Nuclear Placelessness?

In extra, extra 2 by Rachel Stern

Many of the places that we consider to be placeless are placeless because of the types of people that inhabit it or the way it has been changed by humans. However, Chernobyl is one of the unique places that has been affected by human action to the point that it is uninhabitable for humans and has been forced to become a “placeless” place.

On April 26, 1986, there was a massive nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which was situated in the town of Pripyat, Ukraine. The evacuation after the meltdown caused Pripyat to become a ghost-town. The abandoning of Pripyat and the whole area around Chernobyl has caused it to become defined as “placeless”. It has stayed completely stuck in time; there has been no development, no human lives progressing, and no changing of the place. In a strange warped version of the “museumification” that Edward Relph discusses, Pripyat and Chernobyl are kept forever in the past.

This is a family of moose in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

A family of moose in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

I think a term that could be used would be “mummification”; the place is dead and no longer breathing and creating new life, but is still preserved in the state that it ended in. Michael Day, a photographer, chronicles this preserved state of the abandoned Pripyat now. Also, with health regulations stopping people from returning there legally, it is a place that is not accessible, and therefore is closed off to even the possibility of being a place we can experience.

However, while Chernobyl is no longer a human place, remarkable things have happened with wildlife and ecological succession in that area due to the absence of human presence. According to an article by Mary Mycio, it “could become Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary”. This is not to say that there aren’t still large amounts of radiation in the area, but from scientific studies that have been done, it seems that wildlife is less sensitive to radiation than humans and that the populations now, 30 years after the nuclear fallout, are relatively healthy and of normal size.

So is Chernobyl still placeless? Edward Relph discusses the ideas of “authenticity” and “inauthenticity” in terms of defining placelessness. He says, “As authenticity consists of an openness to the world and an awareness of the human condition, so inauthenticity is an attitude which is closed to the world and to man’s possibilities.” Even though Chernobyl is closed, at least at the moment, to the possibility of human life there, and it is in many respects also “closed to the world”, I don’t think it is inauthentic. In fact, I think the ecological succession and resilience that has taken place at Chernobyl is the very definition of authenticity because it has opened up a landscape to animals that might have been endangered or pushed away by human settlement before, and it exhibits more than an awareness of the human condition. It exhibits an awareness of the living condition, of any living animals, not just humans.

In this way, Chernobyl becomes bigger than us, and is a place that we cannot experience, but can appreciate if we don’t focus on place as necessarily an anthropocentric idea. Is a place “placeless” if humans aren’t in it or can we still view it as a full place? I think in order to accept it as a place, we need to acknowledge its placelessness within the human realm of understanding, but acknowledge that it can be a place in a more general realm of the living creatures and the living world. Chernobyl’s sudden drop into the realm of placelessness 30 years ago is what has allowed it to develop naturally into a different and new place.

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