Svetlana Alexievich: The lesson of Chernobyl has not been learned

March and April of 2016 will mark the 5th and 30th anniversaries of the Fukushima-Daiichi and Chernobyl nuclear power plant catastrophes. Normally, spring is the time when we celebrate the coming of another chance to harvest the benefits of nature, but for the people affected by these disasters, these months come as a cruel reminder of humanity’s broken relationship with the natural world.

Dianuke will publish articles over the next few weeks that look back on these catastrophes. We hope not to over-memorialize them or too often remind traumatized people of what they would rather forget about. However, these anniversaries are a time when the global community pays attention to these usually forgotten crimes against the planet, and we feel they must be remembered appropriately for what they can do to strengthen the resistance to the ongoing nuclearization of the developing world.

The first article in this series is an interview with the author Svetlana Alexievich which was published just eight days after the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown in Japan. As the author of Voices from Chernobyl and as a scholar who was familiar with the nuclear industry in Japan, she was in a unique position to understand what was happening. The interview is remarkable for how well she understood the seriousness of the Fukushima-Daiichi catastrophe at a time when the public was being deliberately deceived about the gravity of the situation. It is all the more remarkable to know in hindsight that she was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature for the work she did in chronicling the lives of people who lived in the aftermath of Chernobyl and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Svetlana Alexievich: The lesson of Chernobyl has not been learned

by Veronika Dorman, published originally by Libération on March 19, 2011, updated in October 2015

translation of Svetlana Alexievitch: «La leçon de Tchernobyl n’a pas été apprise»


Update: October 2015
In March 2011, shortly after the Fukushima catastrophe, Libération published an interview with Svetlana Alexievich. We are republishing it now that she has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In April 1986, the accident at Chernobyl shook the world. Svetlana Alexievich, author of Voices from Chernobyl, discusses the warnings from the story that have gone unheeded. She shares her views with Libération.

Veronika Dorman (VD): You have written, “Sometimes I get the impression that I am describing the future.” Has that future arrived?

Svetlana Alexievich (SA): In the movie Dreams by Akira Kurosawa all the Japanese nuclear power plants explode. People continue to live, drink tea, but they are doomed. This invisible death has already entered into their flesh and blood. This film was a real prophecy. We are paying too high a price for the progress of civilization, which is based on comfort and welfare. High technologies are in the service of human weakness. However, such a consumer society cannot exist forever, and can only end in tragedy. It is very interesting and almost mysterious that on the day of the tragedy in Japan, people were going crazy for the chance to stand in line all night for a new gadget that was going to go on sale at the Apple Store. And during this time there was this terrible accident.

This reminded us that the old value system no longer works. We are moving toward self-destruction. At this point, I immediately recalled visions of Chernobyl: deserted streets, power lines that lead to nowhere. Only grass, trees, and nature remained.

VD: You wondered about the liquidators of the Chernobyl accident: were they suicides or heroes? What do you think about this with regard to Japanese culture?

SA: I see a lot that is similar to what happened with us. The basis of Japanese culture is also the collective. The individual doesn’t exist to the same extent as elsewhere, but recognizes itself as a part of the whole. World War II was already far in the past, but I had the impression, when I visited Japan, that if the need arose, everyone would forget self and be ready to die, just like Russians.

I was in the Chernobyl zone during the construction of the sarcophagus. They said in a totally pragmatic way: this operation here will cost X number of lives, this one over here will cost Y number of lives. It was just a technical calculation.

VD: Did we learn the lessons of the Chernobyl disaster?

SA: I was on the Japanese island of Hokkaido visiting a nuclear power plant called “Tomari.” I first noticed it from the window of the room at the hotel. It was just a fantastic spectacle, a futuristic space object on the ocean. I met with the staff of the station, who asked me to talk about Chernobyl. While I spoke, their faces were polite smiles. They expressed their sympathy. “Of course, it was awful, but this was the fault of totalitarianism. It could never happen here. Our station is exemplary, the safest. All is thoroughly checked,” they said. Looking at this technogenic hubris of man, with this sense of power over nature, I realized that humanity had not learned the lessons of Chernobyl.

VD: Why?

SA: It is said that the cause of it all was Russian negligence, the Soviet mentality, totalitarianism. Russians had stolen materials, everything was poorly constructed. But here’s the second atomic lesson: it happened again in the most technologically developed country, with the most reliable nuclear power plants. It is a tragedy not only for Japan but for all mankind. We have reached this frontier where it is clear we can no longer blame someone else. Neither the Soviet system, nor totalitarianism. People should be aware of their limited possibilities.

Nature is much more powerful and is beginning to take revenge on us in this unequal fight. I heard the same thing in Grenoble when I met French specialists. “We are not like you in the East,” they said, “where life is lived between the brothel and the barracks.” Prior to the explosion at Chernobyl, the scholar Anatoly Alexandrov had declared that Soviet nuclear power stations were so reliable that they could build one in Red Square. It is astounding that this arrogance of nuclear scientists persisted for so long.

VD: At this time are people asking themselves the right questions?

SA: Nothing changes. Arriving in Minsk, I learned that two days ago they signed an agreement with Russia to build a nuclear power station in Astravyets, which was abandoned by local residents after the magnitude 7 earthquake in 1909. While the whole world is fixed on TV screens watching the latest information from Japan, the Minsk newspaper touted the treaty with Russia and claimed the new station would be “the safest in the world.”

Ironically, it is Belarus that has suffered the most from the Chernobyl accident, yet it is going to develop its nuclear industry. Moreover, the head of the federal agency Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, said Russia plans to build floating nuclear power plants and sell them to Indonesia or Vietnam. Imagine dozens of these little Hiroshimas floating in the ocean.

VD: Chernobyl was a kind of mystery. Today the whole world is watching Fukushima in real time.

SA: My Japanese friends write to me and say they have an impression that much is not being told. The authorities fear panic. The main problem is not so much lying as it is confusion. Gorbachev simply could not understand what was happening. He gathered the best nuclear scientists and sent them to Chernobyl. They went there in normal clothes, without any protection. The first firefighters also arrived without protection, and died in the first days. In the USSR, you had to be ready to sacrifice your life for the country. Without a totalitarian state, the Chernobyl disaster would have affected the whole of Europe. There would not have been such a high level of human resources and armies of liquidators devoted to it.

In the post-Soviet space, separated from Belarus and Russia, Ukraine would not have been able to cope. And people who are willing to work with their bare hands no longer exist. Now the individual values his life. In addition, it wasn’t the first time totalitarianism had saved the whole world. During the Second World War, the Soviet totalitarian regime defeated Germany. Human life was worth nothing, and that’s why Hitler was defeated and that’s why the accident at Chernobyl was resolved. In Japan now there is the same element of disarray. Even if the top minds from around the world work together to solve the problems at Fukushima, they will still run into obstacles that people and science, at the moment, are simply unable to overcome.

Man never wanted to take into account the inadequacy of his capabilities. He has released unbridled energy that cannot be fully controlled. To this day we do not know what’s really going on under the Chernobyl sarcophagus. Only 3% of the reactor material went up in the air. 97% is still there. Henceforth, the political regime (Soviet totalitarianism or Japanese liberalism) does not really matter. The main thing now is the relationship between man and the advanced technologies used by society.

VD: This year marks 25 years since the Chernobyl disaster. Is this ironic?

SA: The world has failed to grasp the first atomic lesson. The search for alternative energy sources remains the domain of a handful of people whom nobody takes seriously, but it should be everyone’s concern. Rationalism has reached an impasse from which a suicidal feeling arises. In Kurosawa’s film, nobody knows anything. The truth is known only to a few nuclear scientists. One of them is in such despair that he grabs his briefcase and jumps into the ocean to commit suicide. He understands that in his briefcase there are no plans for the future; just old manuscripts for the destruction of the world. The tsunami in Japan has turned progress into a cemetery.

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