Crises of confidence: Biopolitical effects of the Chornobyl disaster on Ukraine

Authors: Nathaniel Ray Pickett*, University of Kansas
Topics: Political Geography, Europe
Keywords: biopolitics, science and technology studies, ukraine
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Muses, Sheraton, 8th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The radiation released from the 1986 Chornobyl disaster altered the biologies of many people involved in different ways. However, the number of people affected and the extent and nature of that alteration in those bodies continue to be contested 30 years after the disaster. The uncertainties within the technoscientific knowledge about Chornobylgenic radiation have characterized the shifting and contentious relationship between the Ukrainian state and the bodies within it. The material, political, and scientific production contexts of the Chornobyl disaster, plus the unprecedented severity and scope of the radiation released, produced an environment where “facts” fluctuated wildly among instruments, bodies, sites, occupations, hospitals, departments, and institutions. Despite the knowledge gaps and dissonances, the state had to respond to the disaster, its effects, and the people it affected, which was no trivial task. On the one hand, officials had to use the limited knowledge at hand, gleaned from instruments not powerful enough or in such a state of disrepair to handle the severity of the radioactive exposure, minimize panic, and assert control. On the other hand, the lack of exact figures, slow governmental response, and discovered attempts to conceal or falsify information emboldened a number of non-state actors. This paper will trace the material-political history of the disaster and its effects, explore the coproduction of Chornobylgenic technoscientific knowledge and Ukrainian biopolitical relationships, and examine how the shifting state-objects-citizens power nexus has opened up spaces of biopolitical contention, especially in the erosion of public trust in officials and the government.

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