What to expect in the media about Chernobyl during April

The seasonal pilgrimage of journalists to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has begun, and by the 20th of April it will reach its peak. Denis Vishnevskiy, Head of Research Department at Chernobyl Radiation and Environmental Biosphere Reserve, examined some common stories of the Chernobyl reports, which, shall we say, are annoying.

A mixture of events, characters and stories in one bowl called “Chernobyl”.

Many reports suffer from this. Some even see in this the canon of the Chernobyl reporting, where there is a little bit of everything: liquidators, stalkers, self-settlers, a new safe confinement. For an outsider, all of the above is associated with Chernobyl – this is beyond doubt. However, this does not mean that all these phenomena are related. Moreover, they are not connected at all. So, liquidators and stalkers belong, figuratively speaking, to different historical eras. Researchers-radioecologists do not intersect with self-settlers. And the employees of the ChNPP work in a different rhythm than other enterprises of the exclusion zone.

A pendulum of joy and horror

The two most common plots. They are the same in form – a journalist is standing against the background of something in the exclusion zone, showing a dosimeter and at the same time saying something. They are different in content. In one case, a journalist with a positive air broadcasts that look at the dosimeter – there are numbers like in Kiev and everything is OK: “We won the war against Chernobyl.”

The second option – a journalist with a stern face demonstrates a dosimeter and anxiously says that here the radiation norm is many times higher. As an argument, he points to the disgusting squeak of the dosimeter and the numbers that he does not understand.

Surprisingly, this pendulum necessarily goes through one swing cycle per year, and sometimes more. That is, conventionally, in April they tell us how good everything is and in the “no radiation” zone. And in a month or two, in the event of a fire or other emergency, they will say, “We are all going to die.”

Both of these positions are far from the real state of affairs. The exclusion zone is a place where a large amount of radioactive substances fell out of the damaged reactor. So large that the local population had to be evacuated and the area closed.

Over time, as a result of the decay of radionuclides, the radiation indicators decreased by several orders of magnitude, but did not definitely reach pre-emergency levels. And it is not necessary to speak unequivocally about the safety of permanent residence (and not temporary residence, i.e. not to confuse an excursion with emigration).

In any case, the decision to change the status of individual areas will be made as a result of comprehensive studies, and not on the basis of the indicators of a household dosimeter. On the legal side, this issue will be decided by the central authorities, and not by local officials or individual experts.

If we talk about the danger of radiation, then it is. “Death under the beam” and other variants of radiation sickness are, of course, excluded here. But there are plenty of places where pollution levels are extremely high. Professionals have a simple attitude to radiation: “the less, the better.”

Experts

Experts are a separate pain. It would seem that Ukraine is the country that was most affected by the disaster. This has resulted in the creation of a strong expert environment: centers of scientific and applied research, groups and individual scientists with an international reputation.

Radioecology and radiation safety has become the specialization of our country in the global division of scientific work. At the same time, journalists manage to ignore all this and create an expert “anti-world” for years. Let’s take a closer look at its inhabitants.

“A man of the people.”

Catch someone from the surrounding area or an ordinary employee of the Chernobyl Zone and start asking about radiation. The lesson is meaningless due to the fact that ionizing radiation is not perceived by the senses, and the theoretical part of the exam in Belarus is so abstract that it is difficult to find a place in everyday life. But the result of going to the people can be an acquaintance with “folk radioecology”. It is a system of representations and practices related to radiation and common among employees of the area and surrounding areas. Like all folklore, it does not differ in harmony and consistency, but it has an important function to adapt the psyche of people to environmental conditions.

Here are some examples:

“Mushrooms grown in sand do not take radiation, only those that grow in earth are contaminated”

This thesis was once voiced by an SES driver. Together with “guaranteed clean places” it forms part of the corpus of representations of mushroom pickers and other collectors of biological resources. From time to time, the followers of this sect “fail”, if not for dose control, then exactly on the SICH (human radiation counter). Therefore, for safety reasons, they try to measure the gifts of the forest “for radiation.”

This is best done when there is access to a laboratory where radionuclide contents can be measured and, last but not least, the figures obtained can be interpreted. Most do not have such access and measure what they have, that is, dosimeters and radiometers of varying degrees of accuracy and serviceability. The criterion is simple – that would not squeak or not go too far.

A large group consists of representations of the radiophobic type. This is real horror. The most common – the taste of metal on the tongue and complete numbness when passing the checkpoint “Lelev” towards the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. “We, the whole outfit, start bleeding when the wind blows from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,” said a police captain at the checkpoint 12 years ago. “Where there is one X-ray!” is already an invention of the last generation of employees. They perceive any unit on any dosimeter as an X-ray. Radiophobic stories are often invented to prank newcomers or visitors.

“Geniuses”

These people have always been here. The search for a solution to the fundamental problems of cognition and the existence of mankind has brought them to the periphery of the scientific or engineering community. From there, they change the world, and in our case, prepare a complete and final solution to the Chernobyl problem. Someone is creating new theories that overturn modern physics, such as biological transmutation. But most offer cyclopean engineering projects: cut 2-3 meters of soil and bury or, conversely, fill the entire surface with concrete for the same 2-3 meters to protect against radiation. More prudent people like, under the change of power, to offer a unique agrochemical that will block radionuclides in the soil forever.

“Foreign scientists”

The term comes from the Soviet past, where there was a basic division into “Domestic” and “Foreign”. “Foreign” was considered by default as something better and better quality. The world has become more open and complex now, which is why the old categories do not work so unambiguously. American researcher Tim Mousseau appeared in Chernobyl in the mid-2000s. At first, he quietly researched something on a fairly budgetary basis, and then decided to add PR and began to issue every year on a fundamental discovery, which he diligently introduced to the media. So we learned that we live in a natural Hell: the brains of swallows are reduced by radiation; migratory birds do not return to the zone; the bacteria are all dead and now, like in the desert, wood does not decompose; the spiders in the Red Forest are cognitively impaired and weave their webs at random. And so on and so forth. For a long time, other researchers ignored his findings or viewed him as a harmless freak. But the freak turned out to be quite offensive to himself. Over the years of his activity in the zone, he so polluted the information field that his wild insights began to be perceived as facts not only in the media, but also in expert circles. He has not generated new ideas for several years, but his old achievements in packaging “Foreign scientists at Chernobyl have established that …” live their lives in the noosphere and return to us in the questions of journalists.

“Ecologists”.

A combined group of public organizations of varying degrees of severity. They usually do not understand the Chernobyl topic, but they love Chernobyl itself. Even after 35 years, any abnormal event in the exclusion zone is a trigger for a panic attack for our society. They use this to take a niche in the media space. They are characterized by loud and imaginative alarmist statements. For example: “in two months Kiev is threatened with immediate evacuation.” Under these statements, there is not only no real basis, but, often, no logic.

“Tour Operators”

Visiting the zone is one of the youngest and fastest growing sectors of the Ukrainian tourism economy. Or, it was before the pandemic.

There are many tour operators operating in this market. Not all, not all, but some of them like to try on the clothes of the “Chernobyl prophets” and comment on any event in the exclusion zone for the media. The motive for this is simple – the conversion of commercial capital into reputation capital for further business promotion. The problem is that the competences in the field of Chernobyl tourism have nothing to do with radioecology or Chernobyl politics.

Author: Denis Vishnevskiy

Denis Vishnevskiy is Head of Research Department at Chernobyl Radiation and Environmental Biosphere Reserve.

He has worked in the Chernobyl Zone for many years and often posts interesting and informative articles and media relating to wildlife and other subjects in the Chernobyl Zone.

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