POLITICAL FALLOUT

Paul Anderson, review of Something in the Wind: Politics After Chernobyl BY Louis Mackay and Mark Thompson (eds) (Pluto/European Nuclear Disarmament, £7.95), Tribune, 22 July 1988

On April 26 1986, the Number Four unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine ran out of control during a test of its electrical systems. After a series of errors by the men in the control room, the nuclear reactor exploded. For ten days, the wrecked plant poured radioactive material into the atmosphere. Wind carried the debris across Europe; the Soviet authorities evacuated thousands from the region around the power station and tried desperately to contain the radioactive emissions. Nobody knows how many have died as a result of the disaster; nobody knows how many are now dying.

This timely book is a collection of essays from non-aligned Left and peace movement perspectives examining the context of and political fallout from Chernobyl. Zhores Medvedev contributes a superb chapter detailing the history of Soviet nuclear power policy (a tale, unsurprisingly, of nationalist posturing, bureaucratic incompetence, cover-ups, technical mis­haps and military manoeuvring); Martin Ince lays bare the similar background to Britain’s own nuclear power programme. Richard Erskine and Phil Webber examine the safety issues of nuclear power, showing convincingly that the nuclear industry’s assessment of risks underestimate the likelihood and the possible seriousness of nuclear accidents.

But the most provocative chapters are those looking at the political implications of Chernobyl and discus­sing political alternatives to the nexus of bureaucracy, militarism and technology-fetishism that made Cher­nobyl possible.

Louis Mackay and Mark Thompson contribute two fascinating pieces on the post-Chernobyl growth of anti-nuclear and environmentalist movements and opinion, in the Third World and Eastern Europe respectively. Both argue that such developments pose challenges to the Left and peace and environmentalist movements in the developed West. Independent East­ern European responses to Chernobyl were moulded by outrage at the disinformation put out by the party-states’ news monopolies, and East European environmentalism has been characterised by demands for democratisation and openness. In the Third World, Chernobyl has been a catalyst for movements that see nuclear power as the epitome of the inappropriate technologies foisted on undeveloped countries by the developed world (a position expressed elegantly in Praful Bidwai’s essay in this volume).

Mackay and Thompson believe that radicals in the developed West can make common cause with such movements – but only if they change their ways. The left and the peace and environmentalist movements in the West need to broaden their perspectives, learning from one another and from the experiences of those living under “actually existing socialism” and in the Third World.

The sort of non-aligned green libertarian socialist political synthesis that such a process could yield is explored further in Kate Soper and Martin Ryle’s concluding essay. For them, Chernobyl has “allowed anti-nuclearism to emerge as the central plank of a trans-bloc ecological platform of opposition to the pro-nuclear trans-bloc technocratist consensus”: the problem now is to flesh out the platform and make it the common sense of the age.

They come up with no easy solutions – indeed, their main prescriptions are cautions against embracing market forces or withdrawing into an anarchist counter-cultural ghetto – but their sense of what the Left’s priorities should be is invigorating. If only Labour’s policy reviewers exhibited a small fraction of their imagination.

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