Contaminated Concepts about Chernobyl

I’m heading over to shake hands with a plant worker who had been fishing in the nearby cooling water channel when the top of the reactor blasted off. Photo credit: Des.

After visiting the town where people had remained despite orders to move, we had spent our two days in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone talking to groups of field researchers, scouring the wetland bushes by the cooling pond, and hiking the grasslands in search of a herd of Przewalski horses within a fifteen kilometer radius from the accident site. On our last day, we finally got a tour of the power plant itself.

Our guide was an international PR representative of the power plant, a man whom the researchers had met before. He was a very experienced and well-spoken, and had a flair for showmanship, too – I got the feeling that he knew how to give the visitors what they wanted out of their tour.

Our scientist hosts told us that they had earlier caught the same guide telling the visitors tall tales about the death count of the accident. I was uncomfortably aware that people may visit the place “for kicks,” in order to revel in an aura of horror, in the process unnecessarily mischaracterizing the true nature of the tragedy. Drawbacks of disaster tourism. The scarier the stories the guides could tell them about the place, the greater the dramatic effect.

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The Animals of Chernobyl – Trip Report, Day Three

On the way to Chernobyl. Photo credit: Des.

The single most dangerous moment during our trip to Chernobyl happened on the road on our way in. We were still aways from the checkpoint guarding entry into the heart of the Exclusion Zone, crossing the forests of the larger Zone. Our driver, Alexander, didn’t spare the gas pedal, and well inside the Zone, the roads got old and bumpy – “more hole than road,” as he put it. A hare sprinted across the road right in front of us, and Alexander swerved to avoid it.

Nothing happened, luckily, and all we got was a little scare. It wasn’t the only time we had a surprise animal crossing in front of the car in the Zone. The adventurous overtakings on the more well trafficked highways before that (photo) might have counted among the more risky moments too. But that little occurrence with the hare is an illuminating facet of the Zone all in all: it’s full of animal life.

We didn’t see much more of the wild kind that night, but as we found our way to Hotel Pripyat inside Chornobyl town, animal life was the most immediate and defining feature of that place too, because of the dogs. They were everywhere.

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The Town That Remained Despite the Chernobyl Accident

Building on the Narodychi town square. Photo credit: Rua Meegan / ruameegan on instagram.

We left Kyiv behind us (The Most Dangerous Part of the Trip), and headed north in our repurposed German cleaning and building supplies van, now working as a minibus. Our destination: Narodychi. Officially the people of Narodychi were told to leave their homes three decades ago – but they never left. Their lives went on.

Because of the town’s peculiar status, it faces an uncertain future. As the rules stand, it is not possible to develop or cultivate the land, and the inhabitants best make do with the old infrastructure they have.

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Visiting Chernobyl, Day One, The Most Dangerous Part of the Trip: Kyiv

nullI finally found time to write about my visit to Chernobyl. I hope to do justice to the tremendous impression left by the people I got to meet, including locals living in the area, former clean-up workers, as well as scientists currently working in the Exclusion Zone. First up: arrival in Kyiv.


The first thing I noticed about Ukraine were the fires. As my airplane descended toward Kiev in the east, I saw three large pillars of smoke rising from the countryside underneath. Continue reading

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Decarbonisation at a Discount? Let’s Not Sell Future Generations Short

Economy: an intricate system of mediums of exchange that enables many complex workings of our societies. It’s a wondrous interconnected network of symbols, really, a true testament to human ability of abstract thought.

How we should best steer or influence the economy is a vast arena for political debate. But even before we sit down for that political discussion, we should bring a few fundamental insights about the role and workings of the economic system to the table.

One thing is certain: any major change of our societies should take into account its impacts on the economy. Another thing is certain too: if we allow climate change to continue past several degrees in the near future, the effects will be so grave that many concrete fundaments of a working economy, things like resource availability and organised networks of laws and societies that coordinate their exchange, are set to change dramatically. There will also be a great deal of suffering, death, and major blows to many of the natural ecosystems as we know them, along the way.

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The Risks of Failed Risk Assessments On Natural vs Unfamiliar Sources of Energy

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Read here for the German version Das Risiko, Risiken falsch einzuschätzen.

German society Nuklearia kindly invited me to write about risk perceptions on the topic of energy on their blog, where this piece originally appeared in German. You can read it in English below.

Humans are naturally bad at assessing complex risks. We have an inborn ability to make risk-assessments quickly using mental shortcuts, or biases, which have been helpful to us in the course of evolution. But in a world full of abstract information, it’s important to realise that these shortcuts are very far from error-free.

No one is immune to these basic biases – not policy makers, regulators, scientists, or anyone else. I highly value my training as a scientist, but as a mother, I also know that any potential threat to my children will elicit a jolt of worry long before I have time for a slow and deliberate weighing of the risks in light of best possible evidence. However, I also understand that if I persistently fail to give the slow and reflective assessments of risks a chance to check my instinctive judgements, I can unintentionally end up exposing my children to more harm. Continue reading

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What Level of Risk Justifies Denying People Their Homes? A Look at Fukushima vs Pollution in Big Cities

I was very moved after hearing the heartfelt testimonies of teacher Yoshiko Aoki, high-school student Moe Harada, and a group of students dialling in from Fukushima to the OECD NEA risk communication workshop in Paris. I previously shared with you their Stories from Tomioka town, Fukushima. But I felt that I needed to do more – I wanted to honour the last plea the students made before they hung up:

“Everyone should try to know the real facts about Fukushima.”

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Within Tomioka town there are still off-limits areas barred with metal fences.

I have tried to do just that. I looked for information on the areas that were so painful for the teacher, Ms Aoki to see: where inhabitants of Tomioka town are still barred from entering. Although coming back to their homes in 2017 was cause for happiness and an opportunity to finally begin to heal for Aoki and more than a thousand others, the existence of these off-limit areas sounded from her account like wounds in the town itself.

“There are barriers in our town, where people are forbidden to go.”

In this piece write about my attempt to understand the kind of risks the authorities were protecting their people from with such extreme measures. Continue reading

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Stories from Tomioka Town, Fukushima

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I want to share with you the touching testimonies of a teacher and students of Tomioka town in Fukushima prefecture, whom I had the privilege of listening to while I attended a radiological risk communication workshop at OECD Nuclear Energy Agency’s headquarters in Paris in September 2019.

Teacher Yoshiko Aoki and high-school student Moe Harada had traveled from Japan in order to give us their personal accounts of how their lives were disrupted by the tsunami, the Daiichi nuclear plant accident, and the events that followed.

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Chemical Exposures: The Good, the Bad, and the Tiny

I have often written about the lack of perspective on chemical scares, which is why I was happy to find out that Swedish Professor Emeritus in toxicology, Lennart Dencker, has written a book on this topic called “Not as dangerous as many might think.”

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Prof Denck interviewed at the Swedish magazine Research and Progress about his book.

In the Uppsala University press release he elaborates that with his book he wants to give the public, particularly teachers, better tools to assess the many alarm-inducing headlines we see about chemicals. He feels a responsibility to share the knowledge he has accumulated during his research career, and wants to help give the younger generation a better chance at developing a reasonable view of the situation pertaining to risk and toxicology.

Our environment has never been as ‘clean’ as it is today in Sweden,

he says in an interview to the Swedish magazine Research and Progress, pointing out how significant toxic exposures like indoor smoking, leaded gasoline, and older generation pesticides have all but disappeared within his own life-time. Continue reading

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Appreciating Stories – as a Scientist, Writer, and Human

When things get difficult, I seek comfort in stories. This might not be so surprising, after all, stories are the fundamental building blocks of human reality.

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Evolution is one of the most fascinating stories of reality.

We view the world through our identity, the story of who we are, and we weave in new information into our worldview in the form of stories, too. All too easily we may reject information if we feel it does not fit into the narratives important to us.

Science, for me, is the idea that the story of the universe is so incredible and so valuable, that it is worth it to keep our narratives open so that we may consider new plot twists carefully even if they may at first confuse or surprise us. Real things in the world matter, and our stories should strive to align with that reality. Often enough reality is indeed stranger than our fictions.

That’s not to downplay the role of fiction, fantasy, and imagination in our lives. Continue reading

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