Monday, March 14, 2011

Iconic Monday: Meltdowns in Our Time

Japan faced mounting humanitarian and nuclear emergencies Sunday as the death toll from Friday's earthquake and tsunami climbed astronomically, partial meltdowns occurred at two crippled plants and cooling problems struck four more reactors.

That the was lede of the New York Times's coverage of Japanese earthquake yesterday. As the hours passed after the earthquake and tsunami struck, the story veered toward damage assessment, but more ominously toward the looming disaster from radiation leaks at the country's nuclear power plants. The Times's report said the emergency "appeared to be the worst involving a nuclear plant since the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago." We have been assured that the Japanese nuclear plants are of a different design than that of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, but the imagery already emerging from Japan is filled with the frightening visual cues of atomic-age paranoia.

An official in protective gear and an evacuee from the area around the Fukushima Daini power plant in Japan. Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoom/Reuters
Chernobyl remains the gold-standard for man-made disasters, of course. Unlike the disaster in Japan, the Chernobyl meltdown on April 26, 1986 wasn't caused by nature's violence, but by a combination of technological prowess and ineptitude—exactly the kind of thing we'd all been worrying about throughout the Cold War. After the Soviet Empire broke apart and its secrets began to spill out, Chernobyl became a cautionary tale about nuclear-age environmental catastrophe and an emblem of a deep-seated modern anxiety. Meltdowns occupy the psychological space that lies, as Rod Serling colorfully put it back in the day, between "the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge."

At Chernobyl, the worst fears were realized after workers at the nuclear plant, near the town of Pripyat in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, were conducting a routine test. A cascade of events led to power surge in reactor number four, which led to a rupture of the reactor's containment vessel, then explosions and fire that sent a cloud of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. It blew over a vast area of Europe and the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of people had to be resettled. At first, the event remained enveloped in Soviet secrecy and the town of Pripyat, where plant workers lived, was not immediately evacuated. It would be years before the real human toll of the radiation damage would be seen clearly.

It was the photographers who went in to document the catastrophe who showed us, and who continue to show us the effects of the radiation cloud--effects that have lasted generations. The photographers are still at it--a look at the VII Photo Agency's list of Chernobyl-related essays shows how over time Chernobyl has in fact become a photographically-driven story. (Photographer Gerd Ludwig, who brilliantly documented Chernobyl's aftermath a decade ago, is currently planning a return trip for the 25th anniversary--go here to see how you can help send him.)

Very early on, photographers saw Chernobyl as more than another of history's disasters, and journalism gave way to art. In May of 1991, five years after the accident, Robert Polidori spent three days shooting in and around Chernobyl-- the so-called "zones of exclusion" made uninhabitable after 1986. Polidori was not a photojournalist by trade, but a master architectural photographer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Architectural Digest, and Nest). He turned the burned-out wreckage of reactor four's control room into a symbol of technological hubris.

 The ransacked apartments and schools of Pripyat were beautifully rendered and cataloged, like the remains of Pompeii and the Titanic.

Photographs suggest more than they explain, which is one of reasons they remain so steadfast in our memories. Images of the Chernobyl disaster captured something "between science and superstition," but it wasn't the Twilight Zone. It was real. Meltdowns are real.

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