Atomic no More: Chernobyl’s Mediterranean Afterlives

“How Powerful was the Beirut Blast?” Reuters Graphics, 14 August 2020

How does toxic exposure unbecome a medical problem while remaining in the public imagination? What is the relationship between the disappearance of one of the largest human-made public health disasters from public health discourse and the intensification of arguments against the energy infrastructures and governing conditions that caused it? How do medical imaginations, ideas of governmental accountability, and environmental politics affect one another?

Atomic no More investigates the differential effects of one infrastructural disaster that took place in one country upon social landscapes across political borders. Working at the intersection of environmental anthropology, anthropologies of infrastructure and medical anthropology, it aims to understand how the Chernobyl explosion has shaped the possibilities for energy production, experiences of bodily harm, and ideas of risk in a precarious regional context.

The book explores how the Chernobyl fire, which continues to threaten much of Europe and has catalyzed construction of the largest mobile infrastructure in the world (the 2016 “Sarcophagus”) to contain the exploded reactor’s continuing contamination, came to be constituted as an event now understood in the past tense. The relatively slow temporalities of radiation’s effects, and its undetectability to the human senses, have affected the way it is perceived and therefore how it penetrates social, economic and political life. Paying attention to these temporalities and to the politics of making radiation detectable (or not) allows us to see how Chernobyl is affecting energy futures, expectations of governance, and the politics of health.

Developing ideas from my first book, Waste Siege, on the politics of waste in Palestine, Atomic No More proposes that we can better understand environmental disasters like the Chernobyl explosion through the lens of discard studies. The book reframes all of the territories that were blanketed by Chernobyl’s tiny, floating debris particles, as part of the broader sacrifice zone created by the explosion. Chernobyl is best known for destroying the (use and exchange) value, overnight, of 30km of land around the exploded reactor. Indeed, one of the most striking things about radiation is that it can lead to dramatic and precipitous declines in the value of material things. Epitomizing the meaning of the word wasteland, it came to be called “The Exclusion Zone” or the “Zone of Alienation.” The bodies of the thousands of humans, who were forced to flee the zone, and animals, who were forced to stay, carried radioactive particles. These would irreversibly diminish and damage the health of many of them and their offspring in future decades.

“‘Don’t let Mersin become Chernobyl’: Turkish and Greek Cypriots unite against Russian nuclear power plant,” The Independent, 29 September 2020

Yet most attention on Chernobyl has focused on Chernobyl’s effects in Ukraine and a small number of other former Soviet republics. Little attention has gone to how Chernobyl affected countries on the other side of the “Iron Curtain,” despite the fact these countries, too, were blanketed by radioactive clouds after the disaster. In several countries that were exposed to Chernobyl’s radioactive fallout, the explosion’s public health effects are now missing from public discourse, medical practice, and state policy, even while in those same countries Chernobyl is drawn upon to argue against relying upon nuclear energy or as a metaphor for identifying harmful and neglectful governmental policy.

The puzzle that organizes Atomic No More is the observation that, despite early signs showing significant impacts in agriculture and health from the explosion, Chernobyl’s afterlives have become all but invisible in medical practice and popular understandings of health in the eastern Mediterranean today.

The book is multi-sited: it focuses on Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus and Greece. These Mediterranean countries share the experience of having been exposed to Chernobyl’s radiation. Agriculture is a major feature of the economies of all four places. And all four places have unstable governing regimes. They also share the experience of being in energy transitions, with nuclear power as one–always contested–future option. Chernobyl features in debates about how each country should be governed, and serves as a negative signifier of what can go wrong when dangerous materials fall in the hands of negligent governments.

Yet the simultaneous possibility that Chernobyl continues to physically harm the human and nonhuman bodies inhabiting these countries is far from the public imagination in these same places. Greece, for example, was one of the two countries most contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster outside the Soviet Union. The effects on agriculture and health were initially deemed significant. Doctors recorded spikes in abortions in the months after the explosion, and linked the abortions to concerns over radioactivity. Milk and vegetable consumption were restricted, radionuclides were found in the soils of northern Greece ten years later, and infant leukemias seemed to increase. Greeks were given so much iodine following the explosion that, within a few years, concerns emerged that its population had an excess of iodine.

Given that over three decades have passed since the 1986 disaster, some of the longer-term biological and ecological effects of Chernobyl can now be scientifically examined. Yet efforts to do so have been few and have generally been overshadowed by other public health and energy concerns since the explosion. When people are diagnosed with thyroid disease, autoimmune conditions and cancers, which are among the illnesses most often connected to radiation exposure, neither they nor their doctors think to connect their suffering to Chernobyl. Nor do the governments of Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus, or Greece offer recognition of the accident’s ostensible victims or the need for their care, as both the Soviet state and Ukraine did for the Ukrainian population after the disaster, and as the Japanese government did after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example. One is hard-pressed to find movements of citizen scientists like those that emerged in places like Japan after the Fukushima reactor explosion, calling for governments to protect citizens from hazardous foods, water, and air.

At the same time, Chernobyl figures in debates about alternative energies as countries like Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Greece–as well as Egypt, Italy, Malta, and Turkey–reject or phase out nuclear energy, or as they construct or run reactors under heavily contested conditions at home. In Cyprus, for example, ‘Don’t let Mersin become Chernobyl’ has been the slogan bringing together Turkish and Greek Cypriots against construction of Russian nuclear power plant on the island. In Lebanon, following the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that killed 217 people and injured 7,000 in Beirut’s port, commentators called the event “Lebanon’s Chernobyl.” They argue that, like Chernobyl’s blast, the Lebanese blast was “the work of gross incompetence, endemic corruption, and negligence—and its impact will spread far beyond the initial explosion.” Yet Chernobyl serves as a metaphor rather than as a phenomenon viewed to have its own lasting effects on the Mediterranean. In Israel/Palestine, critics of Israeli efforts to develop nuclear energy production invoke Chernobyl in their warnings about the vulnerabilities of the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center, the country’s one nuclear reactor lab, should a war break out in the Middle East, or should an earthquake rock the Syrian-African rift, in the coming decades.

Atomic No More thus begins with the challenge that that with which we might hope to begin such a project—object evidence of Chernobyl’s toxic legacies in the Mediterranean—is not obviously identifiable, precisely because scientific communities and citizens have largely turned away from gathering data about its fallout.  The twin questions that animate this book are why, and with what effects.