Chernobyl: Living with risk and uncertainty

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37 Citations (Scopus)


The nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986 is a dramatic example of the type of incidents that are characteristic of a 'risk society'. The consequences of the incident are indeterminate, the causes complex and future developments unpredictable. Nothing can compensate for its effects and it affects a broad population indiscriminately. This paper examines the lived experience of those who experienced biographical disruption as residents of the region on the basis of qualitative case studies carried out in 2003 in the Chernobyl regions of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Our analysis indicates that informants tend to view their future as highly uncertain and unpredictable; they experience uncertainty about whether they are already contaminated, and they have to take hazardous decisions about where to go and what to eat. Fear, rumours and experts compete in supplying information to residents about the actual and potential consequences of the disaster, but there is little trust in, and only limited awareness of, the information that is provided. Most informants continue with their lives and 'do what they must' or even 'what they like', even where the risks are known. They often describe their behaviour as being due to economic circumstances; where there is extreme poverty, even hazardous food sources are better than none. Unlike previous studies, we identify a pronounced tendency among informants not to separate the problems associated with the disaster from the hardships that have resulted from the break-up of the USSR, with both events creating a deep-seated sense of resignation and fatalism. Although most informants hold their governments to blame for lack of information, support and preventive measures, there is little or no collective action to have these put in place. This contrasts with previous research which has suggested that populations affected by disasters attribute crucial significance to that incident and, as a consequence, become increasingly politicized with regard to related policy agendas.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)105-121
Number of pages17
JournalHealth, Risk & Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2006


  • nuclear accident
  • risk society
  • situations at risk of illness
  • biographical disruption
  • health
  • disaster
  • Soviet
  • disruption
  • community
  • behavior
  • illness
  • Russia


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