Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Anticipating Chernobyl's 25th anniversary

Like most of you, over the last few days I have been thinking about the disaster in Japan. The scale of the loss is difficult to absorb, especially here in China where our access to the news is limited because we speak no Chinese.  I find my mind slipping gears as I ponder it all.

Over and above today's troubles, however, I find my memory drifting backward. As newspaper reports on the Japanese troubles have noted, the world will soon mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Chernobyl, too, of course, was an immense tragedy, and, more than the present difficulties in Japan, avoidable.

But for me Chernobyl has a personal dimension too, and one that I've thought about often over the last quarter-century. In late December 1985, Jill, I, and our two kids, then aged 3 and 6, moved to Falls Church, VA while I spent part of a sabbatical at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. By Memorial Day 1986 we were scheduled to fly to Helsinki, Finland, where I intended to spend the summer doing research at the Helsinki University Library; we were also set to train into Russia in late August so that I could spend the fall studying in Moscow and Leningrad.  These were exciting days with lots of possibilities that we had anticipated for months.

And then there was Chernobyl—April 26, 1986. The initial reports from Soviet authorities were confused and, we learned later, intentionally misleading. But gradually the implications became clearer: the radioactive plume that had resulted from the explosion was drifting north and west. Experts warned that radiation would inevitably find its way into the food chain along a broad swath of territory that reached beyond the Arctic circle. Even the Lapps who fed on reindeer and reindeer milk would suffer the effects. Further south, the potential harm was enormous: for example, grass-feeding cows would generate dangerous milk, and grass-fed beef would be contaminated unless careful and thorough inspection efforts were instituted instantly.  The Soviet Union in 1986 did not seem like a good candidate for "careful and thorough inspection," much less candid information on the risks. We had more faith in the Finns, but exactly what could they do, especially if the Soviets continued to dissemble? Should we cancel our plans in order to be sure to protect ourselves and our kids? Was it selfish (not to say stupid) to proceed with our plans? Or were we unnecessarily worried?

We thought about it—long and hard. Funding for these opportunities had come through some hard work I had invested in fellowship applications the preceding year, and I had been gratified to see my work rewarded with a couple of prestigious awards. But exactly how much were these awards worth? How much should my family pay for my research?

At that time our kids basically lived off milk and salad, so contamination of the milk supply and green vegetables in Finland would present a significant and real danger. Even in Moscow (where lettuce was rare anyway) we often purchased Finnish milk through the embassy because Soviet milk seemed to go bad far more quickly. And meat? Would Soviet managers, each of whom operated in large measure on the basis of output, undertake to destroy contaminated animals, or would they try to push them into the system, thereby maintaining their production targets? And would the government, now in the first stages of what came to be known as "glasnost'," be honest with its population and hard-nosed with its own economic managers?

It was an unexpectedly difficult time, and I still remember the bed-time conversations that Jill and I shared as we weighed the choices before us, our earlier excitement and anticipation now clouded with invisible, mortal threats. In the end, we decided to go to Finland, at least, and see how things went.  And then, if it seemed justified, we would continue on into the Soviet Union. And so it all played out. More than a few times over those several months in Finland and then in the USSR we wondered whether we had done the right thing, and in the years since I have often wondered anew at our choices. So far, we know of no adverse consequences on our health or our kids', but perhaps these remain to be discovered down the line?

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine mentioned that he was invited to compose a book of essays that would allow men who were professors to comment upon some moment in the nexus between their careers and  fatherhood. I was no candidate for this project, but immediately my mind went back to Chernobyl and my research ambitions: what had I done? And had I done the right thing? Twenty-five years after the event I am still wondering.

All this musing does nothing, of course, to help the thousands now enduring the hell that came uninvited recently to Japan. I certainly do not intend to liken my dilemmas to the apocalypse now unfolding in Japan. But as I sit in China on yet another adventure in my academic career, I find myself wondering about how far the consequences of Japan's nightmare will reach. In addition to the thousands dead and lost, the immense destruction caused by earthquake and tsunami, will there be new waves of radioactivity floating across the globe? Will whole new generations of fathers and mothers in Japan and on distant continents wonder whether or how they should adjust their lives? And once all those decisions are made, what will the ultimate consequences be? And who will know them?

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