For some reason the thirty-third anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe was accompanied by several new books on the topic, and there is an upcoming HBO dramatization of the work of Soviet scientist Valery Legasov whom Gorbachev put in charge of the official government response to the catastrophe.
Kate Brown, with her new book on Chernobyl, Manual for Survival, has succeeded in adding new, valuable information. Unlike many of the researchers and journalists who cover this topic, she speaks Russian and Ukrainian and had the resources to do research in Russian and Ukrainian archives over an extended period. She dug up extensive new findings that go much farther in determining that the social and biological effects were enormously higher than the official government and UN reports have stated over the past thirty-three years.
Listen to the interview with Kate Brown on Nuclear Hotseat
To those who say that flora and fauna in the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation have recovered, I say this view is driven from a human need to see the event come to a conclusion. In reality, we see only what we look for, and see it only in ways we are capable of conceiving. To make this point I made up a slightly ridiculous fairy tale about an anthropomorphized radioactive wild boar:
There was a wild boar from the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation who visited North America. He had heard that there had once been a traumatic genocide of the human population there, followed by a mass enslavement of other human beings. There was great controversy about lasting psychological, social and ecological impacts of these calamities. Would the land and the people ever recover from this trauma? After visiting for a couple weeks and sniffing about on the suburban fringes of American cities, the wild boar concluded that the garbage dumps were marvelous, homo sapiens were thriving, and the population had bounced back to unprecedented levels.
(For information on the research done by biologists Anders Moller and Timothy Mousseau, see Cataracts, small brains, and DNA damage—Chernobyl’s wildlife 33 years after the meltdown)
While it is a good thing for new generations to learn about the eternal problem left by the explosion in Chernobyl, it is important to recognize the good works that have gone before. At the 20th anniversary of the event, Thomas Johnson presented his film The Battle of Chernobyl which succeeded in uncovering “the big lie” and the fact that it was both the Soviet Union and the Western nuclear powers that drove the coverup and minimizing of the effects. In fact, the film points out that Legasov was certain that the casualties would be very high, and in August 1986 he was appalled that it was the Western powers, backed by the IAEA, that insisted that the Soviets come up with much lower casualty estimates. Despondent over his country’s and international community’s inability to cope with the disaster, Legasov committed suicide in 1988.
Transcript segment of
The Battle of Chernobyl (1:18:30 ~ end), director: Thomas Johnson, Play Films, 2006
The tendency to manipulate the numbers was not unique to the Soviets. In late August, 1986 the first international conference, assessing Chernobyl, took place behind closed doors. It was presided over by Hans Blix. No journalists or outside observers were admitted into the amphitheater. The Russian delegation was led by [Valery Alexeyevich] Legasov, the man who had been in charge of the governmental commission during the battle of Chernobyl.
- Mikhail Gorbachev:
When we put him [Legasov] in charge of preparing the report for the IAEA, we gave him the duty of reporting everything. He came up with a very detailed report that put everybody in a state of shock.
Legasov spoke for three hours. His report concluded that in the decades to come, about 40,000 deaths from cancer, caused by Chernobyl, were to be expected. The Western world refused flat out to accept this estimate which spurred a genuine East-West negotiation.
- Hans Blix:
These are theoretical calculations based upon the Hiroshima model that say that if you have a certain [level of] radioactivity, you know from Hiroshima that the long-term effect, for so and so many, from Hiroshima, would die from it, and if you then increase it by ten-fold, you assume that it will be ten-fold. Well that’s the calculation. This is not, I think, exact, it is not empiric.
There again, the figures were surprisingly flexible. By the end of the conference people were no longer talking about 40,000 but rather of 4,000 probable deaths. Nearly twenty years later, in September 2005, this figure became the official death toll of the disaster. The staunchest opponents to the Soviets’ policy of transparency were the French who went as far as to deny that the radioactive cloud passed over their country…. Twenty years later in France, and especially in Corsica, cases of thyroid cancer of the same nature and severity as those around Chernobyl are being reported.
- Alla Yaroshinskaya (author of Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment):
The most dangerous element that came out of the Chernobyl reactor wasn’t cesium or plutonium, but lies. The Lie of ‘86, that’s what l call it. A lie that was propagated like the radioactivity – throughout the whole country and the entire world.
On the 27th of April, 1988, the second anniversary of the disaster, Legasov, who had worked so hard to unveil the entire truth, decided to put an end to his life…
Today, as perfect metaphors of the institutionalized lie, the radioactive particles hurled from the reactor in the explosion continue to poison the land. Twenty years after the disaster the area of Chernobyl remains uninhabitable.
- Nikolai Tarakanov:
In five years, the radionuclides sink five centimeters into the contaminated soil.
So twenty years later, they’re 20 cm under the ground. They continue to contaminate all the plants. To clean it up, we’d need to remove 20 cm of soil and seal it underground in burial sites. And that’s too big of a job to do. It’s impossible …
Today 8 million people live in contaminated areas of the Ukraine, Russia and especially Belarussia. For twenty years they have lived off of food that continues to contaminate them little by little. This issue, raised in 1986 by the Soviet delegation at the Vienna conference has been systematically ignored. And yet 1,152 children were treated for thyroid cancer between 1986 and 2002 at a specialized center in Minsk. How many in other cities? No global statistics have yet been made public.
One doctor, Yuri Bandashevski has been studying illnesses among the populations in the contaminated areas ever since the disaster. When his findings were published in 1996, they were immediately condemned. Arrested and officially sentenced for ‘‘corruption,” he spent the next five years in jail. In November 2005, he was still under house arrest.
- Yuri Bandashevski:
Look what happened when the mother was contaminated with cesium during pregnancy. In one single family, look how many deformations: hare-lips, missing eyes, deformed skulls.
These embryos come from hamsters that were fed only contaminated grass from the region of Gomel. The result: entire litters of deformed animals.
- Yuri Bandashevski:
l was horrified by how many deformed embryos developed in animals that had eaten cesium-contaminated food. l obtained a horrible number of deformations in two weeks.
Usually, when you encounter a ‘‘monster,” you describe it. You’re certainly familiar with Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera museum in Saint-Petersburg. Quite frankly, l myself could create as many ‘‘monsters” as l wanted.
There has been no official study of genetic mutations stemming from Chernobyl. Yet despite the thousands of miscarriages and abortions that took place after the disaster, there seem to be hundreds of children who suffer the effects of radiation. The deformations we see among these children are similar to those of Bandashevski’s hamsters.
In Belarussia, 300,000 children are currently suffering the consequences of contamination. NGOs, like the International Green Cross, founded by Gorbachev, after he was sidelined from the government in 1991, have opened treatment and support centers for victims of Chernobyl. They also organize therapeutic camps aiming to teach the new generations in contaminated areas how to live with radioactivity – like here, testing the contamination of their food.
- Mikhail Gorbachev:
How many years is this going to go on? 800 years? 800 years!… Until the second Jesus Christ is born? Until his return? Yes. Chernobyl played an important role for us all. And of course we must keep searching and not skimp…. We must strengthen international cooperation and create international scientific centers to find new sources of energy which are safer. That’s the essential issue.
l wouldn’t wish for anyone, not my friends or my enemies, to experience such a tragedy. No one deserves to live through what we did in Chernobyl. We’re all human beings, and no one deserves that.
In the heart of the zone ten kilometers from the nuclear power plant and hidden in the forest, lies Chernobyl Two. Twenty years ago no one could get near this huge military radar: Moscow’s hidden eye meant to spot American missiles. The fact it was put out of service after the explosion tallies with what the Chernobyl accident seemed to foreshadow.
- Mikhail Gorbachev:
Using weapons is a terrible thing, and nuclear weapons are even worse. Chernobyl was an accident involving one single reactor—a limited accident—whose consequences are still with us.
We’ve had two bombs: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There again, the consequences are still being felt today.
Chernobyl showed us the true nature of nuclear energy in human hands.
We’d calculated that our most powerful missile, the SS-18, was as powerful as 100 Chernobyls. The SS-18 was the warhead the Americans feared the most, and we had 2,700 of them. And these were the missiles we’d intended for the Americans. 2,700! Imagine the destruction.
- Hans Blix:
Mr. Gorbachev was probably right in saying that Chernobyl was the big illustration of radioactivity let loose. And in this sense, it suggested to people more vividly that we ought to do away with nuclear weapons. A year and half after Chernobyl, Gorbachev retired all nuclear warheads with a range 500 to 5000-km. Ten years later the Total Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was ratified by the entire world, with the exception of India. Chernobyl marked the beginning of disarmament for the world’s greatest nuclear rivals.
- Mikhail Gorbachev:
Chernobyl convinced everyone. Soviets and Americans alike realized once and for all the magnitude of the atomic volcanos our countries were sitting upon. Not just our two countries, but the entire world. The entire world!
Yet twenty years later the Chernobyl disaster and its lessons seem to be fading from memory. Meanwhile, beneath the aging sarcophagus of Reactor Number 4 the poison remains deadly. Since 2001 the three Chernobyl reactors have been shut down once and for all. But twenty years after the explosion a dosimeter flies off the chart at the base of the sarcophagus. High levels of radioactivity, a hundred times above normal, are still contaminating the plant’s surroundings. The structure has been weakened by rain and erosion. Since its construction, 3,000 liquidators have been watching over it, trying to ward off damage.
- Lev Bocharov:
We built this sarcophagus to last 30 years, thinking that 30 years after the explosion, we could build a new sarcophagus without people having to run because of high radiation levels. Twenty years have gone by and nothing’s been done yet. And it’s urgent that it get replaced. But the Ukraine doesn’t have any more money. Neither do we.
A new sarcophagus is underway. But its construction is already ten years behind schedule. A structure 108 meters high meant to entirely cover the first sarcophagus. It will cost one billion dollars.
An international fund led by Hans Blix has been set up.
- Hans Blix:
We still have not put the new sarcophagus on it. It will be ready in a couple of years’ time.* When that is done, then they can later on remove the masses of spent fuel, the melted fuel which is still there…
Twenty years after the explosion, the cooled magma at the reactor’s core 14 meters underground is still a terrible threat, and will remain so for years to come.
- Vassili Nesterenko:
l pray God the sarcophagus never collapses. That would be the worst thing that could happen. Because inside there are 100 kilograms of plutonium. One microgram is the lethal dose for a human being. That means there’s enough plutonium to poison a hundred million people. The half-life of plutonium, in other words, the time it takes for half of the plutonium to disappear, is 24,500 years. This is something we could thus consider eternal. There are areas where there will never be life again.
Despite this terrible warning the nuclear disarmament sparked by Chernobyl is clearly coming into question today. If nuclear development for civilian uses is being put forward as a solution to the problems of fossil fuels and global warming, this landscape reminds us that such an option is not without consequences.
It requires the greatest caution and clear information on the real risks it presents. Chernobyl also reminds us that if we must live with radioactivity and its unavoidable dangers, we also need to spare future generations from any risk of nuclear apocalypse.
* Construction began a few years after this interview and was completed in 2018.
Kate Brown, speaking about Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, April 16, 2019 at Kane Hall, University of Washington, Seattle, WA (1hr.11min.). “No one in those regions of Ukraine or Belarus believes only 35 people died from Chernobyl [as claimed by official assessments]. They each personally know 35 people who died from Chernobyl.” (paraphrased)
From the United Nations UNSCEAR’s assessments of the radiation effects
http://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/chernobyl.html (2008), by the Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation
The Chernobyl accident
The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 was a tragic event for its victims, and those most affected suffered major hardship. Some of the people who dealt with the emergency lost their lives. Although those exposed as children and the emergency and recovery workers are at increased risk of radiation-induced effects, the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences due to the radiation from the Chernobyl accident. For the most part, they were exposed to radiation levels comparable to or a few times higher than annual levels of natural background, and future exposures continue to slowly diminish as the radionuclides decay. Lives have been seriously disrupted by the Chernobyl accident, but from the radiological point of view, generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail.