Rhetorical Radiants

Fourth reactor at Chernobyl exploded just before my twelfth birthday, late April, 1986–25 years ago yesterday. Is the math right? For me that’s almost a half-life ago.

Now, I’m no scholar of nuclear accidents, but I am interested in the emerging narratives about the Fukushima aftermath that position it in a family of catastrophes such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Certainly there has been a lot of speculative discussion since the Fukushima incident about leaking/leaching radiation, toxic mists, jet streams, ocean currents, impacts zones, and the various ecological slices that will be differently impacted by chemicals and hot metals. For example, there’s this Nancy Grace clip.

In the PBS clip above (above N. Grace), the portrait is grim–birds with smaller brains and strange tumors, etc.–and the discussion of sealed away clumps of radioactive material lapses into near absurdity, particularly at the idea of who will keep watch on the plutonium whose half-life is 24,000 years.

In “Is Chernobyl a Wild Kingdom or a Radioactive Den of Decay?” Adam Higginbotham of Wired.com provides a look from multiple sides at the unsettled questions about how animals have responded in the wake of nuclear meltdown. First dealing with optimists who can find examples of resilient wildlife, the article includes those who turn to other forms of evidence to leverage claims about the welfare of the post-Chernobyl ecosystem.

But a pair of scientists are now calling these claims into serious question. According to US-based evolutionary biologist Timothy Mousseau, there is scant evidence to back up the idea of Chernobyl as a radioactive Wild Kingdom. “People say these things–they’re simply anecdotes,” Mousseau says. “It’s totally irrational.” Nonetheless, last December, the Ministry of Emergencies–the Ukrainian agency responsible for overseeing the Exclusion Zone–announced that it would formally open the zone to mass tourism in 2011. In January, meanwhile, the country’s parliament approved a multibillion-dollar plan to build two new Russian-designed nuclear reactors in western Ukraine, some of the first to be started there since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I am gathering tiny collections like these in anticipation of ENGL505: Rhetoric of Science and Technology, a class I will be teaching in the fall semester. And by no means am I thinking of these preliminary tracings as complete or even all that thorough. In fact, that these are incomplete–that the very possibility of knowing radiation’s reach in space and time–is part of what allows us to witness how scientific debate operates (not only in scholarly or researcherly circles but in popular ones, as well). It’s almost as if we can trace consequentiality itself as a matter of concern, and what I find surprising (or at least interesting) about this is that the temporal frame is many multiples of human lifetimes long. What I mean is that it’s curious to me not only how we talk about immediate threats (absent visual confirmation…as is the case with mildly radioactive carrots, for example) but also how journalists and scientists grace such an uncertain horizon as the one many, many thousands of years from now when the plutonium at Chernobyl falls irradiant.