Review essay: Chernobyl as Technoscience

In her review essay, published in Technology and Culture, Egle Rindzeviciute considers the TV miniseries Chernobyl (HBO, 2019) to engage in a wider debate on the social and institutional production of technoscience. The essay explores whether the series resonates with the existing narratives and interpretations of Soviet technoscience in scholarly historiography. Rindzeviciute suggests that although the series downplays important aspects of Soviet history, such as international knowledge transfer, it successfully demonstrates the hybrid character of nuclear power and the complexity of the relationship between scientific expertise and policy decision-making. This essay was informed by the discussion with the participants in the webinar (Re)Placing Chernobyl (May 14, 2020), hosted by Kingston University and the FRINGE Centre for the Study of Social and Cultural Complexity, University College London, which could be viewed on YouTube.

The link to the essay is here.

Will Chernobyl become a World Heritage site?

Aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant with its sarcophagus. Photo: Vadim Mouchkin / IAEA

On 15 December 2020 Ukraine commemorated an important date in its nuclear history: Twenty years had passed since the last operating reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was shut down. In connection to this event, and to the Day of Honoring the Participants of the Liquidation of the Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster that is marked annually on December 14th, the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine announced its intention to apply for inclusion of the Chernobyl site in the UNESCO World Heritage list. The Ministry is planning to submit its application in the spring of 2021 and a decision would likely be issued within two years.

How come that Ukraine takes this step, to propose the most difficult and contaminated site of the country to be designated as world heritage, that is, of critical importance to all humankind? Aren’t heritage rather denoting cultural objects, historical and natural sites that we can admire and celebrate – and not, sites of human and environmental disaster? The announcement also immediately received international attention. For example, just a few days later, the French international channel TV5 Monde dedicated 15 minutes of its daily evening news show “64′ Le Monde en français” to examine the historical and cultural significance of Chernobyl. Atomic Heritage team member Tatiana Kasperski was invited as expert commentator in the live broadcast, together with Laurent Michelot, a photographer who recently published a photo album on the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

The TV broadcast can be viewed here. Photo: Christine Fassert.

The discussion revolved around the steadily growing tourist interest in the site (more than 124 000 people visited Chernobyl in 2019) and its potential heritage value. What attracts visitors to Chernobyl? Is it a good, let alone feasible idea to develop tourism in the heavily radioactively contaminated area? Can the place of the worst nuclear accident in history really become a heritage site? Tatiana Kasperski insisted that a designation of Chernobyl as a UNESCO heritage site might indeed be a good idea as it could support a responsible and sustainable management of the area.

Furthermore, she pointed out that even though it might seem surprising to consider Chernobyl as heritage, it is not completely a challenging idea within contemporary heritage practice. There are already acknowledged heritage sites connected to a dark, violent past, such as, Auschwitz Birkenau Nazi Concentration Camp, and in a nuclear context, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site. Within the World Heritage list these “difficult” heritage places (following a term coined by Sharon MacDonald) are certainly less numerous than the “positive” heritage sites. Nevertheless, it is crucial to preserve them in order to remind humanity about catastrophes that have to be avoided in the future.

Tatiana Kasperski therefore concluded that it makes great sense to transform the Chernobyl site into a heritage site. In fact, not only the growing tourism has already started this transformation, but also recent archival efforts have laid a foundation by incorporating recently declassified documents from the the Soviet era related to the Chernobyl disaster into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

‘Splitting the Atom’ art exhibition in Vilnius, Lithuania

Contemporary Art Centre (CAC), Vilnius. Photo: Dainius Putinas

On September 18, 2020, the art exhibition Splitting the Atom opened at the Contemporary Art Centre and the Energy and Technology Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania. The exhibition, featuring 30 artists, was initiated by the member of the Atomic Heritage team Egle Rindzeviciute and curated by Virginija Januskeviciūte (Contemporary Art Centre) and Ele Carpenter (Goldsmiths, University of London, leader of the Nuclear Culture Research Group). The exhibition was initially scheduled to start at the same time as the final conference of the Atomic Heritage project, but due to the Covid pandemic the conference was finally rescheduled to take place in June 2021.

The essay ‘Splitting the Atom, Creating Trust’ by the Atomic Heritage team members Tatiana Kasperski, Egle Rindzeviciute and Andrei Stsiapanau, together with Paul Josephson was commissioned as part of the exhibition and published in collaboration with and

Yelena Popova, Visaginas Parquet RMBK-1500, 2000; Keepsafe I-II, 2020; and Ripple Marked Radiance After Hertha Ayrton, 2019. Photo: Dainius Putinas
Schuppli Delay Decay BM 2016. Photo: Dainius Putinas

See also an interview with Ele Carpenter:

(Re)Placing Chernobyl

On the 14th of May, 2020, a webinar (Re)Placing Chernobyl zoomed in on the popular HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” (2019) to explore the politics of aesthetics, the power of TV mediation of scientific expertise and the wide-ranging impacts of this cultural representation of the disaster. In the context of the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, questions of public trust in science and the role of scientific experts in governance have returned to the forefront. The discussion roundtable gathered prominent scholars, artists and cultural producers to unpack the complexities that emerged in process of staging the Chernobyl disaster in the twenty first century.

(Re)Placing Chernobyl was meant to take place live, at the University College London. It was organised in partnership with the UCL Fringe Centre, the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, the Lithuanian Culture Institute, the Lithuanian Embassy in the United Kingdom, Go Vilnius, the contemporary art magazine This Is Tomorrow and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The online discussion attracted 288 unique viewers on Zoom and about 200 more viewed the webinar live on Youtube. The event was streamed live by the KTH Environmental Humanities Lab, the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, and the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, the USA. The speakers: Simon Evans, Head of the Chernobyl Shelter Fund at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Michael N. Goddard, Reader in Film, Television and Moving Image at the University of Westminster, UK, Paul Josephson, Professor of History, Colby College, USA, Alena Ledeneva, Professor of Politics and Society, UCL, UK, Tatiana Kasperski, PhD in Politics and researcher at Pompeu Fabra University, Spain, Johan Renck, Film director, won the Emmy Award (2019) for his work on the mini-series “Chernobyl,” Vitalij Strigunkov, Visual artist, Lithuania, Simon Watson, Senior Lecturer in Robotics Systems, the University of Manchester, UK. Egle Rindzeviciute chaired the discussion.

You can watch it live following this link: RePlacing Chernobyl on YouTube.

Searching for the Lithuanian nuclear cultural heritage: Nuclear simulator and archives

On the 12th and 13th of March, Rindzeviciute visited several locations that are centrally important for the Lithuanian nuclear cultural heritage: the simulator of the RBMK reactor’s control panel in Visaginas and the information centre at the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. The simulator, which is said to be the first of its kind in the Soviet Union, was designed and built in the late 1980s. Several generations of the RBMK reactor operators were trained on it. As Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant is being decommissioned, the simulator lost its original function. However, this fabulous monument of the Soviet technoscientific modernity is perfectly preserved in situ. Could the simulator serve as a key object for the planned Museum of Visaginas?

At the information centre, Rindzeviciute discussed the opportunities to develop international collaboration between nuclear archives. A wealth of documentation is being gathered and stored at the Ignalina NPP archive, which are in the safe hands of the dedicated team. However, the long term status of these documents is unclear: what will become of the archive once the nuclear power plant is fully decommissioned? It is important to preserve these unique documents for the future generations of historians of science and technology. The visit could not be completed without a delicious and wholesome lunch at the employees’ canteen (this was before the introduction of social distancing).

Photos kindly provided by Agne Gintalaite.