Chernobyl 25 years on
"I well remember that day and that evening, 26 April 1986, I remember that I was unable to do anything because of the silent scream that, as it seemed to me, filled all the space around me." Writing twenty-five years after the Chernobyl disaster, Belarusian writer Barys Piatrovich recalls the tension of unknowing during the days that followed, his desperate attempts to contact his relatives in the zone, and the arrival of evacuees during Easter celebrations in his parents' village. Today, barely any of the Chernobyl evacuees are still alive. Dispersed throughout Belarus, they died alone and unmourned:
"The fact that the authorities made no concessions to the evacuees is evidence of their 'farsightedness' and just how well informed they were about the consequences of the accident," writes Piatrovich. "Most of the 'Chernobylites' from the 30km Belarusian exclusion zone died within ten, fifteen or twenty years of being moved. It would have been immediately obvious that something was wrong if whole villages or streets had died out, leaving empty houses behind. As it is, the 'Chernobylites' died off quietly, one by one, almost unnoticed, without spoiling the national statistical picture even at district or local level..."
Piatrovich's moving personal account of the Chernobyl disaster gains even greater force after the Fukushima disaster, becoming an implicit reproach of the system that could allow a similar meltdown at a nuclear reactor to reoccur. Five years ago, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Chernobyl in 2006, Guillaume Grandazzi wrote that "the major nuclear catastrophe, predicted by a few 'prophets of evil', actually took place. But it is doubtful whether a lesson was learned from it. Our societies seem to entertain an ambivalent relationship with catastrophes, and may indeed harbour a desire for catastrophe."
Grandazzi accuses the Chernobyl Forum, an organization created by the IAEA, the UN, the World Bank and the governments of the affected countries, of purveying the fiction of risk-free atomic power even while commemorating the disaster. In a special Focal Point on Chernobyl and energy politics, we bring his and other texts out of the archive, including Alla Yaroshinskaya on the Soviet leadership's cover-up operation and calculated policy of disinformation following the accident; photographer Igor Kostin, the first journalist on the scene of the catastrophe, on his repeated visits to Chernobyl over seventeen years; and ethnographer Dzianis Ramaniuk on the folkloric rituals still maintained by the zone's former inhabitants.
Extending the focus to energy politics in general, we publish another new text: a translation of one of the last articles published by "Sun King" Hermann Scheer, the pre-eminent international campaigner for renewable energies who died last year. Scheer warns of the impression of consensus over the energy question created by corporate interest in renewables, suggesting that the "switchover" is only a matter of when and how. This represents a new strategy of the conventional energy sector to ensure the switchover takes place on terms favourable to it alone. Nowhere, writes Scheer, are these double standards more visible than in continuing investment and political support for nuclear power.
Angela Saini, on the other hand, sees the energy debate in a rather different light. Writing before the Fukushima accident, she suggests that nuclear power might make ecological sense. Faced with the reality that renewables will be unable to replace conventional energy sources in the foreseeable future, arguments for nuclear power – that it is the cleanest and least expensive option – are causing environmentalists to reconsider. Or at least that was the case before 11 March 2011.
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