“This is a collection of papers translated from the Russian with some revised and updated contributions. Written by leading authorities from Eastern Europe, the volume outlines the history of the health and environmental consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. According to the authors, official discussions from the International Atomic Energy Agency and associated United Nations’ agencies (e.g. the Chernobyl Forum reports) have largely downplayed or ignored many of the findings reported in the Eastern European scientific literature and consequently have erred by not including these assessments.
NEW YORK—“Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” Volume 1181 of Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, published online in November 2009, was authored by Alexey V. Yablokov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Alexey V. Nesterenko, of the Institute of Radiation Safety (Belarus), and the late Prof. Vassily B. Nesterenko, former director of the Belarussian Nuclear Center. With a foreword by the Chairman of the Ukranian National Commission on Radiation Protection, Dimitro M. Grodzinsky, the 327-page volume is an English translation of a 2007 publication by the same authors. The earlier volume, “Chernobyl,” published in Russian, presented an analysis of the scientific literature, including more than 1,000 titles and more than 5,000 printed and Internet publications mainly in Slavic languages, on the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.
The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences issue “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment”, therefore, does not present new, unpublished work, nor is it a work commissioned by the New York Academy of Sciences. The expressed views of the authors, or by advocacy groups or individuals with specific opinions about the Annals Chernobyl volume, are their own. Although the New York Academy of Sciences believes it has a responsibility to provide open forums for discussion of scientific questions, the Academy has no intent to influence legislation by providing such forums. The Academy is committed to publishing content deemed scientifically valid by the general scientific community, from whom the Academy carefully monitors feedback.
REVIEW BY KARL GROSSMAN
published in September 2010
This past April 26th  marked the 24th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident. It came as the nuclear industry and pro-nuclear government officials in the United States and other nations were trying to “revive” nuclear power. And it followed the publication of a book, the most comprehensive study ever made, on the impacts of the Chernobyl disaster.
Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment was published by the New York Academy of Sciences.
It is authored by three noted scientists:
Russian biologist Dr. Alexey Yablokov, former environmental advisor to the Russian president;
Dr. Alexey Nesterenko, a biologist and ecologist in Belarus; and
Dr.Vassili Nesterenko, a physicist and at the time of the accident director of the Institute of Nuclear Energy of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.
Its editor is Dr. Janette Sherman, a physician and toxicologist long involved in studying the health impacts of radioactivity.
The book is solidly based — on health data, radiological surveys and scientific reports — some 5,000 in all.
It concludes that based on records now available, some 985,000 people died, mainly of cancer, as a result of the Chernobyl accident. That is between when the accident occurred in 1986 and 2004. More deaths, it projects, will follow.
The book explodes the claim of the International Atomic Energy Agency– still on its website that the expected death toll from the Chernobyl accident will be 4,000. The IAEA, the new book shows, is under-estimating, to the extreme, the casualties of Chernobyl.
Alice Slater, representative in New York of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, comments: “The tragic news uncovered by the comprehensive new research that almost one million people died in the toxic aftermath of Chernobyl should be a wake-up call to people all over the world to petition their governments to put a halt to the current industry-driven “nuclear renaissance.’ Aided by a corrupt IAEA, the world has been subjected to a massive cover-up and deception about the true damages caused by Chernobyl.”
Further worsening the situation, she said, has been “the collusive agreement between the IAEA and the World Health Organization in which the WHO is precluded from publishing any research on radiation effects without consultation with the IAEA.” WHO, the public health arm of the UN, has supported the IAEA’s claim that 4,000 will die as a result of the accident.
“How fortunate,” said Ms. Slater, “that independent scientists have now revealed the horrific costs of the Chernobyl accident.”
The book also scores the position of the IAEA, set up through the UN in 1957 “to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy,” and its 1959 agreement with WHO. There is a “need to change,” it says, the IAEA-WHO pact. It has muzzled the WHO, providing for the “hiding” from the “public of any information “unwanted” by the nuclear industry.
“An important lesson from the Chernobyl experience is that experts and organizations tied to the nuclear industry have dismissed and ignored the consequences of the catastrophe,” it states.
The book details the spread of radioactive poisons following the explosion of Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant on April 26, 1986. These major releases only ended when the fire at the reactor was brought under control in mid-May. Emitted were “hundreds of millions of curies, a quantity hundreds of times larger than the fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” The most extensive fall-out occurred in regions closest to the plant–in the Ukraine (the reactor was 60 miles from Kiev in Ukraine), Belarus and Russia.
However, there was fallout all over the world as the winds kept changing direction “so the radioactive emissions” covered an enormous territory.”
The radioactive poisons sent billowing from the plant into the air included Cesium-137, Plutonium, Iodine-131 and Strontium-90.
There is a breakdown by country, highlighted by maps, of where the radionuclides fell out. Beyond Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, the countries included Bulgaria, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The radiological measurements show that some 10% of Chernobyl poisons “fell on Asia”Huge areas” of eastern Turkey and central China “were highly contaminated,” reports the book. Northwestern Japan was impacted, too.
Northern Africa was hit with “more than 5% of all Chernobyl releases.”
The finding of Cesium-137 and both Plutonium-239 and Plutonium-240 “in accumulated Nile River sediment is evidence of significant Chernobyl contamination,” it states.
“Areas of North America were contaminated from the first, most powerful explosion, which lifted a cloud of radionuclides to a height of more than 10 km. Some 1% of all Chernobyl nuclides,” says the book, “fell on North America.”
The consequences on public health are extensively analyzed. Medical records involving children–the young, their cells more rapidly multiplying, are especially affected by radioactivity–are considered. Before the accident, more than 80% of the children in the territories of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia extensively contaminated by Chernobyl “were healthy,” the book reports, based on health data. But “today fewer than 20% are well.”
There is an examination of genetic impacts with records reflecting an increase in “chromosomal aberrations” wherever there was fallout.
This will continue through the “children of irradiated parents for as many as seven generations.” So “the genetic consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe will impact hundreds of millions of people.”
As to deaths, the list of countries and consequences begins with Belarus. “For the period 1900-2000 cancer mortality in Belarus increased 40%,” it states, again based on medical data and illuminated by tables in the book. “The increase was a maximum in the most highly contaminated Gomel Province and lower in the less contaminated Brest and Mogilev provinces.” They include childhood cancers, thyroid cancer, leukemia and other cancers.
Considering health data of people in all nations impacted by the fallout, the “overall mortality for the period from April 1986 to the end of 2004 from the Chernobyl catastrophe was estimated as 985,000 additional deaths.”
Further, “the concentrations” of some of the poisons, because they have radioactive half-lives ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 years, “will remain practically the same virtually forever.”
The book also examines the impact on plants and animals. “Immediately after the catastrophe, the frequency of plant mutations in the contaminated territories increased sharply.”
There are photographs of some of these plant mutations. “Chernobyl irradiation has caused many structural anomalies and tumorlike changes in many plant species and has led to genetic disorders, sometimes continuing for many years,” it says. “Twenty-three years after the catastrophe it is still too early to know if the whole spectrum of plant radiogenic changes has been discerned. We are far from knowing all of the consequences for flora resulting from the catastrophe.”
As to animals, the book notes “serious increases in morbidity and mortality that bear striking resemblance to changes in the public health of humans–increasing tumor rates, immunodeficiencies, and decreasing life expectancy.”
In one study it is found that “survival rates of barn swallows in the most contaminated sites near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant are close to zero. In areas of moderate contamination, annual survival is less than 25%.” Research is cited into ghastly abnormalities in barn swallows that do hatch: “two heads, two tails.”
“In 1986,” the book states, “the level of irradiation in plants and animals in Western Europe, North America, the Arctic, and eastern Asia were sometimes hundreds and even thousands of times above acceptable norms.”
In its final chapter, the book declares that the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear plant “was the worst technogenic accident in history.” And it examines “obstacles” to the reporting of the true consequences of Chernobyl with a special focus on “organizations associated with the nuclear industry” that “protect the industry first–not the public.” Here, the IAEA and WHO are charged.
The book ends by quoting U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s call in 1963 for an end of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.”The Chernobyl catastrophe,” it declares, “demonstrates that the nuclear industry’s willingness to risk the health of humanity and our environment with nuclear power plants will result, not only theoretically, but practically, in the same level of hazard as nuclear weapons.”
Dr. Sherman, speaking of the IAEA’s and WHO’s dealing with the impacts of Chernobyl, commented: “It’s like Dracula guarding the blood bank.” The 1959 agreement under which WHO “is not to be independent of the IAEA” but must clear any information it obtains on issues involving radioactivity with the IAEA has put “the two in bed together.”
Of her reflections on 14 months editing the book, she said: “Every single system that was studied — whether human or wolves or livestock or fish or trees or mushrooms or bacteria — all were changed, some of them irreversibly. The scope of the damage is stunning.”
In his foreword, Dr. Dimitro Grodzinsky, chairman of the Ukranian National Commission on Radiation Protection, writes about how ‘apologists of nuclear power’ sought to hide the real impacts of the Chernobyl disaster from the time when the accident occurred. The book ‘provides the largest and most complete collection of data concerning the negative consequences of Chernobyl on the health of people and the environment…The main conclusion of the book’ is that it is impossible and wrong ‘to forget Chernobyl.’
In the record of Big Lies, the claim of the IAEA-WHO that ‘only’ 4,000 people will die as a result of the Chernobyl catastrophe is among the biggest. The Chernobyl accident is, as the new book documents, an ongoing global catastrophe.
And it is a clear call for no new nuclear power plants to be built and for the closing of the dangerous atomic machines now running — and a switch to safe energy technologies, now available, led by solar and wind energy, that will not leave nearly a million people dead from one disaster.” Chernobyl: the Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, Overview and Review
“‘… [O]n April 26, 1986, the biggest ever man-made disaster … occurred at a nuclear power plant near the small Ukrainian town of Chernobyl. According to globally acknowledged estimates, Belarus has absorbed most of the radioactive fallout generated by the Chernobyl explosion. As a result of this disaster:
- 23% of Belarus has been contaminated with long-lived radioactive isotopes (4.8% of [the] Ukraine, and 0.5 % of Russia);
- 2.3 million people have been affected [in Belarus];
- 135,000 people have been moved to clean areas of Belarus. A total of 415 settlements have been evacuated; […]
- Schools … [and] hospitals and other medical facilities in contaminated areas have been closed. The affected areas have suffered as a result of a huge outflow of skilled personnel.
- Scientists estimate the total damage by the Chernobyl accident at 235 billion US dollars, which amounts to 32 annual budgets for 1986, the year when the accident occurred.'(Belarusian State Committee on the Problems of the Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe and United Nations Development Programme Office in Belarus. 2005 Chernobyl Calendar)
This dissertation explores the production of invisibility of the Chernobyl consequences: it describes how Chernobyl radiological and health consequences in Belarus disappear as an object of knowledge. The statistics quoted above—from a calendar produced by the Belarusian government and UNDP to commemorate the accident—describes the economic consequences of Chernobyl in Belarus, but says nothing about the scope of health effects. The numbers of affected or resettled people describe the administrative practices of handling the accident more than they describe radiological consequences.
These omissions are indicative of broader knowledge production processes analyzed in this dissertation.
Invisibility and Uncertainty from Different Perspectives
In 2003, I discovered online reports and press releases by the United Nations Scientific Committee on Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR 2000) claiming that, in essence, Chernobyl was a myth.2 In their objective scientific voices, the reports argued that there was no evidence that Chernobyl radiation had significant effects on health in the affected populations. Only one disease was linked to radiation exposure—thyroid cancer in children; the rise in other health problems was blamed on radiophobia (fear of radiation), stress following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and degradation of people’s living standards. I had taken it as unquestionable that Chernobyl was a major accident with devastating consequences, and that Belarus, the country where I grew up, was most affected by it. The UNSCEAR reports confronted me with the fact that what I considered obvious from my perspective was interpreted as non-existent from a different—expert and more powerful—position; their judgment was fortified with claims to objectivity.
I called my family and friends in Belarus and asked them if it was true that Chernobyl had no effects. My family and friends had relatively limited exposure to the Chernobyl consequences, but they were closer to it than I was, living in the United States.
They assured me that, “Everybody knows there are [sixteen, thirty, or even a hundred] thousand victims.” According to them, the accident also resulted in a great rise of health problems in Belarus, consequences which could be verified in numbers. The numbers were “out there,” and I was told to “look them up.” My other piece of evidence was Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl(1999), a collection of oral histories about the experience of the accident, and life after it. However, the book was based on anecdotal data and did not help with the problem of numbers or the legitimacy of the evidence.
The discrepancy between the accounts was troubling: tens of thousands dead versus thirty-one victims acknowledged by UN organizations (UNSCEAR 1988, 1996, 2000, 2002; IAEA 2006; WHO 2006; UN Chernobyl Forum 2005). Also troubling was the absence of any conclusive and definitive accounts seventeen to twenty years after the accident. Some basic searches online and browsing through databases of scientific publications showed more press releases and reports from conferences sponsored by international organizations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but also articles by Belarusian and international scientists with claims about various specific health effects of the Chernobyl radiation. My attempt to ‘dive into’ the data and compare the evidence was not satisfactory (though it was quite rewarding to learn the relevant science basics); the data and findings were fragmentary, and much seemed to be missing. Trying to make sense of the contradictions, I found myself conducting social ties analysis: noting institutional affiliations of the authors, their references and the kinds of arguments they were making. Connections between UNSCEAR and the international nuclear industry became apparent rather quickly; it was not surprising that nuclear industry experts would be motivated to downplay the perceived consequences of a nuclear accident and maintain or increase the acceptable thresholds for radiation exposures. However, I still did not have an answer to my original question about the ‘actual’ scope and nature of the health effects.
The more I learned, the more I realized that there were too many variables to keep track of, too many approaches, and too many contradictory arguments put forward by different sources. All of these contradictions and complexities merged for me into something I defined as ‘epistemic uncertainty,’ an aggregated description of the state of knowledge “out there” with its lack of coherent and uncontested understanding of the Chernobyl effects, which could be determined by the properties of the phenomenon itself (radiation and its effects). At the time, I did not realize that not everybody was uncertain. I became ‘uncertain’ as I was trying to learn more—in the context of controversial science and while remaining in my particular social and institutional position. The people I spoke to in Belarus remained perfectly certain, though admittedly not very knowledgeable with respect to the details of scientific research on Chernobyl. It was difficult to tell what most of the scientists were certain about.
At the time, however, I thought of uncertainty as a property of the situation: the phenomenon itself was difficult to construct definite knowledge about. Chernobyl radiation was not available to unaided human perception; it was ‘invisible.’ There were also no immediate bodily reactions in people and, unless the doses were very high, health effects could be delayed in time and they were not radiation-specific. My logic was simple: people were not marked by radiation in the same way as when they, for example, fall off a bicycle and get bruises. The effects of radiation—the causal connections between exposures and resulting health problems—are not immediately observable. To appreciate the relationship between human senses and production of knowledge, the reader could imagine a source of significant radioactivity in their immediate environment or inside their own body. Impressions provoked by this thought experiment are just that – impressions with no immediate and direct experience of the reality that would verify them one way or another; and they would remain ‘just impressions’ even if there were an actual source of radiation. This lack of immediate experiential confirmation of either radiation or its effects is a problem, but it is important to understand why it is a problem—and how it is linked to the current state of knowledge about radiation effects. What types of knowledge production practices (and whose knowledge production practices) become more difficult when radiation is not visible to a naked eye or is not leaving immediate marks on the bodies of affected people? How are radiation effects made observable and ‘knowable’ by different groups in the society, including experts and laypeople living in the affected territories?
The ultimate questions of this dissertation are: How has interaction between different perspectives—different groups of laypeople, experts, government leaders, and representatives of international organizations—been shaping the problem that is called “Chernobyl”? How do we know that the knowledge we are producing about environmental hazards is ‘adequate,’ and what social mechanisms guarantee that? Will we know the scope of the Chernobyl consequences with more certainty, and if so, what kind of knowledge is it going to be? There is often a belief that “time will tell,” “the truth will come out,” and we will eventually know; I heard this sentiment repeatedly from Belarusian scientists, whose theories and data were being ignored or discredited. Will time tell? Or can radiation danger and radiation-induced effects following a major nuclear accident ultimately be obscured and ignored? As will be discussed below, research in social studies of science demonstrates that there is no strict correspondence between the seriousness of the problem (danger) and the amount of attention it receives publicly, and that an effort can be put into notconstructing risks (Paine 2002). From estimating the number of already dead to calculating the present and future risks, what knowledge practices or social organizations ensure that we eventually learn ‘the full story’?
The Production of Invisibility
Analysis in this dissertation relies on the following insight: imperceptibility of Chernobyl radiation with human senses means that individuals’ experience of it is always mediated—with technoscientific equipment, maps and other ways to visualize it, but also with narratives. This dissertation describes the production of invisibility of the Chernobyl effects, defined as the practices that limit public visibility of Chernobyl radiation and its health effects by manipulating the ways they are represented or mediated. Limiting public visibility of Chernobyl radiation prevents the construction of links between radiation and its health effects, which can in turn be described as production of non-knowledge. As a result, ‘radiation health effects’ or ‘Chernobyl consequences’ dissolve into individual health problems of unspecific origins.
Production of public invisibility of imperceptible hazards could be thought of as a process opposite to social discovery of similarly imperceptible agents—as, for example, social discovery of microbes described by Bruno Latour (1988), where microbes were transformed into socially visible and recognized agents.
The production of invisibility is an interactive, relative process. It is the result of interactions between social perspectives; the hazard is made more or less visible with respect to other perspectives and in the context of their interaction. In/visibility of radiation and its health effects changes with manipulations of the following: publicly perceived temporal and spatial scope of the consequences (where and when are ‘Chernobyl consequences’?); how the problem is identified and framed (what is the character of Chernobyl consequences?); and how the problem is made observable in various practices, including lay and expert practices. Answers to these questions— where, when, and what are Chernobyl consequences and how to make them observable?—often involve complex social negotiations, power struggles, and technoscientific work.
My analysis builds on the rich foundation of other studies describing how the social presence of particular phenomena, their significance, and our knowledge about them can be erased or, intentionally or inadvertently, not established. Risk theorists Ulrich Beck (1992, 1995) and Piet Strydom (2002) maintain that production of non- knowledge about modern, often imperceptible risks is as important as production of knowledge about them (see below). Robert Proctor (1995) writes about ‘social construction of ignorance’ about the causes of cancer. In a classic study, Matthew Cresnon (1979) describes the ‘un-politics of air pollution.’ Michelle Murphy (2006) provides an insightful description of technoscientific ‘regimes of imperceptibility’ of low- level chemical hazards. In all of these cases, knowledge is not produced, and significance and public visibility of particular imperceptible hazards are either not established or partially erased. Making socially invisible is not just a matter of imperceptible hazards;
for example, Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker (1999) describe how phenomena can be made invisible from perspectives embedded in particular technical infrastructures. In communication studies, Todd Gitlin (1980) describes the ‘making and unmaking of the new left’ in the media (using the concept of ‘framing’).
I use these and other studies to create a theoretical foundation for the analysis of complex, multi-layered processes involved in the production of invisibility (more detailed descriptions of these studies will be provided in subsequent chapters). Chernobyl, the largest civil nuclear accident to date, provides an important case for this analysis. Increased levels of radiation are relatively easy to detect with proper equipment (unlike many other imperceptible risks) and ionizing radiation is also one of the most studied hazards. Provided this general ease of detection and extent of research efforts, “unknowledge” about radiation health effects, to borrow the expression of the physicist and nuclear critic John Gofman (1990, 2), provides an opportunity to examine conditions and practices that might be reproduced in cases of other less-studied hazards and less dramatic accidents. The analysis in this dissertation will demonstrate a number of layers in the production of invisibility; some of these layers might be unique to the post-Soviet circumstances, but many are likely to be reproduced in other contexts of imperceptible hazards.
The rest of this section provides a brief description of the dialogical approach that this dissertation adopts for the analysis of the production of invisibility. The following section will consider the relationship between imperceptibility of hazards and lack of certain knowledge about them.
This dissertation provides multiple examples illustrating how hazards are made more or less visible as a result of interactions between social perspectives. My understanding of ‘perspectives’ is dialogical3: there are no perspectives on a particular issue outside of public dialogues. At the same time, perspectives are grounded in particular social positions, and, in that sense, they could be described as situated viewpoints.4 The theoretical significance of the dialogical approach is that it points not only to the always situated and embodied character of interpretations, but also to theco- shaping of different perspectives: perspectives are developed in the course of their interaction and they reflect the history of this interaction. 5
Perspectives depend on particular local contexts and public dialogues, which are also essentially always ‘local’: with unique participants, unique ranges of topics and interpretations, and unique histories of interaction. 6 Dialogues are constantly evolving, and new perspectives on ‘Chernobyl’ continue to appear even two decades after the
accident. Some older themes can be overshadowed or (temporarily) disappear, while other perspectives can re-emerge again. At the same time, at least in the case of broader public dialogues, even the most radical transformations cannot be assumed to imply that the whole discourse changes and transforms into a new discourse; new interpretations do not fully replace, but supplement already existing ones.7
This section outlines in greater detail several theoretical questions regarding invisibility and uncertainty in the context of modern technogenic risks. The first issue addressed below is the connection between imperceptibility of modern hazards and lack of definite knowledge about them: why is knowledge about modern hazards often described as uncertain? The question will be explored on the basis of Ulrich Beck’s approach to risk studies; my argument will be that uncertainty in the Chernobyl case cannot be viewed as unambiguously accidental or as inherent in the nature of the phenomenon. The second issue is whether imperceptibility of many modern hazards privileges expert knowledges about them and transforms the relationship between expert and lay knowledges, as also suggested by Ulrich Beck. The paradoxical conclusion of the discussion below, however, is that risks do not have to be imperceptible to be ‘socially invisible.’ I will argue, with Piet Strydom, that the framework of this discussion has to be expanded beyond lay-expert interactions, and that, within the broader framework, one has
to consider how power relations between different social groups shape when we know and do not know.
Temporality of Risks and ‘Naturalizing’ Uncertainty
Estimation of the effects of Chernobyl radiation is a matter of assessing the effects of chronic, so-called low-dose exposure (bracketing the question of whether there were more cases of Acute Radiation Sickness shortly after the accident than were reported by the Soviet government).8 Chernobyl radiation is different from exposures in Hiroshima and Nagasaki: people have been exposed to it on a daily basis, and the exposures are not only external—radionuclides are also consumed with food products.9 Overall, Chernobyl radiation is a particular example of modern, technogenic hazards that are not perceptible with unaided senses and that result in delayed health effects (the level of exposure is generally ‘lower’ than what would produce immediately observable health consequences).
This problem of invisible, ‘low-level’ exposures to dangerous substances is at the core of social studies of risk; one of the most influential risk theorists, Ulrick Beck, uses nuclear risks as his paradigmatic example of contemporary risks (1992, 1995). The fact that modern risks escape our unaided senses is the starting point for his analysis. He notes that knowledge about these risks is based on causal interpretations, which are
“particularly open to social definition and construction” (Beck 1992, 22-23, emphasis in the original). Establishing these causal connections between exposure to particular substances and specific health issues or illnesses is often problematic. 10 Examples of this have been described in a number of studies in environmental sociology and occupational health,11 where the cases range from health effects of asbestos exposure to multiple chemical sensitivity (Kroll-Smith and Floyd 1997; Kroll-Smith et al. 2000). At the same time, similar questions related to the difficulty of establishing causal connections appear in the studies of disasters and accidents (e.g. Hoffman and Oliver- Smith 2002; Clarke 1989; Nelkin 1982, 1984, 1992). Part of the challenge in all of these cases is that conditions of research on health effects are not the same as controlled laboratory settings; rather the researchers are faced with the complexity and multiplicity of factors at play ‘in the wild.’
Despite the fact that social studies of risk offer a well-developed and insightful approach for studies of these invisible environmental hazards, the concept of ‘risk’ can also be problematic; in some cases, it might obscure the sources of uncertainty of knowledge about the hazards. Specifically, I am referring to the cases where ‘risk’ denotes not a possibility of adverse events in the future, but dangers associated with already existing chemical and radiation exposures, where people have already been subjected to the hazard and there is already a group that might be identified as victims
(Winner 1986; Luhmann 1993).12 In these cases, ‘risks’ are uncertain, but this is not uncertainty is not a completely unavoidable part of the overall condition, as in cases of potentialdangers (e.g., in cases where new technologies are introduced before it is established that they are safe) where potentiality of negative effects equals uncertainty.13 For example, in cases of nuclear technologies, a potential event of a nuclear accident can be described as a risk; predicting this risk is a matter of planning for the future.
The consequences of the Chernobyl accident, however, constitute a different type of ‘risk.’ Increased radiation in people’s environment and food supply means that something has been happening to their bodies. 14 ‘Risks’ here refer to a chance of developing negative health effects caused by radiation exposure or, more precisely, whether or not the effects caused by radiation will be identified and (considered) significantly negative. Uncertainty of ‘risk’ (developing negative health effects) cannot be limited to the potentiality of these health effects; it can also be the result of failing to register already existing effects (Beck 1992). Thus uncertainty is not an unavoidable or ‘natural’ condition, as in cases when negative events (e.g., exposures) have not yet happened. The distinction I am making is, of course, an ideal distinction; the argument, however, is that emphasis on the future associated with the concept of ‘risks’ (Adam 1998) is not entirely applicable here; indeed, it might be ‘naturalizing’ uncertainty associated with health effects of particular hazards.
In social analysis, the term ‘risk’ also masks complex temporal perceptions of danger by various groups and individuals. From technical risk assessment,15 the term migrated into the studies of psychological perception of risk (e.g. Slovic et al. 1976; Slovic 1985, 1987), which claim that the public is calculating and ‘rank-ordering’ both potential and real risks, the ‘objective value’ of which is amplified or attenuated by various social factors (such as the public’s trust in experts). 16 Via the critique of these studies as blind to cultural and contextual factors underlying perception of different risks (Douglas and Wildavsky1982; Douglas 1986, 1994), the concept has been appropriated in the broader social studies of risk. Within these studies, temporality of risks is not a factor of individual assessments of danger: Have the exposures happened already? How long ago did they happen? Are they happening routinely? Could there be effects already? When can effects be expected? Chapter 6 will argue that different interpretations of the temporality of danger change individual and public perceptions of it. Furthermore, varying expert and administrative definitions of the temporal scope of danger—as well as the spatial scope of hazard and its effects (where is danger?)—point to what Ulrich Beck (1992) describes as the ‘revealing’ and ‘concealing’ of imperceptible risks. Changing and often conflicting definitions of the temporal and spatial scope of the Chernobyl problem—an indicator of its changing social visibility—are one of the major themes throughout this dissertation.
Most importantly, uncertainty in public knowledge about effects of exposures to particular imperceptible hazards cannot be assumed as unavoidable (as would be the case if the event of exposures was potential and in the future); the temporality of both exposures and effects can be defined differently; and changing definitions of temporality and spatiality of the hazard and its effects mark the changing social visibility of the hazard.
Expert and Lay Knowledges about Imperceptible Risks: The Question of Power
This subsection returns to imperceptibility of radiation and considers its implications for the construction of knowledge from lay and expert positions. Beck emphasizes the role of experts in the production of knowledge about risks, even though risks implicate other groups in society (Beck 1992, 1995). The difficulty here is that, “Modern hazards require the ‘sensory organs’ of science—theories, experiments, measuring instruments—in order to become visible or interpretable as hazards at all” (Beck 1992, 27). In one way or another, identifying risks depends on using scientific tools such as dosimeters, maps, specialized scientific knowledge, scientific reasoning, etc. According to Beck, laypeople, even when directly exposed to risks, are ‘culturally blind’ to them; their senses are ‘arrested’ (i.e., cannot detect exposure to the hazard); and, as a result, laypeople depend on scientific or administrative knowledge. To enter debates about identification and definition of risks (‘definitional struggles’) requires ‘scientized consciousness’ (Beck 1992, 27). Furthermore, “so long as risks are not recognized scientifically, they do not exist – at least not legally, medically, technologically, or
socially, and they are thus not prevented, treated or compensated for” (Beck 1992, 71). Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk (Beck 1995) concludes with the question: “What if radioactivity gave one an itch?” Beck’s answer is:
Nuclear policy, as well as dealing with large-scale modern hazards, would be confronted with a completely changed situation: the subject under dispute, the subject at hand, would fall within the orbit of cultural experience. The consequences of progress would not only injure people, but this injury would also be an unpleasant experience engraved on their minds (1995, 184, emphasis added).
Beck seems to indicate that some cultural mechanisms of knowledge production have become impossible: they do not extend to imperceptible risks. Knowledge politics and issues of sociology of knowledge have become particularly salient; what is at stake here is no less than the question of how democratic the resultant practices are:
This is what will decide the future of democracy: are we dependent on the experts for every detail in issues concerning survival, or does the culturally manufactured perceptibility of hazards restore to us the competence to judge for ourselves? Are the only alternatives now an authoritarian or a critical technocracy? Or is there a way of counter-acting the disempowerment and expropriation of everyday life in hazard civilization? (1995, 184)
The same problem is at the core of Alan Irwin’s discussion of expert and lay expertise in Citizen Science (1995), though, for Irvin, the question is largely an issue of social action and policy-making rather than knowledge per se. At the same time, a number of researchers (writing about modern technogenic risks, not just exposures to imperceptible hazards) either do not share Beck’s diagnosis of the relationship between lay and expert knowledges, or complicate it. Authors highlight that laypeople rely on their own ‘hermeneutical’ approaches (Lash 2000), or ‘popular epistemology’ based on individual and community experiences (Brown 2000); other authors stress complex ‘populist’