On April 26th, 1986, a series of explosions destroyed a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, causing radiation to immediately flood the area and all nearby villages. There was no containing the radioactive material (they had neglected to create an action plan in case of an emergency), and within a week, gaseous, airborne particles from the explosion had travelled across the globe, reaching Japan, the US, and Canada.
This was a national disaster that resulted in thousands of deaths and wiped out 485 villages. A sarcophagus was constructed in absentia (the site was too dangerous for humans to work on) to contain the radioactive material, but because of the nature of its construction, there remain small leaks within the shield that the robots could not properly attend to.
Despite this, the sarcophagus is currently the best form of protection we have from the radiation, and should it collapse, the consequences are argued to be much direr than the initial explosions.
Chernobyl is one of the most catastrophic events in human history, not only because of the ways in which it impacted people, but because the event sparked within humanity an ongoing fear that disaster can and will strike again.
Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl is a gut-wrenching compilation of interviews and stories from survivors of the infamous nuclear reactor accident. Their stories reflect the lasting trauma of the catastrophe which has drastically changed the lives of those affected. What we can take from Alexievich about the meaning of modern technology is that these disasters occur because of our naivety towards progress and technology. Soviet officials never expected an accident like this to occur and simply assumed the reactors would be safe.
There were no preventative measures taken to ensure that the reactors would not malfunction because there was a strong belief that the technology powering the plant was developed enough to be foolproof. As a result, there is still no real solution to managing the after-effects of the explosions. Although the sarcophagus is containing most of the radioactive material for now, it is a band-aid solution, and we have yet to create a feasible, long-term plan for resolving this issue.
The takeaway from this disaster is that Chernobyl is a man-made creation and, thus, a man-made catastrophe.
There exists a universal desire to continuously progress as a species and a belief that it is humankind’s duty to constantly improve and advance technology. This worldview encourages us to engage with and welcome technology into our lives because we see it as our right to do so. Our development of better, newer technology is defined as “progress”, but the creation of technology itself invites the possibility of failure and catastrophe.
In other words, accidents, like Chernobyl, happen on purpose.
And they will continue to happen as long as we continue to fund and build projects under the notion of technological efficiency. In Paul Virillio’s The Original Accident, he references Aristotle and his view on how accidents are directly related to its inventions:
‘The accident reveals the substance.’ If so, then invention of the ‘substance’ is equally the invention of the ‘accident’. The shipwreck is consequently the ‘futurist’ invention of the ship, and the air crash the invention of the supersonic airliner, just as the Chernobyl meltdown is the invention of the nuclear power station. (Virillio, 5)
Accidents shadow the birth of new inventions. When we develop or create new technology, we are also creating the possibility of an accident or disaster. However, it is this accident that forces us to rebuild and adapt, thus, melding the event of an accident with its ‘invention’.
Many of us hold the view that we have the right to technological progress. And despite the Chernobyl accident, this view is continuously maintained and held by the majority of humanity. We still engage with technology the same way we did prior to Chernobyl. The Fukushiima Daiichi nuclear disaster happened in 2011, twenty-five years after the catastrophe.
Today, there are about 450 nuclear power reactors operating in thirty countries and about 50 power reactors are being constructed in 15 countries. Aside from the ongoing risk of toxic waste and contamination created by nuclear power plants, the possibility of a meltdown like Chernobyl still exists, yet, these projects are still being funded. No matter how catastrophic the effects, humanity fails to truly grasp the extent of the damage because we still have faith that we can overcome the dangers of inventing.
After all the disasters we have lived and suffered through, do we really have a reason to maintain this faith?
We view technology through rose-coloured glasses. Chernobyl’s unstable and unreliable sarcophagus doesn’t scare us because we are certain that technology will be developed in the future to resolve the issue. Our chronic inability to capture any real meaning from catastrophes is a reflection of how difficult it is for us to properly understand the reality of our situation due to the integration and dependence of technology in our lives. However, this is not to say that we should halt all developments and revert to traditional ways of living.
New knowledge will be revealed as the years pass and new inventions will follow suit. But we must learn to accept that catastrophe will always be inevitable, and that it comes hand in hand with progress. Currently, Elon Musk is building a SpaceX rocket with plans to take 100 people to Mars as early as 2023.
If the project succeeds, humanity will be introduced to a new way of life on a different planet and must invent the necessary technological devices for survival on Mars. If the project fails, and disaster ensues, then we will have simply invented the Mars rocket — by accident.