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Sergii Mirnyi : Chernobyl as a Model Case of an Eco-Disaster

Chernobyl represents a unique possibility to study the general regularities of ecological disasters and their consequences. However, until now this potential seems to to have been under-used.

The paper analyses the Chernobyl as a 'model eco-disaster', and is based upon:

- a short course Chernobyl Case Study;

- research done at the Environmental Sciences and Policy Department and Open Society (former Radio Liberty/Free Europe) Archives (Central European University, Budapest);

- extensive lecturing on the topic in Western, Central-European and post-USSR countries;

- the author's experience of the work in the Chernobyl zone in 1986 as a radiation reconnaissance officer, and his subsequent experience of a member of the Chernobyl-affected population.

The paper emphasises the indispensable role of direct visual images (photos, videos) to convey the scope and psycho-social atmosphere of the disaster to the audience.

Chernobyl seems to be a 'model' disaster in many aspects:

- The causes of the explosion show how a coincidence of technical, managerial and social reasons can lead to an incident considered to be impossible.

- It is the best-studied case of antropogenic pollution; the patterns of spreading, distribution, redistribution, dilution, concentration and elimination of the Chernobyl contaminants in the environment, biota and human body have universal importance.

- Chernobyl seems to be a classical case of transboundary (transnational) pollution.

- It has the most developed 'tail' of consequences (ecological, technical, medical, economical, legal, social, political and cultural).

- It provides abundant data for the discussion of relative damage caused by primary harmful factors of an accident (explosion, irradiation, contamination in the case) and secondary factors (psychological, social, economical; negative impact of mitigation measures).

- It demonstrates a very important regularity: A shift of the dominating harmful factor(s) (1) with the distance from the epicentre and (2) with time after the triggering event - from primary (direct) to secondary (more and more indirect) factors.

- The different (almost opposite) media coverage in the West and in the USSR/communist countries provide unique data to discuss the role, efficiency and limitations of media reporting about eco-disasters (and eco-issues in general).

- Discrepancies in estimation of the Chernobyl impact, made by (1) experts of different interest groups, and (2) experts and the general public - are especially striking in the Chernobyl case.

- The flaws of scientific interpretation of Chernobyl seem to be a rather typical feature of eco-disasters; this emphasises the importance of an alternative to science method - art - in dealing with the empirical data, and the necessity of a 'general-cultural' approach to such complex phenomena as eco-disasters.

The Chernobyl case

(1) shows that, for adequate study and mitigation, eco-disasters should be treated as complex 'natural-environmental'+psychological+'social-environmental' phenomena ;

(2) provides concrete means for the application of this approach.

Sergii Mirnyi


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