The Chernobyl disaster shows how science gets strangled by its own arrogance, and how important the work of historians and journalists is. The “Manual for Survival” by the US historian Kate Brown is also about civil courage of some scientists and doctors who acted where others blindly took the side of power, money and authority.
At 1:23 AM on 26 April 1986, the Reactor Nr 4 of the Chernobyl power plant exploded, releasing the radioactive equivalent of some atom bombs into the atmosphere. The disaster was actually predictable: the RBMK reactor type was feared as notoriously unstable, even the Chernobyl plant had many accidents before. The reason why USSR was so keen on using a dangerous reactor type: RBMK produced plutonium as side-product, which can be used for nuclear weapons. And as it turned out, the world’s obsession with nuclear bombs led to the truth about the Chernobyl catastrophe being suppressed.
The official death toll of Chernobyl is just 54, the firemen and other “liquidators” who bravely rushed towards the burning Reactor Nr 4 when it exploded. Only that is actually because the USSR simply could not deny these 54 dead liquidators, because they died at the secret Moscow Hospital Nr 6 (operated by the secret Third Department of Soviet Ministry of Health) where the US scientist Robert Gale happened to be, offering his western expertise to the allegedly helpless Soviet doctors. Only that the Soviet medicine knew much more than Americans every hoped to know about the dangers of radioactive exposure and poisoning, simply because that was what the Soviet Union had been doing for some time: exposing and poisoning own populace with radioactive leaks and nuclear bomb tests. Only that the USA were doing exactly the same: Chernobyl disaster arrived very inconveniently just when the civilian victims of past nuclear bomb testing were trying to sue the governments of USA, but also of other bomb-enthusiastic nations like France. This was why USA and other atom bomb nations used the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to declare the Chernobyl disaster a non-issue, the highly radioactive lands in Belarus and Ukraine were pronounced as perfectly safe to live in. Some easily treated paediatric thyroid cancers were found, only that those were actually often not easily treated but malignant, while IAEA and other western authorities initially actually denied that these thyroid cancers ever happened in exposed Chernobyl children.
Doctors vs physicists
In the Soviet Union, it was local doctors and officials trying to save people, often without even knowing what really happened, and in spite of the Communist Party and the KGB who wanted to suppress the flow of any information, allegedly to avoid panic. To solve the problem with radioactive measurements, the measurements were simply either kept completely secret or not performed at all. Physicists preferred whole-body radiation counters which measured overall low levels of radioactivity, yet doctors analysed blood for chromosome anomalies (as well as other tissues), a much more sensitive and biologically correct method. These doctors often had to improvise while trying to detect radiation poisoning, at the same time the Soviet state set on detailed manuals of world’s best and world’s most secret radiation medicine. KGB had the best hospitals in USSR and knew exactly what was going on, but their agents were instead busy destroying and suppressing the radioactivity measurements and other clinical evidence which activist doctors and scientists have gathered.
It was these local physicians pitted against authoritative physicists from Moscow (like Yuri Izrael and Leonid Ilyin) who declared the radiation levels as perfectly safe. Which might have made sense in comparison, knowing how much radioactivity the Kazakh population was exposed to during Soviet bomb tests. Yet the Soviet radiation medicine knew exactly the difference between physical and biological exposure to radioactivity: a relatively safe amount of physical radioactive contamination rapidly potentiates itself to life-threatening levels if ingested or inhaled, especially over longer periods of time. This was why KGB and Party people ate imported packed food, while peasants in northern Ukraine and south Belarus (where much of radioactive fallout was made to rain down, in order to protect Moscow and other Russian cities) had no choice but to continue poisoning themselves, and they still do.
Thanks to the particular soil nature in the vast area of Pripyat marshes (now mostly laid dry), the radioactive isotopes concentrate in living organisms like plants and animals. The peasants were ordered by Moscow to eat “clean” food, but the near-bankrupt and chronically corrupt Soviet Union failed to provide them with any alternatives. Milk, which is the staple food in the area, was and actually still is highly radioactive. Same about mushrooms, berries, even the firewood, which radioactive ashes were then used as fertiliser. Relocation was deemed as too expensive and hence undoable, this was why only the people in the 30km radius around the Chernobyl plant were relocated. Instead, the safe dosage of soil radioactivity was elevated. Which might make sense if you don’t touch anything and best never enter the radioactive forests and meadows, and not when your entire food, water and firewood supply comes from them.
The “western” science made many wrong assumptions about Chernobyl, not just by refusing to believe villagers would consume so much of berries and mushrooms, while failing to shop for imported packed food in supermarkets. Western radiation science is namely based on the so-called Life Span Study of 120,000 Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs as well as their 75,000 offspring. The study began in 1950, and you don’t need to be a trained historian to notice that this means no data exists for the initial 5 years after the nuclear bombs exploded. In this regard, one should also consider that US Army confiscated all medical records in Hiroshima, the Army medical report was reclassified as secret after the Chernobyl fallout.
Radiation on the move
The Soviet Ministry of Health even issued a doctor’s manual after the Chernobyl disaster. It was based on decades of top-secret research, like the forty-year study of 1.5 million villagers exposed to radioactive leaks, especially from the Mayak plutonium plant in the Urals. The Russian villagers were in bad health, with cancer rates 2-3 times higher than those of Japanese bomb survivors. Right after the Chernobyl disaster, 70,000 children and over 100,000 adults were examined by Soviet medicine in Ukraine alone. The findings were not good, so they mostly disappeared in Moscow archives.
The rural population was hit worst, and then neglected. Livestock developed malformations and diseases. People got ill with chronic radiation sickness which manifested in various maladies, including leukaemia, thyroid and other cancers. In Ukraine alone, 35,000 people received compensation because a spouse died from Chernobyl radiation. Yet many victims were too young to marry, and many others were never registered. A more reliable minimal estimate of Chernobyl deaths in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia is 150,000. One Hundred Fifty Thousand. No, these children and adults did not die from irrational fears and radiation anxiety as IAEA and other authorities want us to believe. They were poisoned by the chronic radioactivity which they were not able to evade.
Almost all children in affected areas in Belarus were and still are ill. The crumbling USSR was keen to close the chapter, logistically and financially unable to fix the disaster, and also the post-Soviet Belarus dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko wanted to end the story. In 1998 a prominent Belarusian radiation medicine expert, Yuri Bandazhevsky, blew the whistle on the ongoing post-Chernobyl public health crisis and the corruption surrounding it, for which he was imprisoned and tortured.
People far away from the disaster site got radioactively poisoned, some even managed to receive the status of “liquidators”, so high was the dose they received. One reason was the artificial rains, ordered to protect the Russian cities from airborne radiation: the USSR chief meteorologist Izrael deployed the rain–seeding silver iodide to release the radioactive fallout all over the rural Belarus provinces of Gomel and Mogilev. Actually, after the Chernobyl disaster there was no rain for some time in Kiev and northern Ukraine, as well as up in Russia. But a lot of rain in Belarus, thanks to the Soviet weather engineering. The current radioactivity levels in the Belarus provinces of Gomel and Mogilev are presently higher than in the 30 km Alienation Zone, with the key difference that all inhabitants (who didn’t die) still live there, and that foreign experts and disaster tourists hardly ever visit. The Belarus people had for dangerously long time no idea of what was going on, while villagers fell ill with radiation sickness. The extent of the radioactive contamination only became known thanks to Belarus physicist Vasily Nesterenko, who suffered professional consequences and harassment from the Belarus KGB.
The other distant spread of radioactivity happened because of USSR being too poor and the Communist party being too practical to let what they saw as good stuff to be destroyed as radioactive waste. Hence, highly radioactive wool from radioactive Chernobyl-area sheep was processed in Chernihiv, skins were processed in Berdichev and meat was often sold and eaten over mysterious routes all over Ukraine and especially Belarus. One local doctor named Pavel Chekrenev saved hundreds of thousands of people in Zhytomyr by shutting down a leather factory where radioactive sheep skins were being literally washed. The skins came out clean, but the water supply for Zhytomyr was about to become extremely radioactive.
Orders from Moscow
Speaking of Zhytomyr. A local reporter, Alla Yaroshinskaya, recorded witness testimonies of Zhytomyr area villages which were exposed to Chernobyl radioactivity, it took 3 years before the Soviet censorship allowed to publish her findings. In 1991, Yaroshinskaya managed to secure the only existing copy of a Kremlin meeting of the Politburo from 3 July 1986. At that meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev presiding, the head of the Chernobyl special commission Boris Shcherbina blamed 6 employees of the Chernobyl power plant for the accident. But he also mentioned that
“there were 1,042 accidents at our nuclear power plants, yet, since 1983, the Ministry of Energy and Electrification has not had one meeting to discuss reactor safety. The Chernobyl Power plant alone had 104 accidents.”
The disgraced Chernobyl director Viktor Briukhanov admitted guilt, and was later arrested and sentenced to 10 years. A nuclear chemist, Valery Legasov, explained to the Politburo that the highly problematic RBMK-type reactor was needed to produce plutonium for the nuclear missile defence mission “Zaslon“. The Chernobyl blame case was closed, culprits found and punished. It was also decided to continue lying to IAEA.
While Ilyin and Izrael as well as the Communist Party leadership in Moscow demanded for everything to continue normally as if nothing has happened, the Ukrainian communists eventually found some courage to at least try to protect the population. Maybe they felt guilty after having sent masses of children to the May 1 parade in Kyiv, 4 days after the Chernobyl explosion. The tree leaves in Kyiv had to be later buried as radioactive waste, imagine how much radioactivity children lungs inhaled on that day, to impress the Party in Moscow.
Despite Moscow’s expressed disapproval, school year was curtailed and children were told to leave for summer holidays, away from Kyiv. Many Ukrainian children were relocated (not always efficiently), some “clean” food was brought in, villagers examined, significantly elevated damage to blood, lungs and intestine recorded, in particular in children. Interesting is that while Ukrainian communists reported only good news to Moscow and to public (i.e., no health issues, radiation levels safe), the authorities did record things properly, “for office use”. A 1988 chart of 61,000 people categorised only a fifth of children and only a third of adults as “healthy”. All those recorded cancers and maladies of cardiovascular system, airways, gastrointestinal tract and other tissues were later officially dismissed as a bizarrely simultaneous result of an improved medical diagnosis and of an abysmally deteriorated medical care. Same for the rate of congenital malformations and perinatal mortality, which more than doubled between 1986 and 1988.
In Belarus, the human impact was the same if not much worse, all properly recorded. Also, corpses of those who died between 1986 and 1988 were analysed, with findings of cesium-137 and ruthenium-106 in spleen and muscle, strontium-90 in bones and plutonium in lungs, liver and kidneys. When in 1990 IAEA arrived in Belarus to assess the situation (IAEA was very sceptical of all these claims of sick villagers and bioavailability of plutonium and strontium), KGB agents broke into the Institute of Radiation Medicine in Minsk and destroyed the records of 134,000 Belarusians, the only such database existing in the world. IAEA then relied on the fabricated data supplied from Moscow, and lowered the estimates again.
IAEA and WHO rigging science
A fascinating aspect is how IAEA experts like the US radiologist Fred Mettler defined controls when assessing health damage in radioactively polluted areas: those controls were the neighbouring areas of Belarus officially declared as “clean”. Belarusian scientists however showed that villagers in contaminated and “clean” areas actually ingested same levels of radioactivity, which explained why IAEA did see a lot of disease, but found no increase in diseases or mortality in radioactively polluted-labelled areas versus “control”. But what do those ill-informed uneducated Soviet scientists know, thought Mettler and the other western experts of IAEA. The collaborating UN agency UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) followed same program, dismissing all Soviet research as “unverified”, “sloppy” with “poor quality control”, while toying with the idea of hormesis, namely that low levels of radioactivity are actually beneficial for health. All maladies were explained as irrational psychosomatic effects, because those backwards illiterate peasants were unreasonably afraid of a bit of radiation. And this became the official Chernobyl science of today.
In 1991, IAEA head Abel Gonzalez released his Chernobyl report. Turned out, there was no reason to even try to study the (really detected) human pollution by radioactive strontium or plutonium because Gonzalez declared its bioavailability as scientifically impossible. What about childhood thyroid cancers, which are so extremely rare that they are always caused by radioactive iodine-131, as Mettler later admitted over the phone? Less of a problem because 14 Belarusian and 20 Ukrainian children with thyroid cancer, reported by local scientists, were completely excluded from the IAEA assessment for being “anecdotal in nature”. The histological slides of 20 thyroid cancer children which Mettler received from Ukrainian endocrinologists in 1991 were simply forgotten right away.
From 1989 to 1990, Belarusian scientist Valentina Drozd recorded a massive rise in paediatric thyroid cancer, often malignant, she told all that to Mettler, who immediately forgot that conversation, too. When Drozd’s superior at Minsk Institute of Radiation medicine, Larisa Astakhova, reported the findings at a 1991 conference in Ukraine for the scientific audience from Moscow as well as from the US National Cancer Institute and the WHO, she was shouted down off the stage. While WHO as institution continued to mistrust Drozd’s thyroid cancer data, the Finnish WHO scientist Keith Baverstock took her seriously. Despite warnings from WHO’s Wilfried Kreisel, Baverstock travelled to Belarus himself, and saw the children with thyroid cancer. The results of that research were published in Nature in 1992 (Baverstock et al 1992), accompanied by a letter from Astakhova and other Belarusian experts. The findings were attacked in published letters to Nature from WHO and US peers, refuting any causation between Chernobyl radiation and child thyroid cancers. Science was self-correcting itself to renounce real child suffering. Kreisel demanded of Baverstock that he either retracts his name and his WHO affiliation from the Nature publication, or faces the sack. Baverstock did not cave in, and thanks to him, Chernobyl is now officially associated with thyroid cancer in children. Which according to original IAEA, UNSCEAR and WHO assessments was all anti-scientific fairy-tales of incompetent Ukrainian and Belarusian doctors.
The Soviet Union assigned levels of “safe” radiation rather randomly. But not only USSR did that, the West was not much better. When in 1987 the US Department of Energy (which used to be in charge of atom bomb testing) drew Chernobyl damage estimates for Europe, Lynn Anspaugh phoned someone in Romania, received two numbers for cesium -137 in the ground and in the milk, “and derived an estimate for the entire country”. In 1988, USSR randomly drew the line at 350mSv lifetime limit as safe, a level workers at nuclear power plants are exposed at. That was also endorsed by IAEA. The assumption again being that the villagers are somehow not supposed to live off that radioactively contaminated land, or to get pregnant.
The story of the Kyiv physicist Natalia Lozytska is particularly interesting, as a role model for scientists today. Lozytska and her husband Vsevolod spent all their sparse free time to measure radioactive contamination first in Kyiv, then in the contaminated areas around Chernobyl. They found all kinds of dangerous radionuclides: cesium, strontium, even plutonium, at dangerous levels. The areas were clearly unfit for crops or dairy production. In 1988, Lozytska tried to pass her data on to Robert Gale at a conference in Kyiv, disguised as a cleaner. She was grabbed and ejected by the KGB before she could reach Gale. The conference was staged anyway, it featured prominent western Chernobyl relativists with ties to nuclear industry: from USA Anspaugh and Clarence Lushbaugh (formerly at Manhattan Project), from France the nuclear power executive Pierre Pellerin. The power-abiding Soviet scientists delivered the message that no health problem were detected in the Chernobyl-exposed population. Losytska tried to provide real data, but failed. She was merely ejected, not even arrested or threatened in any way: the USSR was a different state in 1988. Yet the docile Soviet scientists were afraid, and preferred to let people suffer and die to protect their career advancement. Sounds familiar?
The success story of thriving wildlife in the 30km Alienation Zone is a legend. The wildlife is not really thriving, it is also poisoned by radioactivity. Sure, trees took up much of it, but every time there is a fire in the contaminated forest, all radioactivity is released again. The animals are not healthy, it’s just they found a human-free habitat to live in, even if a toxic one. If you were to eat a wild boar (as some actually did), your radiation count would go through the roof. The biologists Tim Mousseau and Anders Møller study the effect of Chernobyl fallout on the wildlife in the exclusion zone since 2000, and detect a negative impact, affecting insects, spiders, mammals and birds. Their data is backed up by Soviet studies from 1980ies. But the Deryabina et al Current Biology 2015 paper by the physicist James Smith about the thriving Chernobyl Alienation Zone wildlife is seen as more authoritative source, supported by massive press releases and news reporting worldwide. Smith admitted to not have set foot in the area though, he uses computational studies to assess radioactivity and wildlife data collected by Belarusian researchers. And this is how proper field research is apparently done. I personally wonder what is professor Smith’s control for the wildlife variety? Woods around his own Portsmouth in England? The parks in 2.5 million city of Kyiv? Did he ever check some (less radioactive) proper wild forests in Ukraine or Belarus, for comparison?
The book is an absolute must-read. The take home-message is not to blindly trust authorities, even scientific ones, to have civil courage and to do your research properly. Unfortunately, too many doctors and scientists are unable to do just that.
I was born 1977 in Zhytomyr. In 1986, I was an 8 year old school child, living in Kyiv. On the day when the Chernobyl reactor exploded, I was with my grandparents in Zhytomyr, then myself and my cousins were brought to spend summer holidays far away. I went to school in Zhytomyr for the whole next school year. Only then I returned to Kyiv. I never received any kind of rewards or incitement to write this book review, nor do I know the author Kate Brown. I bought the book regularly online.
If you are interested to support my work, you can leave here a small tip of $5. Or several of small tips, just increase the amount as you like (2x=€10; 5x=€25). Your generous patronage of my journalism, however small it appears to you, will greatly help me with my legal costs.