By Christine Fassert and Tatiana Kasperski
On the UNESCO list
The Chernobyl site would symbolize the long history of accidents that have marked the atomic age, from Kychtym and Windscale (1957), to Three Mile Island (1979) and Fukushima (2011), whose tenth anniversary we commemorated this year.
Moreover, the Chernobyl accident constitutes a particular moment in this history, namely the beginning of the institutionalization of the international management of the consequences of nuclear accidents, whose impact became fully apparent at the time of the Fukushima accident.
A small group of organizations
If the origins of accidents are most often explained by factors related to the development of the nuclear industry and its regulatory bodies at the national level, the “management” of their consequences gradually extends beyond national borders.
In this respect, Chernobyl established the monopolization of the authoritative knowledge of ionizing radiation by a small group of organizations — the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR).
Through a series of alliances and co-options, these organizations formed a monolithic bloc on the issue of radiological risk.
Relegated to a militant marginality
From that moment on, divergent points of view were de-legitimized and relegated to a form of militant marginality. These included the positions of such individuals as “dissident” scientist Keith Baverstock who directed the radiation protection program at the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe, and those of such organizations as the International Association of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).
This monopoly translates into an internationalization of accident management that relies on a series of tools designed to establish a “normalization” of the post accident situation through the depoliticization of the management of risks related to radioactive fallout. They enshrine the power of experts close to international nuclear organizations to determine what sacrifices in terms of health and the environment are acceptable.
As physicists Bella and Roger Belbéoch point out:
“Far from calling into question the power they have secured for themselves in society, the nuclear disaster allows them to constitute themselves into a unified international body with even greater powers. It is at the moment when the scientific experts can no longer promise anything other than disaster management that their power inevitably takes hold.”
However, a shift occurred in this monopoly when a UN rapporteur, Anand Grover, severely criticized Tokyo’s management of the disaster.
At the same time, new conceptual tools proposed by the social sciences, such as the “production of ignorance”, offer a framework for analysis that makes it possible to extend the criticisms beyond the domain of a purely expert debate, opening the way to a re-politicization of the accident and its consequences.
Making nuclear accidents manageable
But, first of all, how can you make a nuclear accident manageable when, as was the case at Chernobyl and Fukushima, it causes very large releases of radioactive particles, spreading around the globe and causing long-term contamination of tens of thousands of square kilometers?
Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated or relocated from these territories, and hundreds of thousands of others continue to live in an environment affected by radioactivity.
Zoning, that is, the division of these territories into several “zones” according to the density of contamination and the necessary protective measures, was the first instrument that made it possible, in Japan and in the former Soviet Union, to make the accident manageable.