Chernobyl, Then and Now

Brueghel, The Tower of Babel

[This is an essay on my experience of the Chernobyl disaster which I wrote six years ago on the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl. We just had the 26th anniversary last April 26th. The anniversaries will go on far into the contaminated future. Such is nuclear power. Such are the reasons it must be eliminated.]

Chernobyl, Then and Now

At the beginning of the year 1986 Halley’s Comet appeared in the skies. Returning on a 76 year cycle, its last appearance had been in 1910, shortly after the birth of my father. Since this comet has been recorded since about 260 BCE, perhaps the apocalyptic vision in St John’s Revelations resonates with a certain historical experience:

And there fell a great star from heaven […]
And the name of the star is called Wormwood
And the third part of the waters became wormwood;
And many men died of the waters
Because they were made bitter.
– Revelations 8.

The stranger resonance, however, is that the Ukrainian word for the common bitter herb ‘wormwood’ (Artemisia absinthium) seems to be ‘chernobyl’…

As befits such a traditional augury , 1986 seems to have been a pivotal year. Both in human history and for me personally. In that year, according to Australian zoologist Tim Flannery, the roughly five and half billion individuals of humanity as a whole seem to have for the first time ‘overshot’ planetary carrying capacity, i.e. used more energy and resources and emitted more wastes than the planet can ecologically sustain. In that year both a nuclear reactor in the Ukraine and the soi-disant ‘communist’ system it was embedded in imploded, marking the possible end both of the dream of nuclear fission as a cheap source of infinite energy and the definite beginning of the end of the dream of state ‘socialism’ that had begun with the Russian Revolution. The end of the latter dream in 1991, in turn, marked the end both of the epoch of the Cold War since 1947 and of the ‘short twentieth century’ that had begun with the European mass enthusiasm for inter-imperial war in the summer of 1914.

On 26th April 1986 it all exploded. At Chernobyl in the Ukraine a nuclear reactor underwent meltdown.

‘Chernobyl’ was a loss of control of atomic fission. Something also breaks inside the psyche and there is a quite positive ‘loss of control’. Perhaps like most human crisis, ‘Chernobyl’ is thus a Janus-faced experience. It is both an utter catastrophe, and, strangely, simultaneously, a ‘terrible beauty is born’ (to use Yeats’ famous words from his poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’). There is death, destruction, untold suffering in the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. In Germany people scurry for shelter and powdered milk for their kids. And, for those few who can bear to allow it into consciousness: there is also the blinding, literally awe-ful realization of Oneness, Inter-Being, One Human Family. Like its wartime twin the atomic bomb , this is not just a memento mori but also a Buddha, a potential world-unifier. Its message is also: One World or None.

There is the fission of an inner rage released against the Powerful and this anger is empowering. There is a fatal fusing of the most personal and the most public. Power is perhaps first experienced, in my case, as the way a helpless child experiences the first contractions with no way out, or an early abandonment, a parental impingement or abuse, the radical isolation of an hospitalization, a surgical attack on its body. This Power serves to sever the child’s psychological bond to its mother figure, to its own fears and feelings, to itself. The Power of atomic fission is also a severing of all bonds, of bio-chemical bonds, chromosomal bonds, of social bonds. All these multi- and over-layered severances display the sheer Power of the masters, the decision makers. Yet this Power they invent and wield, like all external power-over, is one they can also never fully control. Despite all their PR bluff and bravura, they are always the Sorcerer’s apprentices. This Power is now contaminating our children for ever.

And yet the other Power in the experience of catastrophe is the one deep inside: the one of losing all inhibitions, of release from the privations of the merely private, of standing up and fighting back. There is a bomb in the stomach, in the heart, a dragon power, bursting an egg of light, rising from the depths like a terrible fish, like a black wind.

At the time of the catastrophe, our son Sascha was three and half years old. Infants and small children are always at increased risk from chemical or radioactive contaminants. The surge of energy released in me by the Chernobyl catastrophe resulted in various forms of public activism: anti-nuclear street theatre with students, the financing and making of a billboard near Hofheim station with a Ron Cobb Cartoon with a surprised man holding a portable TV plug in a moonscape sub-titled with the situationist slogan ‘Consume. Be silent. Die.’ (Konsumieren. Maulhalten. Verrecken.) . Two weeks after the news, on May 15, the first ever anti-nuclear demonstration was held in my small town of Hofheim am Taunus where I had been teaching and living with my wife for ten years. The organizers had been looking for a ‘concerned mother’ (betroffene Mutter) to hold one of the speeches at the rally. I offered my services as a ‘concerned father’. It was my first speech at a public event.

The speech concluded as follows:

‘What shall WE answer when our children ask us in 20 or 30 years about what we did against the obvious destruction of the planet? Shall we say:

– you know, it was all very complicated
– you know, there’s always two sides to the story
– you know, you couldn’t really do anything anyway
– you know, I would have only ruined myself trying
– you know, I had to feed a family
– you know, I couldn’t really relate to those fighting it all either
– you know, people simply didn’t really want to change things…

We have been warned. We are informed. We all know that things cannot continue going on this way without further big or small catastrophes. We know that there probably can no longer be any cheap escapes or denials that do not worsen the situation.

We know that this is probably in fact about beginning the process of the total transformation of industrial society. Transformation towards a society on a human and natural scale. A society of human and natural diversity in which children can again grow up in health. We are at a crossroads.

We have been warned. What will we do?’

We do little. I throw myself into Circus Atomare, the eight scene anti-atomic street theatre my student drama group and I quickly improvise together. I stand in queues for EU powdered milk for little Sascha, uncontaminated milk that was stored BC (Before Chernobyl). It then turns out that the milk is unusable because it contains salmonella bacteria. I attend a laughably small first demonstration of about 2000 people in Frankfurt at the beginning of May. In contrast to other demonstrations, most of the demonstrators seem as if they really don’t want to be there. It is as if many are walking in some kind of trance, like a hare caught mesmerized in the sudden headlights of an approaching car. Fight or flight. Many seem to have inwardly fled. The speeches are the usual political grandstanding and sectarian one-upmanship and not one speech is in any way really from the heart, angry, grief-stricken or inspiring.

For Chrissake! The anti-nuclear movement had been warning of precisely such a potential catastrophe for years, and when it finally does happen, it seems as if most ‘movement’ people would rather go home and pull their heads in…There is no real capitalizing on having been right and the enormous radioactive egg-on-the-face of our pro-nuclear opponents. The Green Party, although having Joshka Fischer as Environment Minister in the state of Hessen (the world’s first) and a new party presence in federal parliament, provides no inspiring leadership or activist guidance at all. A mere three years after their entry into federal parliament, and they are – with a few minor exceptions who soon leave ‒ already nothing but ‘politicians’. There are a few grassroots direct actions, there are soon also widespread attempts to saw down high voltage transmission lines to and from reactors. However, there is no national or coordinating leadership.

In my view, this was, as usual, a great opportunity missed. The general mood in the public and the egg-on-the-face condition of the pro-nuclear elites are such that, in the first two weeks after the disaster, massive sit-ins, camp-ins and non-violent blockades of nuclear reactors organized on a national scale could have quite easily shut down all of Germany’s twenty or so reactors. These two weeks are a psychological and moral fulcrum situation: everything hangs in the balance regarding the future of nuclear power. And no one grabs the initiative, no one ‘seizes the time’. I feel deeply disappointed with ‘the movement’, ‘the people’, the Greens, with ‘Germany’ and its supposed ‘advanced environmental consciousness’. On my initiative, my wife and I decide to emigrate to Australia, in my case: re-emigrate.

The opportunity for a radical popular questioning and halting of nuclear power missed, it is then with an almost audible sigh of relief that, about four or five weeks later, the corporate media, the political decision-makers and very many overwhelmed people simply turn away from the Chernobyl issue with a certain gusto. To the football World Cup in Mexico. After all, how can the question of the possible effects on our children and future generations of the slow release of the radioactive equivalent of 100 Hiroshima bombs over Europe and the northern hemisphere compete with the question of whether or not Diego Maradonna would be the key to Argentina’s winning the final against England? In the quarter finals Maradonna (whose name already subliminally invokes the divinity of the Madonna) fists the ball into the net. This notorious ‘Hand of God’ goal (as it is dubbed in the media) is of infinitely more interest than the symbolic ‘Hand of God’ and ‘writing on the wall’ that Chernobyl can be interpreted as representing.

Life must go on, you can’t live in doom and gloom for ever, let’s get our priorities right. We can’t change the system, let’s change the channel.

In these weeks and months, I find it psychologically impossible to watch any ‘amusing-ourselves-to-death’ TV. Smiling girls dancing and inane ads stimulate feelings of nausea. On the dark background of Chernobyl, the shiny figure of the system stands out even more clearly than usual: this frantic perfect cool sexy glossy plastic surface of fun-capitalism just silently screams with sheer emptiness, manic boredom and unacknowledged despair.

In contrast, there is a strange process of ‘essentialising’, a sinking or settling down inside, as it were. Like after the death of a friend or family member. Rock gives way to classical music and I find myself being drawn to more silent things, to reading only soft silent works of mysticism, for example (like a new 17th century Spanish mystic I discover: Francisco de Orsuna, a contemporary of the more well known St John of the Cross). It provides some sort of balm, some soul-healing consolation. My own writing after Chernobyl, always in German, takes the form of an extended ‘grief work’. The emotions are raw, the intellect less abstract, more openly embodied in fear, anger, sadness, resolve. I write notes to myself, mini-lectures I never hold.

I nothing will change
unless we change.

II we shall not act
until we have understood
we understand nothing
until we act

III if you should suddenly
find yourself holding
a poisonous snake
you don’t first think about it
you don’t first consider
whether letting go has any chance of succeeding
whether it’s worth the effort
whether it really is poisonous
what you do instead
is to let go, at once

if you now don’t
from deep within
do everything you possibly can
to get rid of the snake, at once,
then you simply have not yet
completely and utterly
in every cell and fibre
in every whorl of your brain
UNDERSTOOD

(and that will then
simply have been it)
(12 June)

In the grey wintry days of Christmas 1986 – seven months after Chernobyl, two months after the chemical mega-contamination and ecological almost-collapse of the Rhine River ‒ I engage in more explicit grief work, confession work, anger work, hope work.

Grief Work

Grieving is still allowed, I presume.
Grieving over the passing of our world in its present forms.
Grieving over the passing of humanity in its present form.

Pure air, pure water, pure food: abolished.
(Purity that gives strength).
Diverse species formed in wondrous evolutionary processes: decimated.
(Their ‘un-made’ beauty that gives strength).
Wilderness, untouched rivers, oceans, forests: massacred.
(The awe that empties, that fills)

The core trust in the truth of one’s own senses
In the self-evident goodness of sensory pleasure: destroyed.
And with that also, in fact, human identity
In its most basic form as a sensuous-grasping interaction
With the world: “No, child, no playing in the sand today,
And avoid the puddles!”

For I may continue to bite into the visually appealing apple. But the shadow of toxic knowledge, of Becquerel knowledge, can never again leave me. Even a decision to embrace a sensuous hedonism of conscious denial is now made on the background of such knowledge and thus often comes across as strained and despairing (‘Bugger it, gimme the venison, you only live once…’ etc). I might personally reject the paranoia of constant appraisal and consideration (‘health’, ‘life expectancy’, ‘cancer’…), but this paranoia is now objectively within things themselves (and I know that). Just the responsibility that one carries for one’s children, for example, compels one to such behaviour.

The apple that I now buy, like the commodity it also is, has become a ‘natural-supernatural thing’. And this in a more lethal sense than Marx’ political economy intended. Anyone previously insisting on the ‘supernatural’ aspect was always considered an other-worldly idiot. Now one may find oneself taking one’s weekly food Becquerel report along when one goes shopping. For in a way one’s immediate senses (which cannot feel radioactivity or chemical toxins) now lie while the ‘abstract senses’ of gaining information through the written word , the media etc. now reflect the (global) ‘truth’. One can thus no longer fully trust one’s own senses, they have been estranged from us, from above. We can thus no longer completely and trustingly throw ourselves into the arms of the world (‘with pleasure do I bite into this lead apple…’) We have as a result ‘lost our senses’, we are ‘beside ourselves’, we are, literally, crazy. We are thrown back onto our ‘knowledge’ that is not based on any direct experience, we are thrown back onto our columns of numbers and hypotheses. We have been made abstract, ‘scientific’. We can still lie at the breast of Mother Nature, but at the same time we know what terrible toxins have been intravenously dripped into her breast milk. “Between desire and act/ falls the shadow” (T.S. Eliot, ‘The Hollow Men’).

And often enough all this happens so gradually (Chernobyl and the chemical contamination of the Rhine in November were only fast-forward effects of secular processes), so incrementally, that the patina of habit that dumbly accepts everything does not even allow us to see this as the crime it really is. If we can no longer pleasurably or completely and utterly affirm the world with our senses (i.e. touch, grasp, love it), then the formation of human identity has ended, at least in the present sense of the word ‘human’.

Grieving is still allowed, I presume.

However, even in 1986, the year of catastrophes, daily life goes on. As always. As always, it is the ‘little worries’ that occupy human consciousness. Evolution has simply not provided us with ‘global senses’ although we are now embedded in a ‘second nature’ made by humans. The problem now is simply that if we only notice the fact of our global interdependence when it ‘reaches’ us on an immediate, sensuous, level (as a tree or bomb on our head, as cancer in our bones, as an extensive collapse of ecosystems…), well then it is too late. According to post-Hiroshima philosopher Günther Anders, the problem is also that we can no longer personally imagine (vorstellen) what we socially and technologically produce (herstellen).

And yet everyone knows all this on some level of their being. Sometimes this knowledge comes as the (transient) shock of a manifest catastrophe (like Chernobyl etc. this year), more often it appears as the soft trickle of unease that runs through the fine hair-line cracks of daily busyness. The never really accepted unease regarding one’s knowledge about the unprecedented threat to all higher (?) life on this planet.

For it is generally accepted that humanity is suffering at all levels, and suffering ‘unnecessarily’, i.e. beyond the suffering given existentially with the human condition. This suffering is extremely unequally distributed. Everywhere parasitical minorities dominate over majorities and some (to which most of us belong) profit from the suffering of others. The materially wealthy nations profit from the conditions and dependencies in the materially poor nations which they have historically created. The industrial countries benefit in the short term from the exploitation of nature. The present generations (a small radical minority) in the materially wealthy industrial countries benefit from the temporal displacement of the negative effects of their global plunder onto future generations (the great majority that will curse us). Within the materially wealthy countries there is of course still an unequal distribution of suffering between richer and poorer strata and groups, even if this may be less or different to what it once was.

All levels of this threat to life would seem to be merging today to such an extent that the common notion of a ‘five- minutes-to-midnight’ situation would seem excessively optimistic or else working with a clock that is ten minutes slow. Sometimes one finds oneself ruminating about which of the global crises might first prompt the Great Collapse: –

Will a financial collapse brought about by the debt crisis lead the global economy into another Great Depression (and into another war as the systemic ‘solution’)? Or will one of the different possibilities of a global climate catastrophe (destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, desertification, shift of world climate zones…) create panic-filled mass migrations?

Will a larger region be contaminated for centuries by a total nuclear melt-down or will a computer error or crazy war strategies lead to an atomic holocaust and nuclear winter?

Will the totalitarian surveillance state come before or after the irreversible collapse of large ecosystems like forests or oceans?

Will new and/or drug-resistant viruses and epidemics rampage or will the chemical contamination of soils, air, water and food only gradually increase the cancer, allergy and death rates?

In short: will we go with a bang or just with a whimper (T.S. Eliot)?

(It is interesting to observe how such a list of catastrophes tires the mind. The adding up of possible horrors does not increase but rather decreases their psychological effect. They have become ‘super-liminal’ (Günther Anders). We are not under-, but rather over-informed. We are so over-informed that we can ‘no longer take it’. As a result, we would rather stay in the immediate realm of the senses that, however, now ‘lies’ by being filled with subliminal truth, the truth of death. Escape into the private cannot succeed and in fact itself produces what it wants to escape from, general catastrophe, even more quickly.)

Seven months later, my wife, four year old son and I emigrate to Australia. A year after that, in the winter of 88/89, we briefly return to Germany. I take photos. Even ten years later, looking at the photos, I discover the grieving has not ended.

And then it was twenty years later, 2006, and we seemed as far from understanding as in 1986. The Russian Academy of Sciences declared that 212,000 people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia had now died as a direct result of the Chernobyl meltdown. Mainly because of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl meltdowns, cost pressures and the global mass movements against nuclear power in the 1970s and 80s, there had been low demand for new nuclear reactors and uranium. Now global ‘peak oil’ and climate chaos loomed on the horizon and there were two new rapidly emerging industrial and nuclear state empires clearly opting for the extended nuclear path: China and India. The masters decided that it was time to rub their now slightly dusty old bottle again and resuscitate the atomic genie. The revived main line of PR-spin was the old ‘clean’ energy myth: as a non-fossil fuel, nuclear energy would ‘help reduce’ the chaos of climate change.

In the propagation of this potentially lucrative myth, the nuclear industry and its client state were now also helped by a willing (although small) contingent of ‘mainstream’ (read: bourgeois) environmentalists. These included men like James Lovelock (scientist and originator of the Gaia-hypothesis), Sir Jonathan Porrit (ex-FOE, now environmental confidante of war criminal Tony Blair and thus knighted), Tim Flannery (zoologist and author of best-selling The Future Eaters, and recipient of pro-nuclear Prime Minister Howard’s ‘Australian of the Year’ award in 2006), – all basically taking the predictable (classically ‘social-democratic’) and socio-ecologically illiterate line that, given the horrors of climate change, nuclear energy was now the ‘lesser of two evils’.

If ever there was confirmation for Murray Bookchin’s radical 1970s distinction between social ‘ecology’ and systemically conformist ‘environmentalism’, this was it. The latter’s tunnel vision is by definition both ecologically and socially illiterate. With respect to the thesis that nuclear energy is a ‘clean energy’ able to help reduce climate change, the ecological facts are straightforward. It is not and cannot be. The central cognitive blinder and rhetorical trick is to equate the term ‘nuclear energy’ with the individual nuclear power station, rather than with whole nuclear cycle in which the latter is necessarily embedded. And the nuclear cycle is, of course, extremely carbon-intensive. It would simply collapse without massive fossil fuel subsidies at every stage. Mining uranium, transporting fuels and materials, building, servicing and decommissioning reactors, reprocessing and enrichment plants and waste dumps – all need vast amounts of oil and coal and thus produce vast amounts of carbon dioxide. Some studies have found that even gas-fired power stations emit less CO2 than nuclear reactors using low grade uranium.

Investing in nuclear energy thus means we jump from the carbon frying pan into the nuclear fire and get the worst of both worlds: not only a more radioactively contaminated world, but also a warmer and climatically chaotic one. It also means less or no capital available for investment in renewable energy and infrastructural transition to a low carbon society. It also means locking in continued energy-intensive centralisation and monopolisation of electric and economic-political power and business-as-usual, at least for a short while longer. And that is why it is being pursued, not because of any purported willingness to really tackle the ecological and social issues of climate chaos and peak oil. May the glowing ruins of Chernobyl, the thousands of victims and the millions of radioactively contaminated surviving generations be our living memory that activates us to pillory and attack the perpetrators of these lethal lies. The ways of forgetting are legion, even when the memory is invoked for thrill and profit.

Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl
Runs on: PC

[…] Set in 2012, it blends science fiction with the shocking events of the past to present a Chernobyl populated by mutant creatures and bizarre phenomena. The player assumes the role of a Stalker, a soldier-like mercenary sent into a 30 square kilometre ‘exclusion zone’ to remove artefacts for the government. The player must explore the abandoned facilities and eerie landscape, searching for items while fighting mutant animals and rival Stalkers. […] The developers visited Chernobyl to reproduce as much of the area as possible and the scale and attention to detail is remarkable. It is an appropriately unnerving wasteland. Players are offered more freedom to complete their goals than most first-person shooters and realistic enemy behaviour is promised. […]
Rejecting the inevitable criticism that the game is insensitive, Kiev-based developers GSC say their proximity to Chernobyl ensures that the tragedy still evokes much emotion among the team. They say they hope the game encourages people to reflect on the consequences of the disaster.

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~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on May 18, 2012.

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