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23 years after Chernobyl (or the nuclear fool cycle)


Pripyat Funfair, © Ben Fairless

One of the more bizarre side-effects of the climate change debate is the fact that it’s given new life to the nuclear power lobby. Indeed it sometimes seems that every time I turn on the ABC or open a newspaper there’s some talking head doing his utmost to convince us that not only is nuclear power now safe, it’s also the only technology capable of offering emission-free alternative to fossil fuels. Never mind that we still have no way of dealing with the waste (at least until Generation IV technology becomes a reality), never mind that the emissions generated by extracting and processing uranium far outstrip the emissions generated by coal-fired stations, never mind the possibility of accidents or sabotage, nuclear power is the way to go. (I suppose the one point in their favour is that nuclear technology actually exists, unlike the ludicrous fantasy of “clean” coal).

Of course nuclear power is precisely the sort of boysy technology that appeals to a particular kind of smart man, not least because it allows them to do their “I’m the sort of man who’s prepared to take hard decisions without being fazed by silly, sentimental anxieties about the environment,” routine, but you’d think even they’d be able to hear themselves when they declare that the technology is now foolproof (like that unsinkable ship, the Titanic, I suppose).

Anyway – I thought in the context of that debate it might be worth linking to this remarkable series of photographs of Chernobyl. Gathering together work by a number of photographers, some born in the area, others not, they speak not just to the destructive force of the accident, and the scars it left on the place and its inhabitants, but in their haunting reminder of the way the forest is reclaiming the Exclusion Zone, to the hubris of presuming human society and its creations are anything more than a hiccough in the larger cycle of life and time.

(via io9).

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  1. Curiously James Lovelock, he of the Gaia model, is also a proponent of nuclear power, seeing it as one of the only ways we can both practically and immediately cut carbon emissions enough to stop a disaster he sees as almost unavoidable.
    While I don’t want to be found supporting his point of view I was very taken by the comment he made when he was questioned about the business of waste (I paraphrase): he said that the area around Chernobyl was now one of the most biologically diverse in the world, because the damage done by radiation was so little compared to that of having humans actually living there.

    September 28, 2009
  2. The photographs are remarkable, though, if a little gratuitous with the use of mouldering dolls, but the comments beneath are also worth a look, one person immediately dubbed it: On my 1000 places to go before I die list for sure.
    Surely even he must be able to see the irony…

    September 28, 2009
  3. Mardi #

    Amazing photos. There was a picture story in marie claire, of all places, a few years back showing images from Chernobyl and the people still living nearby. I remember one of a peasant woman selling HUMONGOUS mushrooms she’d picked from the forest in the exclusion zone (mm, yummy). I think the story mentioned that while some of the local wildlife had been decimated by the radiation, other things, like the mushrooms, had responded by getting creepily huge. Just like something out of a comic (or a Godzilla movie).

    September 28, 2009
  4. I’m never quite sure what to make of Lovelock’s position on nuclear power. Obviously he’s someone who deserves to be taken seriously, but I also think he’s wrong, not least because the emissions are associated with extraction etc are so high (and his basic position is that we’ve already passed the point of no return climate-wise, so everything he says is filtered through that fairly apocalyptic prism).

    But simultaneously I think we have to be really careful we make the right decisions for the right reasons, and part of that has to be accepting that for the time being nuclear power has to be part of the solution, at least insofar as it’s so important in the European power generation economy. But saying that is definitely not the same as saying we should be building more nuclear power stations, particularly if the total carbon load of power generated by them exceeds the total carbon of equivalent production by conventional means. That said, my position probably isn’t far from George Monbiot on this (he’s got a nice piece at ).

    And I was looking at the Wikipedia entry on Chernobyl while I was writing the post, and oddly enough there’s a detail there about the actual reactor now being full of black, melanin rich fungus which is thriving in the high radiation zone. So maybe it’s not just the mushrooms that are thriving. Nice.

    September 28, 2009
  5. JOhn #

    a devastating yet strangely beautiful series of photos , haunting as anything I’ve seen.

    shows how blogs are the equal if not the superior of the credited print media.

    a terrific blog, James. I’m sold.

    September 28, 2009
  6. Chuck Norris #

    What is the evidence that the extraction process in Nuclear power causes a higher total carbon load than fossil fuels?

    When looking at the evidence consider that the green power money machine has as much to gain from an anti nuclear stance as the nuclear industry has from been pro nuclear….. It’s all about the money.

    September 29, 2009
  7. rod #

    I haven’t seen the word hiccough in a long long time…

    November 14, 2009

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