Editor: Christopher Sellers
Starting on April 26, 1986, an explosion rocked the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine and quickly cascaded into the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen. As the disaster itself was still in its early stages, the debates began over just what and how bad its effects would be. Those controversies have never stopped, even as Chernobyl’s more slowly unfolding impacts, such as thousands of thyroid cancers, have become ever more unmistakable. Roads not taken might have taught us more—there were no long-term follow up studies done akin to those on the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which might have offered greater conclusiveness. And the disaster has certainly stirred its share of imaginative and dubious mythologies. But Chernobyl has also bolstered new realizations, in matters of health and medicine and also in ecological, social, and political realms.
Kate Brown invited the authors in this roundtable to bring their different disciplines to bear on central questions of knowledge stirred by Chernobyl, by drawing from their presentations at the recent meeting of the American Society for Environmental History in Seattle. The historian Kate Brown reflects on some disturbing dynamics by which international bodies drew conclusions about the science of the disaster’s aftermath. Then the political scientist and historian Melanie Arndt surveys other long shadows of learning and knowledge that Chernobyl has cast, in the nuclear industry and in social movements as well as among Chernobyl’s children. Finally, biologist Tim Mousseau shares findings about wildlife in the disaster area, collected by himself and others, and considers how those findings challenge widespread reports of a flourishing ecology near Chernobyl. Together, our contributors go beyond a simple rehash of this most frightening of human-made disasters to offer important insights on what it can and should mean for us today. Thanks to Kate Brown for making this roundtable possible.