Atomic no More: Chernobyl’s Afterlives in Greece

Atomic no More investigates the effects of an infrastructural disaster that took place in one country upon the social landscape of another. Working at the intersection of environmental anthropology, anthropologies of infrastructure and medical anthropology, it will tell the story of an extraterritorial infrastructure’s impact on a body politic and on the physical bodies that constitute it. One of the most striking things about radiation is that it can lead to dramatic and precipitous declines in the value of material things. Overnight, 30km of land around the exploded Chernobyl reactor site lost both its use and exchange value, for example. 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 invisibly and irreversibly diminish the health of many of them and their offspring in future decades. Most of the social scientific literature on Chernobyl has focused on these effects in Ukraine and a small number of other former Soviet republics. Little attention has been paid 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. 

Greece was one of the two countries most contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster outside the Soviet Union (the other was Austria). It is believed that there was a spike in abortions in Greece in the months after the explosion. Milk and vegetable consumption were restricted, radionuclides were found in the soils of northern Greece ten years later, and infant leukemias seemed to increase. Greece was deemed iodine deficient and then, within decades, 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. Chernobyl also figures in debates about alternative energies as Greece continues to reject nuclear energy. Public concerns emerged again about radiation leakage as wildfires plagued Chernobyl for two weeks in Spring 2020.

Yet the puzzle that organizes Atomic No More is the observation that, despite these significant impacts, Chernobyl’s afterlives have become all but invisible in Greece today. 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 does the Greek state offer recognition of the accident’s Greek 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. Except in narrow, tucked-away scientific research projects, many of which are more connected to institutions outside of Greece than they are to local processes, Chernobyl has all but disappeared from the Greek perceptual landscape. It is as if it never happened—or as if it is not continuing to take place. 

One exciting challenge of Atomic No More is thus the fact that that with which we might be tempted to begin such a project—object evidence—is not obviously identifiable in the Greek context. Like many sources of toxicity, radiation is undetectable to the human senses. And, in a place like Greece where popular interest in, and concern about, radiation fell away a few years after the disaster, few people are putting efforts into detecting it at all. That is where this project begins.

In tracing the invisible social and political effects of the Chernobyl disaster on Greece, the book will pay attention to a variety of scales. My hypothesis is that the Chernobyl explosion catalyzed an intensification of Greece’s relationships with international organizations, new relationships among doctors and patients, between people and their bodies, and between government and “the economy.” I will explore the scale of scientific, or epistemic, objects. Four materials became early objects of scientific and governmental interest: iodine, soil, milk and tobacco. There was also an early interest in children’s bodies and in the reproductive functions of women (men’s bodies were largely left out). I will additionally investigate the scale of the Greek state. The Chernobyl disaster coincided with the early years of Greece’s accession to the European Union and its transition to socialist government after the junta of 1967-1974. To what extent has Greece’s resulting approach to medicine and its dependence over the past thirty years on agriculture and tourism relegated investigations of the effects of Chernobyl on health to the margins? How did the Chernobyl fire, which continues to threaten much of Europe and has catalyzed construction of the largest (if temporary) mobile infrastructure in the world (the 2016 “Sarcophagus”) to contain the exploded reactor’s continuing contamination, come to be constituted as an event that can be described in the past tense? How do the relatively slow temporalities of radiation’s effects (especially at Greece’s greater distance from the explosion site) figure in the way it is perceived and therefore penetrates social, economic and political life? How has Chernobyl affected Greece’s energy futures?