Following a mysterious nuclear accident in Russia that left seven dead, we look back at the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. It sent a cloud of radioactive fallout into Russia, Belarus and over a large portion of Europe, but the death toll from Chernobyl remains unknown. Chernobyl is considered the worst nuclear accident in history, but Kate Brown, an MIT professor of science, technology and society, says much of what we understand about the disaster is inaccurate. Her new book, “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future,” chronicles the devastating and underreported impact of radiation on tens of thousands in the Soviet Union that went unreported for decades. Brown says, “After about five years of research, I realized that much of what we know about Chernobyl is just either incomplete or fully incorrect.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Questions are still swirling over this mysterious nuclear accident in northern Russia on August 8th, with seven people, including five nuclear scientists, dead in an explosion which caused a radiation spike in the surrounding area and possibly as far as Scandinavia. We’re speaking to Kate Brown, professor of science, technology and society at MIT, specializing in environmental and nuclear history. Her new book, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future.
So, Kate Brown, talk about what we should understand, the greatest misconceptions and the most important facts we should understand, about what happened in Chernobyl in 1986 and why it’s still relevant today.
KATE BROWN: Yeah. You know, we feel like we know a lot about Chernobyl, and that’s what I thought when I started this project. And I worked my way through 27 archives and talked to three dozen scientists and farmers and people who worked with the Chernobyl accident, and I followed biologists around the Chernobyl zone who work there twice the year. And after about five years of research, I realized that a lot — much of what we know about Chernobyl is just either incomplete or fully incorrect.
For example, we think of there’s just one Chernobyl zone. Tourists stream in there every day. But what few people know is that there’s a second Chernobyl zone that’s nearly as radioactive as the first Chernobyl zone. It’s in southern Belarus. And it was created because a couple of days after the accident, Moscow leaders realized that a big storm front was brewing, and it was heading northeast toward several large Russian cities, including Moscow. So they sent out pilots, and the pilots manipulated the weather so it rained radioactive fallout on rural Belarus to save the big Russian cities. Now, this successful triage operation probably prevented the exposure of millions of urban dwellers, but, at the same time, they didn’t tell anyone in Belarus, not even the Belarusian Communist Party leader, that they had done this. So people lived in — about 200,000 people — in these rural areas in southern Belarus in terrifically raging hot conditions of radioactivity.
Another misconception we have about the Chernobyl zone is that about 300 people were hospitalized. These were mostly nuclear plant operators and firefighters. That was only one count from one hospital. What I found, working through the archives, is that 40,000 people, with 11,000 of them being children, streamed into hospitals in the summer after the accident for Chernobyl-related exposures. Especially people in the southern territory of Belarus were wondering, “What’s going on? Why are my children fainting? Why are they nauseous or have dizzy spells? Why can’t all of us get out of bed in the morning?”
So, that’s another misconception, is, you know, how — what kind of fatalities. If you look at U.N. records, they say from 35 to 54 people died from Chernobyl exposures. They project that in the future 4,000 people might die of cancers. What I found is that Belarus and Russia, where most of Chernobyl radioactivity went, have not been brave enough to make a count, but that in Ukraine, 35,000 women receive compensation for their spouses who died of Chernobyl-documented exposures. Now, these are just men who died. These are not children. It doesn’t — the count doesn’t include women. It doesn’t account anybody who wasn’t married. Off the record and at the Chernobyl visitors’ center, they give a number of 150,000 Ukrainians dead from Chernobyl exposures. Not 35, but the number is at least 35,000.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from your book —
KATE BROWN: Finally, you know, we —
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.
KATE BROWN: We might wonder, you know, why is there no real conclusive science. We know a lot about high doses of radioactivity and what that does to humans. That’s just like that accident that just happened in Russia on August 8th. People die from acute radiation poisoning. That is easy to detect. It’s fully documented. And we have a big study from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. But what scientists will tell you today is we really don’t know what happens to people exposed to low doses of radioactivity chronically over long periods of time. And that’s the Chernobyl syndrome, right? And this is far more likely, let’s hope, in the future, that people will not be exposed to nuclear bombs again, but that we probably will have, on this globe, more nuclear accidents at nuclear power plants. We have dozens of power plants that are over 40 years old that are operating. So we need to know what happens when people are exposed in a Chernobyl-like situation to a slow drip of low doses of radioactivity.
And what I found, working through the agricultural records in the Soviet archives, is that, quickly, radioactivity saturated the food chain. It was in the wheat, tea, honey, milk, meat. They had 100,000 livestock that had been severely contaminated. They butchered these livestock. And loath to throw this out as radioactive contaminants, as just nuclear garbage, they sent manuals — and this is why I call my book Manual for Survival — they sent instruction manuals to the packing houses in Belarus and Ukraine, and they said, take — “Grade the meat in three levels: low, medium and high levels of radioactivity. The low and medium levels, take that meat, mix it with clean meat and make sausage. Send that sausage all over the Soviet Union. Label it as you normally would. Just don’t send any,” the instructions say, “to Moscow.”
The high-level meat was supposed to be put in freezers, so that it could decay. And over time, they hoped, that meat would be cleaner and safer to eat. But quickly I found in the archives that packing houses were writing Moscow, saying, “We need more freezers.” That’s how much high-level radioactive meat they had. They got no more freezers, so they found some train cars, and they stuffed tons and tons of high-level radioactive meat in refrigerated train cars and sent that meat to Baku. Nobody in Baku wanted it. They sent it on to Yerevan and etc. For four years, this radioactive train, filled with — you know, sort of a ghost train filled with radioactive meat circulated the western half of the Soviet Union, no one wanting to touch it. Finally, in 1990, KGB officers buried that train car back in the zone, the Chernobyl zone, where it should have gone in the first place. So, what we see are sort of a path of contagion, where people were ingesting radioactive contaminants in their food and taking it in on the dust. It was sort of an uncontrollable mix of radioactivity going all over the place.
Now, I would have expected that scientists would have piled into this area. International scientists, as soon as Chernobyl happened, said, you know, “This has been a tragedy, but it’s also a living experiment. And perhaps we should find out, finally, what happens to humans exposed chronically to low doses of radioactivity.” 1990, the Soviet Union was falling apart. Lots of people were upset about Chernobyl. And Moscow officials asked U.N. agencies to come in and do an independent assessment by foreign experts: you know, “Tell us what happened.”
First, the World Health Organization went in. They spent — three scientists spent 10 days visiting contaminated and populated areas. They came away, said, “There’s no problem. You could double or triple the dose. There’s no problem.” They were thinking they were looking at Hiroshima, extrapolating to Chernobyl, and said, “You know, according to our computation and analysis, we don’t see any problem.” Nobody believed the World Health Organization’s 10-day assessment.
And so Moscow asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to go in: “You tell us. You know, give us an assessment of how high the doses are and whether people should be — are in harm of further damage.” International Atomic Energy Agency got 200 scientists to go in over 18 months, mostly just short trips, two weeks, 10 days. And they were approached by doctors, Ukrainians and Belarusians mostly, who were on the ground, who had been working for the previous four years with these contaminated populations. And they said, “Look, we have a serious problem with childhood thyroid cancer.” The Western experts didn’t believe it. They didn’t expect this kind of bump, you know, epidemic in childhood cancer. And so the Ukrainian scientists gave them biopsies of children from their thyroids. They brought them home, the Western scientists. The thyroid cancers checked out. But in their big report they wrote in 1991, they omitted that information from the report. They said there were rumors of childhood thyroid cancer, but they were anecdotal in nature.
And this is unfortunately what I found, working my way through U.N. archives, is that a few key U.N. scientists and administrators worked to diminish the story of a public health crisis occurring in the Chernobyl-contaminated lands. They dismissed most of the research that came in from on the ground from Ukraine and Belarus by scientists and doctors. And they, you know, hid these biopsies and kept repeating over and over again, “There’s no need for Chernobyl aid. There’s no need for a big long-term health study, on the level of the atomic bomb survivor studies.” So that’s why, to this day, when people tell you we have no evidence that low doses of exposure cause harm to human health — that’s because that big study was never done. There is no real evidence.
But what I found, working my way through the medical files in the former Soviet Union — and I went from the federal level down to the republic level down to the county hospital level — is that people got sick. Long before they got cancers, long before they died — you know, acute death tolls — they got sick from five major disease categories. That included autoimmune disorders, respiratory disorders, digestive tract disorders, cardiac and circulation system disorders, and problems with fertility, getting pregnant. Women had trouble carrying full term. Perinatal babies or, you know, infants born, within 28 days of birth, died at much higher rates than before. And there were far greater numbers of birth defects.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we —
KATE BROWN: This story is all in the Chernobyl archive.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we break, I want to ask you about the push by some, saying nuclear power is the answer, in the climate crisis, to the reliance on oil and gas.
KATE BROWN: Yes. You know, if we’re going to fully replace fossil fuels, we will have to build 12,000 new reactors around the globe. There are about 400 now. So that’s a big upscale in nuclear power. There will have to be nuclear power stations outside of every major population point. Now, there’s all kinds of problems with cost, versus renewables.
But the thing that most keeps me up at night is the health effects. We really don’t know what the health effects are for sure. This is heavily disputed. There has been no big study. The Chernobyl records show that health effects at low doses of radioactivity are severe and that they run through a population, causing people to feel — before they die, before they get cancers, before they’re reported as acute effects, the subacute effects cause people have a sort of a full bouquet of health problems, that make life just miserable on a daily level —
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Professor Brown —
KATE BROWN: — makes their work productivity quite low —
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 —
KATE BROWN: — makes the joy of living exist — mm-hmm?
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, but I want to ask if you feel, I mean, it could happen here, in the United States.
KATE BROWN: Yes, I’m afraid that not only could it happen here, but, in fact, it already has happened here. Our biggest nuclear power plant, in Hanford, power plant in western — eastern Ukraine — I mean, I’m sorry, in eastern Washington state, spilled 350 million curies of radioactive waste into the surrounding environment during the Cold War production of nuclear arms. We tested — we’re the only country in the world that tested nuclear bombs in our heartland, in Nevada. Those hundred nuclear weapons that were blown up on the American continent spread billions — not millions like in Chernobyl, but billions — of curies of radioactive waste around the American country. And so, we have had spots of radioactivity in Tennessee and Chicago area that were as high as near Nevada. And what we have is a public health crisis that we have yet not yet fully addressed. We have rising rates of thyroid cancer, rising rates of pediatric cancers, which used to be, in the 1930s, a medical rarity. So, these are the kinds of —
AMY GOODMAN: Kate Brown, we’re going to have —
KATE BROWN: You know, this is a correlation.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to —
KATE BROWN: Whether there is a connection between these troubling health statistics and the kind of contaminants, including radioactive contaminants in the environment, is something that we need to address.
AMY GOODMAN: Kate Brown, we’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you so much for being with us, professor of science, technology and society at MIT. Her new book, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future.