FeatureLettersScienceThe Psyche

The Traumas of Chernobyl

Thirty years have passed since Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Station named after V.I. Lenin exploded, releasing plumes of radioactive debris into the atmosphere. Given the extent of the fallout, numerous European countries were affected beyond the immediate confines of the area where the disaster took place at the border of three former Soviet republics: Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Untold millions were exposed to dangerously high levels of atmospheric radiation, which traveled north toward the Scandinavian countries, while soils and crops were contaminated as far west as Italy and France.

At the time of the explosion, I was aboard a train to the southern Russian resort town of Anapa, where I spent nearly two months on the shore of the Black Sea receiving medical treatment for asthma induced by severe seasonal allergies. There, unbeknownst to me, I too was exposed to radiation that drifted from Chernobyl and exceeded normal background levels by 300 times.

The first layer of trauma is, thus, unsurprisingly personal. I lived through the event of Chernobyl (the name of the place standing for the catastrophe) without being aware of what was happening at the time. It was something inflicted on me irrespective of my perceptual capacities, “agency,” or freedom of choice. Trauma is, precisely, something that bypasses conscious representation and imprints itself directly on the unconscious, on the deepest stratum of our mind and on the body itself, barely distinguishable from it. In this sense, Chernobyl is traumatic because it exposed bodies to the harmful effects of radiation, and minds to the retrospective feeling of their own helplessness, the inability to register, let alone to respond to, the peril of radioactivity.

The explosion and the subsequent fallout induced another trauma, this one both political and geopolitical. The Soviet Union was shaken up not only by the accident itself but also by the way Mikhail Gorbachev and his state apparatus managed it — for instance, they kept the event secret until monitoring stations in Sweden detected unusual spikes in radiation levels. Mistrust in Soviet authorities and their half-hearted policy of glasnost (openness) skyrocketed. And then there were the hundreds of thousands of first responders and liquidators of the disaster’s consequences were sent to ground zero poorly equipped and virtually unprotected from the often-lethal radiation doses they would receive. In the end, Chernobyl was more than the Soviet Union could bear. A crucial aftershock of the political trauma it caused was the collapse of the country (indeed, of the entire political-economic system) in which it occurred. Putin’s Russia with its nostalgia for the lost empire is the comet-tail of this same political trauma.

Geopolitically, the illusion that national borders protected citizens who resided within them from the catastrophes raging outside dissipated upon contact with Chernobyl’s fallout. The affluent countries of northern Europe were powerless to stop the spread of the radiation that originated in Soviet territory. National sovereignty was put in question by a technology with a transnational scope of impact. More recently, global climate change has thrust us into an analogous predicament: no matter where the air is filled with CO2, be it in England or in China, the entire planet suffers the consequences. Such a trauma is one that destroys our sense of self-sufficiency and independence, striking at the heart of the autonomous and purely rational agent, the figment of the Enlightenment imagination.

We would be mistaken were we to think that humans alone are subject to the traumatic ramifications of Chernobyl. Radioactive contamination has also adversely affected the animals, plants, soil, air, and waterways in its vast fallout area. Why is the term trauma appropriate to describing its bearing on other-than-human entities? Because, like its psychological counterpart, the physical or physiological influence of radiation on whoever or whatever is in its path amounts to a kind of indigestibility, non-biodegradability, being stuck in the nightmare of a present that simply does not end.

The traumas of radioactivity vary depending on the radioactive element in question. The half-life of depleted uranium (U-238) is the same as the age of our planet: 4.5 billion years. That of cesium-137 is substantially more modest, namely three decades. This means that, by today, the thirtieth anniversary of the meltdown and explosion, only fifty percent of cesium-137 atoms discharged into the environment have been transformed into barium-137 with a half-life of about 2.5 minutes. Half of the remaining fifty percent will be similarly “de-activated” over the next thirty years. And so on… but, in the case of U-238, the billions of years uranium requires to release half of its radioactivity put it closer to eternity than to a time-bound reality. Trapped in the soil without any significant decay, these elements are the symptoms of a geological trauma we have visited upon the earth. Accumulated in plants that spring from the contaminated soil and the animals that feed on them, they contribute to the ongoing internal radiation exposure. They leave traces that are virtually un-erasable and probably more permanent and permanently damaging than anything in our environment.

Nineteenth-century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel once said that the wounds of Spirit heal and leave no scars. The wounds of Chernobyl, in turn, either do not heal at all or leave permanent physical, psychological, geopolitical, and environmental scars. Although we cannot “decontaminate” the areas most affected by the fallout (and I am not referring only to the soil here), we can and must start grappling with the various traumas of Chernobyl with the view to changing our ideas about energy, life, and ourselves.

Also for you:

Michael Marder

Previous post

Book Presentation: Fire and Blood

Next post

OOPS Lecture, Gender and Domination Class by Drucilla Cornell