The Politics of Invisibility: Public Knowledge about Radiation Health Effects after Chernobyl

Olga Kuchinskaya

Before Fukushima, the most notorious large-scale nuclear accident the world had seen was Chernobyl in 1986. The fallout from Chernobyl covered vast areas in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in Europe. Belarus, at the time a Soviet republic, suffered heavily: nearly a quarter of its territory was covered with long-lasting radionuclides. Yet the damage from the massive fallout was largely imperceptible; contaminated communities looked exactly like noncontaminated ones. It could be known only through constructed representations of it. In The Politics of Invisibility, Olga Kuchinskaya explores how we know what we know about Chernobyl, describing how the consequences of a nuclear accident were made invisible. Her analysis sheds valuable light on how we deal with other modern hazards -- toxins or global warming -- that are largely imperceptible to the human senses.

Kuchinskaya describes the production of invisibility of Chernobyl's consequences in Belarus -- practices that limit public attention to radiation and make its health effects impossible to observe. Just as mitigating radiological contamination requires infrastructural solutions, she argues, the production and propagation of invisibility also involves infrastructural efforts, from redefining the scope and nature of the accident's consequences to reshaping research and protection practices.

Kuchinskaya finds vast fluctuations in recognition, tracing varyingly successful efforts to conceal or reveal Chernobyl's consequences at different levels -- among affected populations, scientists, government, media, and international organizations. The production of invisibility, she argues, is a function of power relations.



"The Politics of Invisibility by Olga Kuchinskaya opens up debate about the state of expert knowledge on not only the Chernobyl disaster but also other current and future disasters and makes clear the inseparability of these questions from more general struggles over livelihood. Kuchinskaya gives a nuanced reading of the production of both problematic invisibilities and problematic visibilities in knowledge-making, refusing a romantic assumption that laypeople or activist NGOs will necessarily know better. This is an original and important contribution, and one that deserves a wide audience."

—Michelle Murphy, Professor of History and Women and Gender Studies, University of Toronto

"Confronted with the dangers of radiation we have turned a blind eye. But we also know exactly what the consequences in the case of catastrophic nuclear meltdown are, namely that not only the affected populations but also the unborn generations will suffer. Here the politics of manufactured invisibility is put into praxis: by the industries that produce these risks; by the administrative bodies that do not regulate them; by international experts that simply do not look for Chernobyl's health effects beyond strictly limited methodological and conceptual framings. The Politics of Invisibility changes our view on the world at risk we live in."

—Ulrich Beck, University of Munich

"Kuchinskaya highlights a vital but neglected issue -- the 'dark side' of world-shaping technoscientific infrastructural orders. This inverse condition silently afflicting all such worldly technoscientific knowledge, namely its unacknowledged ignorance, releases uncontrolled consequences that are taboo to the power that science serves. This is brilliantly illustrated through the continuing debacle, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster."

—Brian Wynne, Science Studies, Lancaster University

"This meticulously researched and sensitively argued book shines a light on the little-known public health crisis Chernobyl created in Belarus and the coping strategies adopted by local citizens, largely abandoned by their government, who had to live in an environment haunted by invisible radioactive contamination. The efforts of local researchers, activists, and health officials to make the extent of the catastrophe visible were overwhelmed by regional politicians, international organizations, and journalists telling a story about the 'radiophobia' of Chernobyl's victims. Drawing adeptly on the science studies literature, Kuchinskaya makes an important and original argument about the effort that is required to make a disaster visible. This book will be of interest to readers in environmental studies, public health, Russian politics, communication studies, and nuclear policy."

—Hugh Gusterson, Professor of Cultural Studies, George Mason University; author of Nuclear Rites and People of the Bomb