Vested interests

How monolithic institutions decide what is safe for the rest of us

By Christine Fassert and Tatiana Kasperski

In December 2020, twenty years after the final closure of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine announced its intention to prepare an application to include certain objects in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The ministry planned to submit its application in the spring of 2021, as a way to mark the 35th anniversary of the accident on April 26.

This project would allow the establishment of a scheme to preserve the site, but above all to highlight its universal historical importance.

On the UNESCO list

Two sites linked to the dark nuclear past are already on the UNESCO list: the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site.

The Chernobyl site would symbolize the long history of accidents that have marked the atomic age, from Kychtym and Windscale (1957), to Three Mile Island (1979) and Fukushima (2011), whose tenth anniversary we commemorated this year.

Moreover, the Chernobyl accident constitutes a particular moment in this history, namely the beginning of the institutionalization of the international management of the consequences of nuclear accidents, whose impact became fully apparent at the time of the Fukushima accident.

A small group of organizations

If the origins of accidents are most often explained by factors related to the development of the nuclear industry and its regulatory bodies at the national level, the “management” of their consequences gradually extends beyond national borders.

“Chernobyl Memorial – Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant” byatomicallyspeaking is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In this respect, Chernobyl established the monopolization of the authoritative knowledge of ionizing radiation by a small group of organizations — the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR).

Through a series of alliances and co-options, these organizations formed a monolithic bloc on the issue of radiological risk.

Relegated to a militant marginality

From that moment on, divergent points of view were de-legitimized and relegated to a form of militant marginality. These included the positions of such individuals as “dissident” scientist Keith Baverstock who directed the radiation protection program at the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe, and those of such organizations as the International Association of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).

This monopoly translates into an internationalization of accident management that relies on a series of tools designed to establish a “normalization” of the post accident situation through the depoliticization of the management of risks related to radioactive fallout. They enshrine the power of experts close to international nuclear organizations to determine what sacrifices in terms of health and the environment are acceptable.

As physicists Bella and Roger Belbéoch point out:

“Far from calling into question the power they have secured for themselves in society, the nuclear disaster allows them to constitute themselves into a unified international body with even greater powers. It is at the moment when the scientific experts can no longer promise anything other than disaster management that their power inevitably takes hold.”

“Far from calling into question the power they have secured for themselves in society, the nuclear disaster allows them to constitute themselves into a unified international body with even greater powers. It is at the moment when the scientific experts can no longer promise anything other than disaster management that their power inevitably takes


This monopoly over knowledge and management of an accident was very much present in Japan in 2011, when the Japanese authorities put in place measures, which, by largely referring to international standards, warded off objections: the accident was dealt with by the experts.

Anand Grover, at lectern, is one of the UN Special Rapporteurs who has strongly criticized the handling of nuclear accidents, seen as violations of human rights. (Photo: British High Commission/Creative Commons)

However, a shift occurred in this monopoly when a UN rapporteur, Anand Grover, severely criticized Tokyo’s management of the disaster. 

At the same time, new conceptual tools proposed by the social sciences, such as the “production of ignorance”, offer a framework for analysis that makes it possible to extend the criticisms beyond the domain of a purely expert debate, opening the way to a re-politicization of the accident and its consequences.

Making nuclear accidents manageable

But, first of all, how can you make a nuclear accident manageable when, as was the case at Chernobyl and Fukushima, it causes very large releases of radioactive particles, spreading around the globe and causing long-term contamination of tens of thousands of square kilometers?

Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated or relocated from these territories, and hundreds of thousands of others continue to live in an environment affected by radioactivity.

Zoning, that is, the division of these territories into several “zones” according to the density of contamination and the necessary protective measures, was the first instrument that made it possible, in Japan and in the former Soviet Union, to make the accident manageable.

Thus, for example, the government strategy implemented by various actors in Japan was based on the establishment of a series of zones in the days following the disaster: evacuated and decontaminated zones with subsequent “lifting of the evacuation order”, “difficult to return to” zones in which the radiological contamination remained high, and zones that remained prohibited.

This zoning mechanism set up by the Japanese government is part of a regulatory framework established by the two major international nuclear institutions, the IAEA and the ICRP. The ICRP sets the dose limit for the public at 1 millisievert (mSv)/year. Since 2007, the ICRP has authorized  government authorities to raise this threshold (from 1 to 20 mSv/year) in the case of a nuclear accident.

When the Japanese authorities, like the Soviet authorities in 1986, chose to raise the threshold following the accident, they justified it in terms of the virtual absence of any health risks.

The radiological threshold

The mechanism is based in particular on the choice of a radiological threshold from which the population will be evacuated.

In Japan, government officials consider that the risk of developing cancer from exposure to a dose of 100mSv or less is so low according to “the international (scientific) consensus, (that) it is made undetectable by the carcinogenic effects of other factors.”

Limiting evacuations and compensations

The sociologist and historian of science Sezin Topçu shows how this zoning mechanism, which has become an indispensable element of nuclear accident management, is above all a way of limiting evacuation and compensation for damage caused by an accident, since its costs (economic, political or social) would be prohibitive for the nuclear industry and the State.

This optimization approach is also enshrined at the international level in the recommendations issued by the IAEA and the ICRP.

For example, in the case of Japan, the threshold of 20 mSv/year appears to have been chosen in part to avoid evacuating the Naka Dori region and its major cities: the established zone borders made it possible to exclude such cities in the center of the prefecture, including Fukushima, from evacuation orders.

As soon as the Japanese authorities announced the decision to raise the threshold to 20 mSv, it was widely criticized by institutions and NGOs, thus reviving the debate on the risks of low doses of ionizing radiation.

Fukushima evacuee. The Japanese government is now telling evacuees they can return to live in areas where they would be exposed to 20mSv of radiation a year, an unacceptably high dose. (Photo: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies/Creative Commons)

The condemnation of this threshold came first of all from within: the special adviser on radiation protection of the Prime Minister’s Office, Professor Toshiso Kosako, resigned in tears on April 30, 2011:

“I cannot accept such a threshold, being applied to babies, children, and elementary school students, not only from an academic point of view, but also because of my humanistic values,” he said.

Many critiques

At the international level, the decision to raise the threshold was also criticized by the two successive UN Special Rapporteurs, Anand Grover and Baskut Tuncak. Moreover, the two experts question the very foundations of radiation protection, which rely on the ALARA principle: As Low as Reasonably Achievable.

This “reasonably” indicates that criteria other than health are taken into account, which Grover criticizes, referring to the “right to health”. Indeed, the rapporteur points out that “the ICRP recommendations are based on the principle of optimization and justification, according to which all government actions should maximize the benefits over the detriments. Such a risk-benefit analysis is not in line with the framework of the right to health, because it gives priority to collective interests over individual rights”.

Tuncak echoes Grover’s criticism in his October 2018 report, stating that “the Japanese government’s decision to increase what is considered the acceptable level of radiation exposure by a factor of 20 is deeply troubling.”

Better protecting individuals

Similar arguments were also used by Belarusian and Ukrainian scientists who, in the late 1980s, opposed the lifetime dose limit of 35 rem (350msv) over a maximum period of 70 years from the time of the accident — a limit that Soviet experts in Moscow, with the support of ICRP representatives, including the head of the French Central Service for Protection against Ionizing Radiation, Pierre Pellerin, were trying to impose as the basis for all post-accident response measures. 

The Belarusian and Ukrainian researchers considered the 35 rem criterion to be unacceptable not only from a scientific point of view but also, and above all, from an ethical point of view.

They pointed out that under the conditions of scientific uncertainty about the effects of ionizing radiation, it was dangerous to underestimate the risks that radioactivity represented for the inhabitants of the affected territories, and they considered that the country’s authorities had a moral obligation to devote all the necessary means to greater protection of the inhabitants of the affected regions, especially the most vulnerable individuals.

The danger of low doses

The protagonists of the optimization of radiation protection in the post-accident context insist on the absence of studies proving significant health effects below these thresholds.

For a long time, the arguments for and against these thresholds have been discussed in the public arena and by social scientists in terms of scientific and medical “controversies” — opposing scientists connected to the nuclear sphere who have long denied the harmfulness of low doses, to scientists outside this sphere who consider that the risks were underestimated.

The question of the level of danger of low doses of radioactivity is one of the best known examples of such controversies, which regularly resurface despite the development of scientific knowledge about these risks.

This debate did not arise at the time of the Fukushima accident, but has been going on for a long time and is part of the “motives” also found in the debates about Chernobyl as well as other nuclear accidents such as Kyshtym, in Russia, in 1957.

Mechanisms of ignorance production

More recently, however, various social scientists have proposed an analysis of the promotion of a reassuring stance on these dangers as part of the mechanisms of ignorance production.

The production of ignorance, which can be both involuntary and intentional, was initially studied for a number of risks, such as tobacco.

Approaching radiological risks in terms of the production of ignorance makes it possible to break with the “exceptionalism” with which the nuclear issue has long been associated, and to consider the dangers of ionizing radiation within the broader field of health risks and its banal issues of power.

Minimizing gravity

The internationalized management of nuclear disasters is in fact based on various mechanisms of ignorance production. For instance, the sociologist of science, Olga Kuchinskaya,- describes the “politics of invisibility” that were adopted after the Chernobyl disaster.

She points out that the public visibility of the effects of ionizing radiation depends on the existence of material infrastructures – such as measuring devices, information systems and equipment — but also institutional infrastructures (for example, following a cohort of people in order to make health effects visible depends on this articulation between material and institutional elements).

Olga Kuchinskaya (left), pictured with University of Pittsburgh colleague, Lisa Parker, authored the book, The Politics of Invisibility: Public Knowledge about Radiation Health Effects after Chernobyl. (Photo: University of Pittsburgh)

This infrastructure is very costly and, in the case of Chernobyl, has not been maintained over time. Moreover, the assessment of the effects of radiation was essentially taken care of by international institutions, while local doctors and researchers, for their part, revealed a completely different and much more alarming picture of the health situation.

Kate Brown describes how various international bodies, primarily the IAEA and WHO, worked to redefine the health effects of Chernobyl, to minimize their severity, and thus actively to produce “ignorance” about the impact of the disaster.

This non-knowledge was in fact a crucial instrument that made the disaster “manageable” and allowed, as Adriana Petryna points out, “the deployment of authoritative knowledge, especially when applied to the management of the exposed population”.

The monopoly of international experts, until when?

By addressing the “exceptional” character of nuclear energy and ionizing radiation, these criticisms, whether they are made within UN bodies or by social science researchers, open the way to questioning the monopoly of international nuclear institutions in assessing radiological risk and framing so-called “post-accident” policies.

A re-politicization of the management of accident consequences that brings the “management” of a nuclear accident into the broader framework of human rights therefore becomes possible.

When the next nuclear accident occurs, it is not a given that citizens will accept the “inevitability” of the power of international experts to decide, on their behalf, what constitutes an acceptable risk.

The end of the monopoly of these experts would allow a proper debate on the risks of nuclear energy. At a time when many voices are speaking out in favor of the development of atomic energy as the lesser evil in the face of climate change, such a debate is urgent.

This article was first published in The Conversation in French on April 26, 2021, as well as on Beyond Nuclear International. English translation provided by the authors.

Christine Fassert is a social anthropologist at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Tatiana Kasperski is a research associate– Department of Humanities at Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

Headline photo: “IAEA Protest” by Global2000 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

%d bloggers like this: