatly increased (from an average of one case per year in Belarus).22 The disease was occur-ring in a population not usually affected by it—children—and the rise in incidences was concentrated in the most contaminated areas.23 There were also an established register, a dedicated and experienced researcher and his team (politically savvy enough to establish good protocols and promote their data), and enough of a preexisting scientific consensus about thyroid sensitivity to radiation exposure.

Such a good match between infrastructural conditions, the history of articulation, and the properties of health effects does not happen for most other health problems. Given the great effort that international nuclear organizations put into disregarding the views that would expand our conception of radiation health effects (and how this reflects on the infrastructural conditions and possibilities for knowledge production in Belarus), other health conditions appear not as pronounced. Potentially radiation-induced conditions are often not specific to radiation exposure; they may also appear after a significant time delay, which makes it easier to question their relationship to radiation exposure and attribute them to other factors.24

The discussion above suggests that certain properties of the phenomenon, along with infrastructural and other factors constraining articulation, prevent radiation effects from becoming more publicly visible, scientifically observable, and knowable. Perhaps the most important property of radiation in terms of this discussion is its imperceptibility with the unaided senses. A phenomenon does not have to be imperceptible to be made publicly invisible, yet imperceptibility certainly makes it easier to erase public awareness of that phenomenon. The question of perceptibility is thus again a question of power. In some contexts, even obtrusive hazards might be ignored. One might recall hazards that plague socially disadvantaged groups and require large-scale infrastructural solutions. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, prompted Susan Leigh Star to ask, “What does (p.12) it mean for something to be in plain sight and also invisible?”25 Similarly, the production of the invisibility of Chernobyl's consequences has much to do with the marginality of the affected populations, who are mostly poor, rural residents. International “invisibility” of the country, Belarus, (a rather small, Second-going-on-Third World state) might be an additional factor. Chernobyl-related problems in Belarus are then doubly invisible; from the international perspective, Chernobyl is typically associated with Ukraine, where the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is located.

The emphasis on the production of invisibility as a function of power relations should not be interpreted to mean that the production of invisibility is always an unjust process with socially unacceptable outcomes.26 The production of invisibility is inevitable to the extent that paying attention to something also always implies not paying attention to something else.27 Furthermore, Robert Proctor reminds us in his analysis of the social construction of ignorance that, “not all things are worth knowing at all costs.”28 In some cases, what is thought of as dangerous might pose little actual threat, and the production of invisibility might then be a process of learning and a matter of justice. But different hazards do not have equal chances of being made more visible, and precisely that should be the matter of public discussion. How we know what we know, what social mechanisms guarantee that attention is paid in some critical instances, and what ensures that adequate knowledge is produced are key public questions precisely because the production of invisibility is a function of power relations. The particular concerns here include the presence and maintenance of adequate infrastructural conditions, the democratic organization of expertise, and framing of research questions.

Maps: Methodological Considerations and Overview of the Book

I originally set out to study different interpretations of Chernobyl's consequences, but my initial fieldwork was complicated by the fact that I remained uncertain about the actual extent of these consequences. Positioned far from the affected territories and faced with conflicting reports, I was not sure whether there was a real problem behind the representations I set out to study. If radiation from Chernobyl had no significant consequences, then what was the purpose of talking to laypeople about it? Or if the radiation had decreased dramatically since the period immediately after the accident, why should people living in the contaminated territories still care about radiation risks, and why would there be any Chernobyl reports in mass media?

(p.13) There was a large nuclear accident, but the accident was a couple of decades ago. There could have been thousands dead and millions sick, or it could have been more or less a “myth.” Consequently, I chose to rely on what minimal scientific-administrative consensus there was: I bought a map of the current scope of the country's contamination (based on contamination with Cesium-137). The map had enough colored area indicating contamination—about 21 percent of the whole territory, according to the 2001 map—to suggest that the problem was still there.29 It is worth noting that certainty here is again related to visibility, or at least knowing what to look at and point at.

The shifting contours of Chernobyl had other implications for conducting research: the kinds of people I would want to talk to depended on how one defined the problem. The categories of Chernobyl-related groups are themselves shaped by the same processes and social interactions that have shaped public understanding of the accident and its consequences. In order to learn the range of perspectives on the consequences of Chernobyl, I began by interviewing laypeople living in the areas officially defined as contaminated. I also interviewed Chernobyl experts—scientists, physicians, government administrators, members of international projects, and members of nongovernmental organizations—whose professional activities are related to Chernobyl knowledge production practices. My selection of “expert” interviewees, collection of document sources, and data analysis were guided by grounded theory methodology; I was seeking perspectives that either further explained or, even more important, contradicted theoretical concepts that started emerging early in this research. Data collection for this project began in 2003, with the main ethnographic part of the research conducted in 2005, when I interviewed local experts and residents of the contaminated areas (see the appendix for further explanation). I continued collecting data and returning to Belarus in the subsequent years. A series of follow-up interviews with local experts was conducted in 2010–2012.

As I was conducting interviews and collecting documents, it became apparent that to interpret the current state of knowledge production practices, it was necessary to understand the history of transformations of public discourses on the topic, especially the official discourse. Systematic analysis of 20 years of media coverage (including government and oppositional publications) helped reconstruct these transformations and provide a more comprehensive perspective. Documenting changes in the official discourse, in particular, created a kind of backbone for my analysis; it helped reconstruct the historical waves of Chernobyl's invisibility. This, in turn, helped (p.14) construct the interpretative framework for other types of data, including data from the interviews and observations.

The production of invisibility of Chernobyl's consequences in Belarus has been a cumulative, layered process in which the layers correspond to relationships among various interest groups and often reflect power disbalances among them. The key set of relationships is at the top, which includes the Belarusian government, local scientists, and international organizations and their experts. But in describing the production of invisibility, I begin by explaining why the affected public is silently complacent with these processes (chapters 1 and 2).

I then outline the historical trajectory of the transformation of Chernobyl's consequences—the waves of their (in)visibility—as illustrated by the discourse in the official and oppositional media (chapter 3).

The second half of the book (chapters 46) explains how the waves of invisibility of Chernobyl were shaped by Chernobyl-related interests of international organizations, state management of research infrastructures, the resistance of some local scientists, and political battles over the formal principles of radiation protection.

Throughout the book, articulation and its infrastructural conditions are emphasized as the main aspects in the production of (in)visibility of Chernobyl radiation and its health effects. Some chapters (2, 4, and 6) underscore the problems, paradoxes, and double binds of infrastructural solutions. Other chapters (1, 3, and 5) are more concerned with the articulation processes, the kinds of articulations put forward, and the opportunities for lay and expert articulations.

Chapter 1 thus argues that even for people living with radiation, experiencing it and developing knowledge about its effects depends on how the danger is articulated, which in turn is shaped by opportunities for articulation. In the Belarusian post-Chernobyl context, much-needed dialogical opportunities for articulation are strikingly limited. As a result, the affected populations often rely on readily available administrative discourse (rather than discourses based on science or laypeople's own collective experiences) to define the scope of radiation danger and its health effects. Based on this analysis, I argue that the affected populations cannot be assumed to be the most risk-conscious.

Chapter 2 discusses the multiplicity of lay perspectives on risks, partly focusing on those affected individuals, families, and communities who have accumulated the highest doses yet are the most resistant to making radiation risks more observable. The residents of the contaminated areas (p.15) show different levels of concern about radiation and, correspondingly, there is a range of accumulated internal doses, which people acquire by consuming radioactive materials with food. Years after the accident, individual doses are a matter of individuals' own choices and behaviors; for example, people can avoid significant exposure by not consuming wild berries or mushrooms.

But even though people “make their own doses,” they do so not in circumstances of their choosing. The physical properties of the distribution of radionuclides in the environment come to be aligned with the system of socioeconomic privilege, so that the least socially advantaged groups are exposed to greater radiation doses. Furthermore, some local populations resist articulation processes that could make contamination more observable simply because mitigating this contamination would then require nearly constant work that far exceeds their individual or family resources. Finally, interpretations of risk are also affected by individuals' own trajectories with respect to the hazard—that is, the extent to which radiation exposure remains a current problem or has happened in the past.

Chapter 3 describes the waves of (in)visibility of Chernobyl—the different framings and degrees of recognition of the temporal and spatial scope of Chernobyl's consequences—as they appear in the official discourse in mass media during the first 20 years after the accident: secrecy and silence in 1986–1989, an explosion of media attention to Chernobyl in the last years of the Soviet Union and the first half of the 1990s, and a gradual transformation and narrowing down of the scope of Chernobyl problems thereafter. This chapter provides a detailed historical context for these transformations, and it also considers the double-edged discursive phenomenon of hypervisibility: exaggerated, dramatic, and stereotypical portrayals of radiation effects (such as images of bald children with cancer) that were employed by the political opposition in the late 1990s to draw attention to the disappearance of Chernobyl's consequences in the official discourse and counteract the government strategies of rehabilitating the affected territories.

The second half of the book describes the waves of (in)visibility of Chernobyl as reflected in the formal representations of Chernobyl's consequences, the organization of Chernobyl-related scientific research, and the international constraints affecting knowledge production practices in Belarus. The local government has been confronted with resistance from the international experts who claim minimal Chernobyl radiological effects. It has also been faced with the scope of the consequences that—if defined to the maximum—far exceeds the capacities of the state, especially given the (p.16) lack of international assistance. Local scientists, in turn, have been dealing with pressure from international nuclear experts and an ideologically over-bearing government. This set of relationships has been unfolding differently in different periods, leading to fluctuations in Chernobyl's visibility and, ultimately, to the disappearance of almost any socially and bureaucratically recognized Chernobyl contamination and health effects.

Chapter 4 examines the succession of approaches that defined Belarusian radiation protection efforts. The scope of radiation danger recognized by the government and the official view on required protection measures depend on the adopted radiation protection concept. It is developed by scientists, and like most formal representations (e.g., thresholds or standards), it appears neutral and objective. In Belarus, this radiation protection concept was redefined several times, and each time the scope of the recognized radiological contamination and its risks shrank or expanded radically.

This chapter explains the politics of formal representations—that is, the ways in which they make radiation danger more visible or less visible. Specifically, I argue that the production of invisibility depends on how formal representations are aligned or misaligned with the empirical complexity of radiological contamination and what could be measured in practice. The work of alignment is fundamental to making radiation and its effects visible. Often it can be done only by experts, from their particular bureaucratic and technoscientific positions, which highlights the importance of accountability, the democratic organization of expertise, and the value of oppositional experts.

Chapter 5 considers the history of the Chernobyl-related research of the United Nations. Experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization vehemently supported the Soviet scientists in their denial of any significant consequences of the accident. This position remained unchanged for two and a half decades. The chapter describes the research and rhetorical strategies used by the UN nuclear experts to minimize public visibility of Chernobyl health effects.

This chapter also considers how and why the Belarusian government gradually came to concur with the United Nations on the issues of Chernobyl in the early years of this century, after a period of disagreement and limited UN assistance. The new strategy supported by both sides reframed Chernobyl as an economic problem and a problem of sustainable development. This framing not only provided the grounds for cooperation but also implicitly reasserted the same minimizing view of Chernobyl health effects and allowed for new approaches to making radiation danger less publicly visible, both in Belarus and internationally.

(p.17) Chapter 6 describes national research efforts, which have been affected by the peripheral position of Belarusian science (first within the Soviet system of Moscow-centered science and then in relationship to international nuclear expertise) as well as by the economic and political interests of the Belarusian government. These conditions led to the production of invisibility in two direct and immediate ways. First, knowledge production is subverted through the reframing of research so that the radiation factor disappears as an object of inquiry, along with local experts who would claim expertise in Chernobyl radiation health effects. Second, politically induced infrastructural disruptions to data collection and analysis create the conditions for research relying on theoretically, rather than empirically, driven approaches, and this bias supports minimizing the scope of Chernobyl-related health effects.

Making radiation risks and health effects visible is work. The production of visibility particularly depends on the work of articulating and of creating and maintaining adequate infrastructural conditions. Furthermore, the result of the work of articulation is more work—necessary to manage the chronic problem of radiological contamination (which again most likely requires large infrastructural solutions). This book considers what work could not be done in Belarus to make the radiation risks and effects visible—and what work was done to make them invisible. (p.18)


(1) . This is compared to 5 percent of Ukraine. Shevchouk and Gourachevsky (2001).

(2) . Belarus Committee on Chernobyl and UNDP (2005).

(3) . All of our experiences are mediated: we try to make sense of, interpret, what is happening to us, which always requires language.

(4) . I use the term Chernobyl's consequences as the English equivalent of the Russian chernobyl'skie posledstviya, a phrase used in Belarus to refer to the aftermath of the accident and the consequences of the Chernobyl fallout.

(5) . Proctor (1995); Proctor and Schiebinger (2008).

(6) . Latour (1988).

(7) . Beck (1992), 71. See also Beck (1995a, 1995b).

(8) . Beck (1995b), 184.

(9) . Ibid., 125, 62.

(10) . Shevchouk and Gourachevsky (2003), 4. This national report, an official publication summarizing the consequences of Chernobyl, starts with the following statement that highlights the nonradiological effects: Not everybody can imagine the real scope of the tragedy that Belarus has been experiencing in connection … [with] the explosion of a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the bordering Ukraine. A significant number of destructive ecological, health, social and economic effects make it impossible to see the consequences of the nuclear accident narrowly from the perspective of radiation safety. One should also keep in mind that the relative weight of the negative consequences was much greater for Belarus than for other affected countries. Subsequently, the Chernobyl consequences in Belarus are more adequately described by such terms as “catastrophe” and “national ecological calamity.”

(11) . Petryna (2002) describes the spiraling effects of disaster remediation in Ukraine as people were trying to fit into the categories of populations and diseases that were compensated. Petryna (2002), 86, also notes that, by 1996, new amendments to Ukrainian Chernobyl laws stopped some resettlement and cut benefits for the inhabitants of the lesser contaminated areas.

(12) . Petryna (2009), 37.

(13) . Cresnon (1979); Langston (2011); Michaels (2008); Murphy (2006); Oreskes and Conway (2010); Proctor (1995); Proctor and Schiebinger (2008).

(14) . Hess (2007); McGarity and Wagner (2010); Oreskes and Conway (2010).

(15) . Researchers in science and technology studies have often emphasized articulation as a material process—see Latour (2004); Mol (2002); Murphy (2006); and Soneryd (2007). Murphy (2006), 183, in particular, emphasizes material constructions and “materializations” of imperceptible phenomena such as the complex compositions of chemicals. She notes, “The verb articulate is useful because it refers not only to speech but also to physicality, such as the way the joint articulates an arm.”

(16) . Dialogue is more than a reference of one perspective (or one text) to another. It is a principal form of the coexistence and interaction of two or more different discursive perspectives on the same problem—see Bakhtin (1981, 1984) and Kuchinsky (1988). Bakhtin (1981), 342, juxtaposes dialogue to monologue, in which there is only one perspective “binding” its audience from the position of authority (e.g., the “authoritative word” of religions, teachers, or parents). Unlike monologue, dialogue includes at least two perspectives, which means that the same issue or object is presented in at least two different ways: as something and as something else, according to Kuchinsky (1988).

(17) . Consequently, mass media in different countries have their own dialogues on Chernobyl.

(18) . Bakhtin (1981, 1984) refers to different perspectives in a dialogue as voices. A voice always reflects a particular meaningful—or, more precisely, meaning-generating—position; thus, the understanding of one's perspective allows for a degree of anticipation of what is going to be said. According to Kuchinsky (1988), each utterance in a dialogue is a response not just to the previous statement but also to the whole narrative as it has been jointly constructed thus far. If each statement reflects and builds upon the whole body of the narrative created by both positions thus far, then the two positions are in principle shaping each other, yet the unfolding of the dialogue is the outcome of there being two separate, distinct meaningful positions (which neither fully accept nor reject each other).

(19) . My approach to defining infrastructures builds on Bowker and Star (1999) and Star and Ruhleder (1996).

(20) . It might be more accurate to say that particular aspects of radiation health effects become unknowable within a given context, but some contexts—like the post-Chernobyl exposure of large numbers of people—are unique and cannot be ethically reproduced.

(21) . Bowker (2005a); Latour (1987).

(22) . Malko (1998b).

(23) . Connecting the rise in adult thyroid cancers to radiation exposure has proved to be significantly more controversial, even for the population of the most affected regions.

(24) . Radiation-induced conditions may include a range of cancers (including adult thyroid cancer and breast cancer) and an wide range of noncancerous morbidity (including heart disease).

(25) . Star (2006), 1.

(26) . Bowker and Star (1999) have described how phenomena can be made invisible from perspectives embedded in particular technological infrastructures. In communication studies, Gitlin (1980) has described the making and unmaking of the New Left in the media. Consider also the discussion of invisibility by Hecht (2012) and Greene (1999).

(27) . Murphy (2006); Proctor and Schiebinger (2008).

(28) . Proctor and Schiebinger (2008), 22.

(29) . The 2001 map was available for purchase from bookstores in Minsk in 2003 when I first attempted to find a map of the contaminated areas in Belarus. Another edition appeared in 2004, but it was not as easy to find. See chapter 4.