CHORNOBYL (OPEN-AIR) UNIVERSITY

Paper for the 1st Int-l academic-practical conference 

«Chornobyl: Open Air Lab», 

held by Chornobyl Radiation & Ecological Biosphere Reserve 

(Kyiv, 21-23.4.2021)

Sergii Mirnyi
CEO & Founder, Chornobyl University
Academic Director, CHORNOBYL TOUR®

Chornobyl University is a multidisciplinary educational and research startup platform that aims to promote novel post-Chornobyl knowledge, that is, to research, disseminate, and apply it, using the unique possibilities offered by the accident site – the Chornobyl Zone and adjacent areas.
The paper is the first attempt to review Chornobyl University’s history, the logic of its emergence, its conceptual and institutional foundations, present scope, and prospects. This case study appears to be useful for sustainable development of educational projects (including tours and courses) in the Chornobyl Zone and Chornobyl Radiation & Ecological Biosphere Reserve.

Keywords: Chornobyl University, educational tours, study abroad programs, nuclear energy, radiation, World War 2, Cold War, Holocaust, post-radiation tourism, Chornobyl tourism

Chornobyl University is a multidisciplinary educational and research startup platform that aims to promote novel post-Chornobyl knowledge, that is, to research, disseminate, and apply it, using the unique possibilities offered by the accident site – the Chornobyl Zone, including the Chornobyl Radiation & Ecological Biosphere Reserve and the adjacent areas. Chornobyl University has three main interwoven goals: (1) to stimulate and conduct multidisciplinary high-quality academic research on the Chornobyl phenomenon; (2) to enhance dissemination of post-Chornobyl knowledge through an array of educational projects in diverse formats, varying from the most traditional to the most innovative and creative; (3) to apply the knowledge (i) to shape and accelerate post-accident mitigation and recovery of the territories, communities, and individuals affected by both the Chornobyl Disaster and other radiation, ecological, and mass-traumatic events, and (ii) to prevent and/or minimize accident aftermath. Chornobyl University is viewed not only as a stand-alone academic body but also (and even rather) as a meeting point and institutionally flexible and conceptually productive environment for developing joint projects with participants who are interested in research, academic novelty, and the immediate application of outcomes.

 

The paper is the first attempt to review and analyze Chornobyl
University’s history, the logic of its emergence, conceptual and institutional
foundations, present scope, and prospects. The paper’s secondary objective is
to illuminate by this case study the potential and general problems of Chornobyl on-site education and enlightenment. The conclusions should be useful for sustainable development of educational projects, including tours and courses, in the Chornobyl Zone, Chornobyl Radiation and Ecological Biosphere Reserve, and adjacent inhabited areas.

 

What have been the sources for Chornobyl University?

 

1) The Chornobyl University concept has been based on more than three decades of study (both by practical participation in the mitigation and by academic means), generalization and dissemination of the Chornobyl Disaster experience, which has been largely novel for our civilization. The process led to a holistic multidisciplinary concept of the Chornobyl Disaster, which is embraced by its main defining (though often not apparent) features [1,2]:

 

“…the Chernobyl NPP reactor’s accident was turned into
a global Chernobyl Disaster by a unique combination of several important circumstances:

Chernobyl was (1) a radiation accident (2) of unprecedentedly large scale, which happened (3) in a sensitive place of the world (Europe) (4) in a crucial [politically and technologically] historical
moment, and (5) its consequences – both direct (radioactive fallout) and indirect (information avalanche evoked) – has affected the international community and led to important and long-lasting global social changes and consequences.”

 

The Chornobyl Disaster appears to be a qualitatively new phenomenon for civilization, like, e.g., World War I or the Holocaust. The unique set of physical, psychological, and cultural-historical traits of ionizing radiation in combination with the unique spatial and temporal location of the Chornobyl accident has evoked a phenomenon that is likely to expose the most developed pattern not only of a radiation or ecological accident but also of mass-traumatic event in a contemporary globalized informational world.

 

The outstanding educational potential of the Chornobyl experience was understood [3] and practically implemented in the short course “Chernobyl Case Study” in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy at Central European University (CEU), Budapest (1998) [4], and in the subsequent university courses “Chernobyl as a model eco-disaster” (1999) and “Ecological disasters as social problems: Chernobyl and other case studies”, which won the Course Development Competition of the Curriculum Research Center of Higher Education Support Project, Open Society Institute and CEU (2000). The courses laid the foundation for holistic Chornobyl studies and broad multidisciplinary educational use of the Chornobyl case.

 

The site of the Chornobyl accident seems to be the best place, as it is often said, “to learn the lessons of Chornobyl”, that is, to deeper and more systematically understand them (i.e., to research) and to make them common knowledge for professionals and the general public (i.e., to educate). Moreover, the site, itself a negative consequence of the Chornobyl accident, has the potential to become a powerful tool for mitigating the accident’s aftermath. And to mitigate not only by enhancing research and knowledge dissemination but also by the mere fact of visiting the site, both its intellectual and emotional impact on visitors and its social and economic impact on the Chornobyl Zone and Chornobyl-affected areas and populations. This was the conceptual framework that eventually brought Chornobyl University into existence.

 

It is worth noting that it was within this holistic and mitigation-oriented approach that, to cure Chornobyl psycho-social trauma [5],
the idea to create an institution to preserve and efficiently use the Chornobyl
Zone historical, cultural, and natural heritage was first suggested [6]. The
institution was tentatively called the Chornobyl National Memorial-Cultural
& Natural Park (initially “the Chornobyl National-Memorial Park”), and the radiation safety for short-term visits to the area was proved for the first time: the study thus laid a scholarly foundation for (then seemingly inconceivable) Chornobyl tourism, including educational tours. This line of thinking also later naturally led to the idea to include Chornobyl sites and objects on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

 

2) Chornobyl University’s institutional source has been CHORNOBYL TOUR® [7], which was founded in 2009. The conceptual framework above was embedded in its goals and practical activities right from the start. CHORNOBYL TOUR® was viewed not only as a tour-business venture but also as a socially-responsible enlightenment and mitigation enterprise. In addition, the novel subject of Chornobyl tourism, overlooked for quite a while by formal academia, demanded certain research, if only for optimizing
the business. It forced CHORNOBYL TOUR® both to undertake its own
studies and to stimulate established scholarly institutions, partly by
promoting Chornobyl tourism and partly by publishing its own research outcomes. Responding to tourism’s practical needs and market demands, the research also embraced other kinds of applied projects, like creating maps, advising on Chornobyl souvenir content and design, etc. Those two activities gradually shaped themselves in CHORNOBYL TOUR® Educational Programs and a Research Department, respectively.

 

Educational Programs [8] – alone and in collaboration with highly-ranked European, American, and Japanese universities – developed several educational tours and on-site university courses, which later were embedded in Chornobyl University activities (see below).

 

The Research Department’s [9] most important projects were literal mapping of the Chornobyl Zone, the first scholarly research of Chornobyl tourism and post-radiation tourism, and providing a rationale for submitting Chornobyl objects and sites to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

 

In the series of pioneering research, Chornobyl tourism was addressed in scholarly literature for the first time, the very term (then almost unthinkable) was coined [10], and the first statistical and socio-cultural survey (in particular, the first assessment of its economic effects) [11] and the first overview were completed [12]. After the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) accident, a more general concept of post-radiation(-accident) tourism was suggested [12,13]. The notion of Chornobyl/post-radiation tourism
as a mandatory tool in accident mitigation and revival was substantiated in its
five functions [12,13]: (1) it revives the economy and society of the regions
affected; (2) it cures the psychological trauma of the populations affected; (3)
it informs and educates the general public and professionals; (4) it serves as
a psychologically-curing symbol of overcoming the mishap; and (5) it stimulates the Zone recovery from the extraordinary, militarized, closed (and thus, in the long run, inefficient) state to an ordinary, open, civil, sustainable state. A separate analysis was done to create a sustainable integrated system of
transboundary Ukrainian-Belarusian Chornobyl tourism [14]. During a decade, dozens of undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate students in tourism, anthropology, history, etc. from around the world received advice and
information from the Research Department.

 

The practical travel and research needs in the Chornobyl
Zone required a topographic map that would simultaneously embrace the
whole area and be quite detailed, and which did not exist then. The ambitious
project to prepare it was undertaken by the CHORNOBYL TOUR® Research
Department. The Chornobyl Zone topographic map of 100,000:1 scale (1 km:1 cm) [15] was based on Soviet military topographic maps that were updated by the project team. For the first time, the map showed not only the outer border of the Zone but also the full set of its important internal areas: the Exclusion zone, the Zone of mandatory eviction, the (most contaminated) 10-kilometer zone, and the Red Forest. This map proved to be both a financial success and a practically important mitigation tool, and, upon requests, it was presented for free to the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management, the Chornobyl Radiation & Ecological Biosphere Reserve, Chornobyl police, Ukrainian national border guards, the Security
Service of Ukraine, and local enterprises.

 

The Research Department suggested making the first tourist
map of the Chornobyl Zone
[16] as both a de-traumatizing and tourism-promotion tool. Based on this approach, the general visual concept and
a particular designer, already known for his contemporary, colorful, and
life-loving vibrant Ukrainian style, were selected. The map showed not only the whole Ukrainian Chornobyl Zone but also a neighboring part of the Belarusian Zone. The intellectually and socially brave enterprise has visibly advanced a positive image of the Chornobyl Zone and tourism.

 

For the first time, these two maps systematically selected and showed the locations of the Chornobyl Zone’s most important historical, cultural, and some natural landmarks. The Research Department team suggested the majority of these locations to the UNESCO World Heritage List as meeting its basic requirement of having “outstanding universal value” and selection criteria, and matching the Chornobyl Disaster’s global historical and cultural importance. This highest recognition level of the Chornobyl Zone’s cultural (and possibly, in the future, natural) heritage will help to preserve and use it in a productive and sustainable way. The first feasibility analysis of Chornobyl’s application was presented by the Research Department team and the author at the 26 April 2017 meeting of the Ukrainian National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and was unanimously approved. Largely due to the Research Department’s lobbying efforts over the past four years, the idea has become part of the state’s agenda, and now the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine plans to submit a Tentative Application for the Chornobyl sites and objects to UNESCO by the 35th anniversary of the Chornobyl accident.

 

3) The third and final source of and step towards creating the Chornobyl University was the Chornobyl Guide Club, also named Chornobyl
Guide School
, a joint project with the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, one of the leading Ukrainian universities. The Club’s/School’s open lectures strived to broaden and upgrade the knowledge of Chornobyl guides and the general public. Two meetings were held: “Atomic energy and the arrogance of man: Revisiting the Chernobyl nuclear disaster” with historian Serhii Plokhii, Harvard University Professor, Director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, author of “Chernobyl: The history of a nuclear catastrophe”; and “Excursion – the art of heritage interpretation” with anthropologist and guide Magdalena Banaszkiewicz from Jagiellonian University (Krakow, Poland). They attracted not only guides, students, teachers, and researchers from Kyiv Mohyla Academy, but also academics from leading Ukrainian universities and research institutes.

 

By 2020, the substantial amount of educational and research activities, mentioned above, become ‘critical’, that is, it outgrew the scope of a tourism business enterprise and demanded a separate body for its natural and efficient functioning. The trigger happened to be a request from the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine to develop and
jointly implement Chornobyl Guides’ Course [17]. The course had been badly
needed for a long time in order not only to eliminate the shortage of qualified
Chornobyl guides but also to develop the very standard for this new and challenging profession. The Chornobyl University started with this course [18].

 

At the moment, Chornobyl University offers engaging study tours and field courses for educational and scientific visitors, organized in cooperation with leading world universities and Ukrainian Chornobyl research centers. The large experts network can address a variety of disciplines, such as: biology, ecology, environmental sciences and policy; nuclear energy and engineering; radiation studies, radiobiology, radioecology, agricultural radiology; health sciences; emergency management, disaster studies; history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, trauma studies; Cold War studies, Soviet studies, military history, security studies; Jewish studies, etc. The programs are designed to enhance existing university courses or can be organized as stand-alone study tours.

 

Nuclear Power, Nature, and People is a holistic look at the Chornobyl accident, its causes and consequences, and at nuclear energy, radiation, and their effect on nature, society, and the individual. It was taken, for example, by students from Purdue University’s School of Nuclear Engineering, who visited, in addition to Zone sites, the Chernobyl Center for Nuclear Safety, Radioactive Waste, and Radioecology in Slavutych and the Human Body Irradiation Counter Laboratory at the Institute for Radiation Safety / Institute for Radiation Hygiene and Epidemiology of the National Research Center on Radiation Medicine, Kyiv). Social and Natural Resilience explores the flourishing wildlife in the Chornobyl reserves of Ukraine and Belarus, and the human communities in and around the Chornobyl Zone.

 

From World War to Cold War , already taken several times by student groups from the University of New Haven (USA), examines the events of WWII in Ukraine, the Holocaust, and the Cold War in the USSR, including nuclearization, the arms race, and the Chornobyl accident, which effectively ended the Soviet Union and the Cold War. It includes sites and museums of the largest assault river crossing in World War II, the Battle of the Dnipro; Kyiv Fortified Region defense line objects; important Holocaust sites, including the Babi Yar mass grave site and memorial in Kyiv and the Jewish cemetery and Holocaust mass grave in the town of Chornobyl; Chernobyl-2
Soviet secret military base and over-the-horizon radar for detecting U.S.
intercontinental nuclear missiles; a former Soviet thermonuclear 
intercontinental missile launch base; and more.

 

For the courses, students and teacher(s) usually arrive in Kyiv and then follow a jointly-designed course syllabus and travel program, visiting the Chornobyl Zone and sites in Kyiv Oblast and around Ukraine. The on-site courses largely rely on the experience of Ukrainian researchers and experts who have conducted first-hand Chornobyl research and/or directly 
participated in the Chornobyl mitigation, and on communication with Chornobyl accident witnesses and present-day inhabitants of the Chornobyl Zone/Biosphere Reserve and adjacent region. In addition to achieving a more holistic and detailed picture, students also acquire certain ‘tacit knowledge’ of the extremely complex subject of Chornobyl and contemporary radiation, ecological, and mass-traumatic accidents.

 

A very popular educational product is an intensive 1-2 day educational trip to the Chornobyl Zone, designed according to the group’s needs.
Students from different nuclear, natural-scientific, social, and humanitarian
programs of reputable world universities have taken this kind of educational
trip on an annual basis for several years in a row, including Humboldt and
European Viadrina (Germany), Helsinki (Finland), and Wageningen University and Research (Netherlands), the latter is ranked #1 and #3 Best environmental science school in Europe by U.S. News & World Report and QS World University Rankings respectively, and #2 Best Global University for Environment/Ecology by U.S. News & World Report (2021).

 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Chornobyl University equipped
a studio for online education, and switched to online courses (Chornobyl Guide Course) and tours. At the request of Wageningen University, a 3-hour video tour to the Chornobyl Zone was filmed, edited, and used as the basis for the university’s annual educational program in 2020. It was later contracted to a 1-hour video tour with discussion and a brief Q&A session, which fits the standard 1.5-hour lecture format, and is now offered for schools and universities. We also did a promising experiment with Commonwealth Charter Academy (USA), combining this video tour with live videostreaming of a guide at the main Chornobyl locations. This latter combined live/pre-recorded tour was offered pro bono for Kyiv’s “We love to live” (“
Життєлюб”) Club of Elderly People; the event marked the opening of both charitable programs and general public programs for Chornobyl University.

 

After all courses and events, feedback is collected by follow-up questionnaires. Participant feedback has indicated that students and teachers highly value the courses/tours and recognize the unique value of the
Chornobyl topic and site for education. The comments and suggestions received were used to improve the content, structure, and convenience of the on-site courses.

 

Chornobyl University has shown the high efficiency of the Chornobyl Zone as an educational site; of the multidisciplinary approach to its educational treatment; and of Chornobyl University’s cooperation with established Ukrainian and international universities, on-site research
institutions, and the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management (Chornobyl Zone authority). The on-site Chornobyl experience, processed and disseminated via innovative educational joint projects, can and should help cope with dire challenges of the 21st century.

REFERENCES

  1. Mirnyi S. 1999. Chernobyl as a model case of eco-disaster. In: Case studies in environmental education and research. Volume of Abstracts of the 5th auDes* Conference on environmental education. Zurich, Switzerland, April 15-17, 1999. Zurich, ETH-UNS & EAWAG: 35. <*auDes – Europian Association of Un-ty Depts of Environmental Sciences>
  2. Mirnyi S. 1999. Technical notes [About the course Chernobyl Case Study]. The Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy Journal (Central European University, Budapest) 2 (Spring): 30-31.
  3. Mirnyi S. 2005. Chernobyl: Catastrophe mitigated – disaster perpetuated. Overview report for the project Environmental History of the USSR and post-USSR (Central European University, Env. Sci&Policy Dept, Open Society Archives, 2003-2005). Manuscript. 34 p.
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  17. Chornobyl Guide Course (First announcement; in Ukr.).
    https://www.chernobyl-tour.com/chornobyl_university_ua.html
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