Kate Brown, a history professor at the University of Maryland, gave a talk at Luce Hall on Tuesday night focusing on the lasting health and ecological impacts of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
In 1986, a combination of design flaws and improper management at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located north of Kiev, Ukraine, caused a steam explosion and then a fire that released radioactive particles into the air. Brown argued that the nuclear disaster was not an arbitrary result of some sudden, capricious factors. Rather, she provided historical and scientific evidence to argue that Chernobyl was the result of many decades of work, during which the Soviet Union covered up nuclear spills, weapons testing and hazardous conditions.
“Describing Chernobyl as an accident makes it a broom which sweeps away the greater picture,” she said in the talk.
So what exactly is this greater picture? Brown speculated that nuclear weapons testing, nuclear experiments and plutonium developments shrouded by secrecy due to the ongoing nuclear arms race, along with government conspiracy, created a perfect storm of conditions for the disaster to occur and leave behind a lasting impact.
In particular, Brown highlighted the effect of the nuclear arms race with the U.S., which led to more than 1,000 reported nuclear leaks in the Soviet Union, more than 10 percent of which took place at Chernobyl. While the most significant of those leaks occurred in 1982 — when a reactor core partially melted — the extent of the accident was not publicly known until 1985.
Brown detailed the setbacks and obstacles she encountered during her research, saying she had to navigate falsified news reports and inconsistent records. Different accounts of the period frequently conflicted, forcing Brown to rely at times on her own empirical research performed in the forests and marshes around the Chernobyl disaster zone.
It was while studying the region’s forests that Brown began to observe blueberry harvesting. Almost all the blueberries — which are sold throughout the European Union and the whole world — contained traces of radioactive material, sometimes at levels unsafe for human consumption, Brown noted. This was the reason France banned the sale of vegetation from the Chernobyl region, she said.
Despite the concerns raised by the Chernobyl disaster, Brown emphasized, the health effects have not been sufficiently addressed. Over the past three decades, the rate of cancer and infant mortality have both risen. Despite these statistics, legislation has left many of these health concerns unaddressed.
The Yale Environmental Humanities Initiative invited Brown to speak because the organization was “interested in the way she is thinking about history and memory and the contested record of health and ecological effects of Chernobyl,” said Paul Sabin, who coordinates the environmental initiative.
“It is part of a larger conversation that we’re having about landscape and memory,” Sabin said.
After the talk, Brown spoke with the News about the state of nuclear power in the United States, saying that nuclear waste is both a domestic and an international problem. She cited as an example the case of Washington’s Hanford nuclear site, which has faced a multitude of problems since cleanup efforts began in 1987. The site was used throughout the Cold War, discharging approximately 53 million gallons of radioactive waste to 177 underground tanks.
Brown said that self-awareness is the best way to deal with health issues deriving from radiation.
“We have to be much more attuned to what people are saying about the health of our local communities and ecologies,” she said.
Over 400 people currently live inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone — an area that contains levels of radioactivity that make it unsafe to inhabit.
Nick Tabio | firstname.lastname@example.org