Chernobyl, the Media, and the Public, Thirty Years On

Paul Josephson

Thirty years ago, on April 26, 1986, the fourth unit at Chernobyl NPP exploded, releasing 80 million curies of radioactivity in the atmosphere, contributing to significant increases in thyroid abnormalities, especially among children, and at least 5,000 excess deaths, and perhaps as many as 50,000 worldwide. Over 90,000 people had to be evacuated immediately; cropland and industry was destroyed. Overall 600,000 “liquidators” participated in the effort to secure the reactor and the land around it. Together with accidents at Three Mile Island (TMI) in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Fukushima in Japan in 2011, Chernobyl has become the iconic nuclear disaster and a good case to understand civil society-state-industry relations.

Chernobyl led to society-wide questioning of nuclear power in the late Soviet Union, in fact fueling independence movements in Ukraine and Lithuania in the Gorbachev era. Chernobyl challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to demonstrate that the “openness” – glasnost – he declared as a sign of his leadership was indeed an operating principle of the government. In the late 1980s many citizens embraced glasnost and protested openly against nuclear power. After the breakup of the USSR, Chernobyl factored heavily in moratoria in reactor construction, the mothballing of several units in Russia and Ukraine, and the closing of Ignalina station in Lithuania.

Such nuclear disasters as Chernobyl reveal that public concerns about nuclear power often devolve from scientific uncertainty, lack of openness from the authorities, and the confused and sometimes piecemeal way in which the media cover nuclear power. The Soviets took a bit of glee in reporting the partial meltdown at TMI on March 28, 1979, in making the claim that such an accident could not occur in the USSR. Pravda reported on April 1st that “thousands of panic-stricken people,” women and children first among them, had fled the region in the face of the dangerous, “unexpected and uncontrollable” leakage of radioactivity. On April 11th the cultural weekly Literaturnaia Gazeta reported that this was “a serious, major accident, one that threatened at any moment to turn into a catastrophe,” and intimated strongly that inadequately trained personnel and poor emergency systems were to blame, as well as the “objective factor – the interests of private companies” who sought only profits and ignored public interests.

Indeed confusion reigned in Pennsylvania when officials could not get their stories straight, triggering a mass exodus of 140,000 people; most local residents remained. The Kemmeny Report to the President of the United States on the accident criticized accident response as well as the poor safety culture of the plant operators and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Seven years later in another nuclear power, the USSR, the authorities failed their citizenry as well. On Monday, April 28, two days after the accident, Tass finally announced that “an accident has occurred” and that “measures are being taken.” On Tuesday, this message was repeated and noted “damage” to the reactor and “a certain leak” of radioactivity plus two deaths. The next day, “work was underway” to deal with the situation, and the Soviets criticized western media for rumors that 1000s killed, claiming that “enterprises [and] collective farms” were “functioning normally.” They restricted coverage by journalists to all but the most mundane reports – and only from Kyiv, 90 km away. Obviously the dangers and losses were far greater.
Immediately after Chernobyl, US officials went to great lengths to contend that no similar dangers existed in the US, TMI notwithstanding. Yet closer examination revealed that nine of 115 US reactors shared certain design features with the Chernobyl type, and only one of these had containment.

Some twenty years later, the Russian nuclear industry giant, Rosatom, embarked on a self-proclaimed nuclear renaissance with the goal of installing at least 11 new reactors by 2030 (down from earlier estimates of 30). Rosatom officials regularly engage the public in licensing hearings and other forums, although rarely uttering the word “Chernobyl.” In the US, with promises of loan guarantees, the government has received some 14 applications to build, ending a virtual interregnum in construction after TMI. On the other hand, costs to install a reactor have skyrocketed, and the Fukushima disaster has worried investors and the public; 160,000 Japanese may never be able to return home, while significant radiation contamination and public health problems will persist for decades.

In early July 2016, Rosatom subcontractors dropped a 334-ton reactor vessel being installed in Belarus or, according to Rosatom, it gently “touched the ground.” Rosatom has agreed, apparently, to replace the vessel which it claims is not damaged, but must do so given the still strong memory of TMI, Fukushima, and Chernobyl in Belarus – and the rest of the world – should it wish its “renaissance” to continue.

It seems that no government, democratic or authoritarian, Eastern or Western, and no particular design of a nuclear reactor can guarantee safety, let alone emergency evacuation, nor keep costs down. The solution may be the careful involvement of the public in determining how safe is safe enough and which costs are worth bearing.

Further reading on Chernobyl and its lingering impact:
  • Arndt, Melanie. 2012. “Memories, commemorations, and representations of Chernobyl. Special issue.” The Anthropology of East Europe Review 30 (1). Available from here.
  • Arndt, Melanie, ed. 2016. Politik und Gesellschaft nach Tschernobyl. (Ost-)Europäische Perspektiven. Berlin: Chr. Links.
  • Josephson, Paul. 2003. “Technological Utopianism in the Twenty-First Century: Russia’s Nuclear Future.” History and Technology 19 (3): 279-294.
  • Kalmbach, Karena. 2013. “Radiation and Borders: Chernobyl as a National and Transnational Site of Memory.” Global Environment 6 (1):130-159. Available from here.
  • TKasperski, Tatiana. 2015. “Nuclear Dreams and Realities in Contemporary Russia and Ukraine.” History and Technology, 31(1), 2015: 55-80.
  • Medvedev, Zhores. 1990. The Legacy of Chernobyl. New York: Norton.