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Book Preview: THE MEANINGS OF A DISASTER (International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day)

An abandoned school in Pripyat, Ukraine located a few miles from the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Sean Gallup/Getty Images (
The United Nations has proclaimed 26 April International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day. The day was first observed in 2016, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the 1986 nuclear disaster.
Learn more about the history and persistent legacy of Chernobyl here.

The Meanings of Disaster: Chernobyl and its Afterlives in Britain and France

By Karena Kalmbach

After the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, the name of this Ukrainian town became synonymous with the worst accident ever to have occurred in the civil use of nuclear energy. Chernobyl has retained this status ever since, that is, until 11 March 2011, when an earthquake and the resulting tsunami partially destroyed the Japanese nuclear power plant at Fukushima. The meltdown of the core at Chernobyl, classified as category 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, was indeed considered the worst accident that could happen at a nuclear power plant. Technically, the actual meltdown is over. Chernobyl is seen as an event of the past, to which a start and an end were attributed by the technical evaluations following the evolution of the incident. However, its consequences are far from over. As with war, the scars of a nuclear catastrophe run deep; the aftermath is engraved in the environment, in people’s bodies and in their memories. Signing a peace treaty does not bring an end to suffering; burying a destroyed reactor core under tons of concrete does not mean the evacuees can come home and simply forget what happened.

Comparing the Chernobyl disaster to a war scene is not just the result of a creative thinking process too strongly conditioned by my research. Many Ukrainian and Belarusian accounts narrate and interpret the struggle endured by fi refi ghters and rescue workers as a battle against an enemy: the burning reactor. Th e victims, destruction and displacements provoked by this burning reactor have been linked to those caused by the Second World War. Th e asymmetry of such an equation may seem obvious when we recall the millions killed on the battlefi elds and murdered in the concentration camps, and this comparison might even seem inappropriate. But these narrations of Chernobyl do indeed exist, as does the metaphor of the nuclear holocaust. Chernobyl, however, is also described as a moderately serious industrial accident that caused a few deaths and slightly increased the probability that lethal cancers would occur in the exposed population, in other words a minor health impact compared to the annual number of deaths from road accidents or smoking cigarettes.

So, what does this phrase worst accident ever to have occurred in the civil use of nuclear energy actually mean? For some, Chernobyl is proof that this technology must be abandoned, sooner rather than later. Yet, for others, Chernobyl proves this technology is among the best that mankind has invented to date. How is it possible that the same event can be interpreted in such different ways? Precisely this question is the topic of this book. Some might argue: what is so surprising about the fact that a person in Belarus, having lost not only loved ones but also their home, and whose birthplace has been wiped off the map, would frame the event in a different light than a technocratic engineer in Vienna, tasked with calculating the probability that exactly the same accident will happen in a different nuclear power plant? It is hardly surprising at all that these two people give a different meaning to Chernobyl. Such an observation is scarcely enough to build a whole argument for a book. But what if we fi nd these divergent interpretations in societies considered to be detached from the event, geographically as well as politically? What if we hear completely different narratives and interpretations of the causes and consequences of the accident, even among different groups within these societies? Would this constitute valid grounds for investigating the origin of these different narratives and interpretations, and for seeking explanations for how they came about and are constructed? I think so, which is why I aim to clarify the processes that led to these competing ‘truths’ circulating in public debates on Chernobyl.

My approach here to concepts such as narratives, interpretations and constructions is discourse analytical. I do not aim to add my own ‘truth’ to the many already circulating about Chernobyl. What is more, I am not in a position to judge which ‘truth’ is the most valid. Undoubtedly, many criteria could justify such a judgement: the scientific or political authority of the person or institution to deliver a given statement, or the number of people or institutions that quote this statement. But judging these competing ‘truths’ in such a manner would be like skimming the surface instead of investigating the discourse. Therefore, I do not ask: is this statement valid? but rather: why was a certain narrative disseminated at a certain time by a certain person or institution, and what is the meaning and significance of this narrative?

About the book

Chernobyl and Its Afterlives in Britain and France
Karena Kalmbach

Through wide-ranging and careful research, Karena Kalmbach elaborates the many ways in which the Chernobyl accident became a European historical event closely turning around national politics in Great Britain and France. Kalmbach shows the irony of transnational nuclear technologies and nuclear fallout confined in national discourse.” • Kate Brown, MIT

The disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was an event of obviously transnational significance—not only in the airborne particulates it deposited across the Northern hemisphere, but in the political and social repercussions it set off well beyond the Soviet bloc. Focusing on the cases of Great Britain and France, this innovative study explores the discourses and narratives that arose in the wake of the incident among both state and nonstate actors. It gives a thorough account of the stereotypes, framings, and “othering” strategies that shaped Western European nations’ responses to the disaster, and of their efforts to come to terms with its long-term consequences up to the present day.

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