We’ll get on to the books shortly but first, if you were to describe what happened at Chernobyl to someone who knew nothing about it, what would you say?
It was a big nuclear power plant in the north of Ukraine, built in Europe’s largest swamp, the Pripyat marshes. During what was considered a routine test on April 26, 1986, the plant operators violated a series of safety regulations, overriding them in order to carry out their test. They got to a point where they had finished their test and shut it down—they thought it just a normal shutdown. The reactor was behaving a little bit erratically, but they just pressed the scram button thinking that the control rods would descend into the reactor, snuff out the neutrons around it, shut down the chain reactions, and they could go home. That reactor was going to be closed for a while for some routine maintenance.
But what happened was that because of a design flaw (of which the power plant operators were not aware), pressing the scram button and having the control rods descend into the reactor at really low levels of power actually accelerated the chain reaction going on. It heated up the reactor tremendously. There was a big explosion, and then a second big explosion. Scientists debated for a long time whether it was a steam explosion, a chemical explosion, or a nuclear explosion. Just in 2016, a team of Swedish physicists determined that it was indeed a nuclear explosion because the radioactive fallout went so high—3,000 meters—and travelled such great distances. A steam or a chemical explosion would not have had the propulsion capacity for the radioactivity to get so high. When people say that nuclear plants don’t blow up like nuclear bombs, Chernobyl belies that fact.
“A steam or a chemical explosion would not have had the propulsion capacity for the radioactivity to get so high”
What happened afterward is also fascinating. As we see in the HBO show, the firemen came in and started to contain the fire. They didn’t have much protection or really any knowledge of how to deal with a radioactive emergency, and you see how that plays out at the accident site in the series. And if you zoom out of the accident site and look at the greater territory, there are all kinds of interesting things going on. At first, the radioactivity went northwest, which is how the Swedes noticed it. They told the world about the accident before the Soviets announced it. But then the winds shifted, and the radioactive fallout went northeast. There was a big spring stormfront building up. The Soviets in the state committee for hydrometeorology were watching it and realised that there was a tremendous cloud of radioactive heading right towards big Russian cities like Voronezh, Yaroslavl, and Moscow.
In order to save urban Russia, they manipulated the weather and made radioactive fallout rain on rural Belarus. This mission started about 24 to 36 hours after the accident and continued for months. But they didn’t tell anyone in Belarus about it, even the leader of the Communist party. He didn’t know what was going on or about the accident until several days later.
“In order to save urban Russia, they manipulated the weather and made radioactive fallout rain on rural Belarus. But they didn’t tell anyone in Belarus about it”
So, people lived in what has become basically a second largely unknown Chernobyl zone in southern Belarus. It’s now almost fully depopulated, but people lived there for up to 15 years in really high levels of radioactivity. Scientists say that you should live in no more than one curie to five curies per square kilometre; these people were living in levels that topped off at 40 to 140 curies per square kilometre. They started moving out around 1990 but, for lack of funds and international support, didn’t complete the resettlement until 1999.
Chernobyl is seen as the world’s worst nuclear accident. But the discussion around it and especially the aftermath has yielded so many inconsistent accounts and disputed facts. The Soviet archives have only relatively recently been declassified and I know you’ve spent a lot of time working through them. Do they settle any of these matters or do they complicate them further?
They certainly raise an awful lot of questions. If you go to any UN website, whether it’s UNICEF or International Atomic Energy or the World Health Organization (WHO), you’ll read that between 31 and 54 people died as a result of the accident, that 4,000 people in the future would get maybe fatal cancers from Chernobyl, and that 300 people were hospitalised after the accident. But what you see in the classified archives is that Moscow gave orders to only tell the foreigners about hospitalisations from one hospital—that’s Moscow’s hospital number 6, which features in the HBO show. At the same time, people were streaming into many hospitals throughout the accident region.
The archives show that at least 40,000 people were hospitalised—many of them women and children—from Chernobyl exposures. The Ukrainian government has now given compensation to 35,000 people whose spouses died from a Chernobyl-related health problem. And that’s just people who were married and who had documented exposure. That number doesn’t include children or the infants who were born and died within 28 days, so it excludes a lot of people. It also doesn’t count people in Belarus and Russia, which received the majority of the fallout. At the Pripyat visitor’s center, Ukrainian officials estimate that 150,000 people have already died from Chernobyl exposures—and that’s just in Ukraine.
The archives are interesting because Soviet public health officials, researchers and radiation monitors were writing in classified documents. They basically thought they were having a private conversation among themselves that would never be revealed to the public. In those documents you see, starting from that summer after the accident, doctors reporting that kids have enlarged thyroids—they start to develop bronchial and lung disorders that won’t go away. They get this ‘sick kid syndrome’ which show they have poorly functioning autoimmune systems. Pregnant women have trouble carrying their babies to full term. There’s a high number of spontaneous abortions and miscarriages, and then they have far more complications at birth and an increasing frequency of infants dying within 28 days of birth.
By 1988, the regular, run-of-the-mill reports—which talk about what percentage of kids are categorized as “healthy” in the region—reveal that eighty to ninety per cent had one chronic health problem or another and only ten to twenty per cent of the children were categorized as “healthy”. Before 1986, those numbers were flipped: records show about eighty per cent of the kids were categorized as healthy. Doctors in 1988–89 also started reporting a rise in children with cancers, mainly thyroid cancers and leukemias. Thyroid cancer is a really rare cancer among children. The background at the time was that one in a million kids got it. By 1989, there were 20 kids with confirmed thyroid cancer just in northern Ukraine. And there were another 30 in Belarus. By 1991, Belarus had over 100 cases of kids with thyroid cancers. All of this starts to come out of the archives. By 1990, officials in Belarus and in Ukraine are saying publicly that they have a public health disaster on their hands and are asking international agencies to help them.
Let’s look at your book choices. Your first book is Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy.
This is a really good book. Plokhy is a historian of Ukrainian politics for the most part. He’s a prolific author and a very good historian. He’s really good here at laying down the background of the disaster itself, the plant’s construction, the days leading up to it, and the moments the accident occurred. He describes the problems with standardising construction materials and getting things built on time: there are these cycles of boom and bust where workers who usually work slowly then have to meet their end of the month or yearly quotas and just ram deadlines through. Plokhy describes the politics of building these plants and the accompanying nuclear city with it. Then he talks about the accident itself, the delay in informing the public, the censorship of news, the trial of the nuclear power plant operators (who he thinks were treated as scapegoats), and the political outcomes of all this deception.
He argues that politically the accident amounted to a strong desire for Ukrainian sovereignty and separation from the Soviet Union. But he also focuses on the fact that Ukraine had itself been a nuclear power—it had a ring of nuclear missiles on its western border to defend the Soviet Union and a number of nuclear power plants. The Ukrainians were talked into giving these nuclear missiles to Russia in exchange for promises of protection of its sovereignty.
At the end of the book, Plokhy makes a really interesting observation where he says that in 2014, the United States, the EU, and Russia—which had all guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for the missiles—turned their backs on that promise. It’s hard to imagine the Russian annexation of Crimea and occupation of eastern Ukraine if it were still a nuclear power. He sees the passive acceptance of Russia’s actions was a real betrayal of the promises the EU, the US and Russia made in the 1990s to Ukraine.
One of the most shocking aspects of the disaster was the unconscionable delay in informing the public. It took ten days for the authorities to provide public health recommendations. It might seem that they were more concerned with containing information rather than radiation. Could you say a little about that?
The explosion happened around 1am on April 26th, and by the following Monday, Sweden had reported that there had been an accident. The delay was not only the result of mendacity—it also took many hours to sort out, transmit and then come to believe that the impossible had occurred. Echelons of Soviet officials, whether they were cabinet party leaders or technical people, were sent to the accident site to try to determine what was going on. Each different ministry wanted their own guy on the ground to report to them because they couldn’t trust other sources or each other. So, it did take a while to piece together what exactly had happened.
We see this in other major nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Fukushima. There were delays in reporting to the public what was going on. At Fukushima, Japanese officials waited not just a few days but two months before they admitted that there had been a meltdown of these reactors. American Met-Edison officials told the public everything was fine on the same morning they were venting radioactive gases from the reactor to save it from a greater explosion. HBO series partly relies on certain Cold War tropes we have about the Soviets. While Japanese don’t fit into that model, it would be interesting to see that docudrama as a sequel to Chernobyl.
“At Fukushima, Japanese officials waited not a few days but two months before they admitted that there had been a meltdown of these reactors”
I have the transcript of the Politburo meeting in which the Soviets discussed the causes of the accident on July 3, 1986. It’s the first time that Gorbachev really was fully informed about what was going on—and he was furious that the Swedes were the ones to tell the world. Here he was, trying to promote the Soviet Union’s new look of openness and transparency, and he was seen as presiding over a huge cover-up. He actually points out that all of these people trusted the government. For the holiday weekend, they all went out for the May Day parades in Kiev, Minsk and other provincial and contaminated cities. Because of that unconscionable decision, families with their children were out marching and were exposed.
The Ukrainian leadership wanted to call off the parade and send as many kids out of town as fast as possible, but the Moscow officials were worried about public hysteria. That’s a theme we see in almost every nuclear emergency: the public is supposed to trust their officials, but officialdom—whether Soviet, Japanese or American—does not trust the public with difficult information.
In 1989, Soviet officials published the first maps of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. Imagine if you’ve been living in the village and your kid hasn’t been well and you’ve been feeling poorly and then suddenly you realise, looking at the map, that you have been living for three years in high levels of radioactivity. That’s a pretty shocking and awful thing to learn. Even so, I didn’t see instances of people panicking, rioting, or of mass hysteria. Soviet records show that when people were finally told complicated and technical details, they possessed a profound and astounding ability to grasp knowledge above their pay grade and figure out what to do next.
It seems that there are different stages of denialism. While there is deception and a coverup, it has also been suggested that at first the Soviet physicists really believed it was impossible for a nuclear reactor to explode.
I think Plokhy puts that myth to rest. He does a really good job of describing a 1975 accident at a Leningrad reactor of the same type as Chernobyl—the RBMK reactor. He gives the best rendering in English of what went on with the Leningrad nuclear accident, which came very close to blowing up. At that point, Soviet nuclear engineers realised that they had a real problem with this RBMK reactor, in that when you pull most control rods out of the reactor and press the scram button (which suddenly drops the rods in), it does what it shouldn’t do: it speeds up instead of slowing down. It’s as if you have a car where when you slam on the brakes, it accelerates—that’s what happens with the RBMK reactor. That was a shocking realisation for Soviet nuclear engineers.
“It’s as if you have a car where when you slam on the brakes, it accelerates—that’s what happens with the RBMK reactor”
When they learnt that in 1975, they changed the regulations prescribing that plant operators had to leave at least 30 control rods in the reactor at all times. But what they didn’t do was include in the instruction manual a note that if you didn’t follow this regulation, the plant will blow up like a nuclear bomb. They changed the operator manual, but not the design, to reflect the problem. Out of a knee-jerk urge for secrecy, they didn’t inform the operators just how important those instructions were.
One of the remarks in Plokhy’s book that intrigued me was that, regarding the clean-up, “even today we do not know which of the strategies the Soviets tried and the technical solutions they implemented actually worked.” So, in terms of technical knowledge, we’ve learnt nothing from Chernobyl about how to deal with nuclear disasters?
Isn’t that awful? We know a great deal about what they did and didn’t do, and the takeaway message is that a graphite reactor on fire is an intractable situation. Everything they tried did not work, and in Plokhy’s judgement they basically just had to let that reactor burn out on its own. The estimates of the radiation released are between 50 million and 200 million curies. The higher number is probably more correct. That’s an awful lot of radioactivity.
Your next book is Producing Power: The Pre-Chernobyl History of the Soviet Nuclear Industry by Sonja D Schmid.
She does a great job here of discussing in superb and easy-to-read technical detail what an RBMK reactor is, and why the Soviets chose this design among other possible variants. She gives a biography of the development of nuclear power in the Soviet Union and shows the immense challenges involved in managing and sharing this expertise.
She says that although the disaster involved Soviet organisations and people and technologies, we can’t point to a singular inherently Soviet aspect of operation of nuclear power reactors as the root cause of the catastrophe. Chernobyl was at the end point of a long history of decisions and practices—all of which, she points out, worked quite well for some time. She’s against retroactively condemning the Soviet praxis of nuclear engineering as inevitably leading to worst case scenarios.
“We can’t point to a singular inherently Soviet aspect of operation of nuclear power reactors as the root cause of the catastrophe”
She also says that the Soviet Union was not the only place where scientists showed an excess of hubris, or where there existed conflict between military and civilian operations that produced nuclear reactors and nuclear power. It’s not only the place where there were supply problems, mismanagement, and ambitious individuals. These are common factors in almost every society. And I think Schmid does a great job of pointing out the politics behind the development of technologies and the management of complicated technology.
While it’s called a “Pre-Chernobyl History”, the Chernobyl disaster is the linchpin of the entire book, which charts the development of the nuclear power industry with an eye to what happened in 1986. It also has a lot of really interesting accessible information about the structural flaws with the RBMK reactors, how they compare to the rival VVER reactor design, and how these flaws (such as the “positive void coefficient” problem) contributed to the meltdown.
Yes. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the positive void coefficient comes from the United States. The first American reactors were graphite-moderated water-cooled reactors that were built for producing plutonium at Hanford. The early ones had a positive void coefficient which the Americans then corrected. Through espionage, the Soviets stole blueprints for a graphite moderated reactor. The whole understanding of plutonium as a new, man-made element was transmitted to the Soviets through espionage.
So, it’s not a surprise that the Americans first had this problem in their early reactors and the Soviets appropriated that problem as they annexed the American technology. They’re not the only people in the world to have struggled with this positive void coefficient.
The RBMK reactors were cheaper to build, which is a point made in the miniseries, but they also could produce more than double the electrical output of the VVER.
Yes. The RBMK reactors are very big reactors—they’re not vertical; they’re horizontal and are buried in the ground—and they are really handy reactors in that you can refuel them while they are still running. You can pull out fuel rods in one part of the reactor while the other part of the reactor is still going strong. That saved them from having to turn off the power and shut down the reactor, spend a couple of months re-fuelling, and then turn it back on again with all of the slow, expensive procedures that that takes, while the reactor is off the grid. One of the reasons they chose that reactor is because it was efficient and affordable.
One thing to keep in mind is that the nuclear power plant operators worked like capitalists in that they got paid by the amount of electricity they produced. Workers got bonuses if they produced more electricity. When they were running the test, they wanted to see how long they could keep the turbines going once the reactor had shut down. That was a question about power supply: can we keep feeding power with the reactor in shutdown mode?
“The nuclear power plant operators worked like capitalists in that they got paid by the amount of electricity they produced”
The other value of an RBMK reactor—and the Americans saw this too—is that it is a dual-purpose reactor. With some adjustments, you can not only produce electricity but also plutonium. When the Soviets built reactors abroad, they built single-purpose reactors that did not also produce plutonium. That was a geostrategic decision to make sure that places like Poland, and other countries they were helping out, didn’t have the possibility of easily producing nuclear weapons.
Your next book choice is Voices From Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich.
In Russian, the title reads “A Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future.” It is important to keep in mind that Alexievich calls her book a work of literature, not a work of history. She works in a really impressive fashion, doing about ten years of interviews for each of her books, talking to hundreds of people for hours and hours and really getting to know them. And she often makes composite characters, listing the names of several individuals at the start of a section. She works with her subject’s language, edits, and makes changes to make it beautiful reading as literature. You realise as you read it that most people don’t speak this way—so poetically and with such emotional transparency.
The first chapter of her book is about a woman, Lyudmilla Ignatenko. She’s the wife of a fireman who goes off in the middle of the night to fight the fire. She searches for him in the town clinic in the morning, but he’s being rushed off to Moscow. So she stubbornly follows him to Moscow and works her way into the hospital. She stands inside the plastic right by his bedside and stays for weeks while he dies. She’s pregnant. It’s a very touching story that Alexievich has captured. Craig Mazin did a brilliant job reproducing this story in his miniseries on Chernobyl. The child did not survive and because foetuses are so efficient: because the placenta is such a great pathway, much of the radioactivity that came from her exposures was transmitted to the foetus. Developing foetuses with rapidly reproducing cells often have a lot of mutations that can’t be corrected.
Alexievich goes on to tell stories of people who lived in the aftermath of Chernobyl. Alexievich is from Belarus and the Belarussians see Chernobyl as their particular tragedy especially. They received the biggest blow of radioactive fallout; a large percentage of the country had some form of Chernobyl contamination fall on it. She tells these stories from the perspective of different people who were assigned to clean up—farmers, scientists. It’s a very beautiful work and I think it gives you the emotional landscape of how people dealt with the anxieties, fears, and health problems that ensued, and their growing sense of disillusionment with their political leaders and the Communist party.
The narrative was—and I think, in the 70s and early 80s, people believed it—that they lived in one of the best countries in the world. They had free access to healthcare and education; everybody had a job; they had paid vacations. The Soviets had taken a backwards, rural country and turned it into a modern superpower in just a few decades. Chernobyl really worked to take apart that narrative of success, the pride people had in their country, and the confidence they had in their leaders. Alexievich’s book helps to express that dissolution really well.
It’s devastating in how it captures the complexity and messiness of human response to disaster. There’s fear and anxiety, but also reflections on things they’re ashamed by, things they have never told anyone, or how some use humour to cope.
Yes. In that way, I think it’s priceless. Non-fiction can have trouble getting at that full power of human emotion. Novelists and writers of literary non-fiction can come much closer to it. She worked so closely with people and spent so much time talking to them that she gained their trust. She must have a very low-key interview style where she sits with people and let them reminisce. I do a lot of interviews myself, and you find that often they give a packaged story—‘This is the story I always tell’—but she gets through that and I think comes to the realisation that, as people spoke, they surprised themselves. They came to quite novel and new realisations as they spoke to her. She’s a real genius for getting those stories.
“It gives you the emotional landscape of how people dealt with their anxieties, fears, the health problems that ensued, and their growing sense of political disillusionment”
She, of course, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Voices from Chernobyl was one of the featured works that helped her win that prize. It is much-deserved. It’s also interesting that both in Russia and Belarus, she was not lionised and celebrated for winning the Nobel Prize. She was treated like Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak were treated when they won the Nobel Prize—as if they were somehow traitors to the West.
Your next book is Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project. This isn’t a book about Chernobyl per se. Can you tell me about this one and why you’ve picked it?
It’s not, no. I’ve cheated with that one. This is a relatively little-known book, but I think it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s one of the first nuclear histories informed by the declassification of US archives at the end of the Cold War. In some ways, Chernobyl is linked to this. Because of Chernobyl, the Soviet Union and Gorbachev found themselves on rocky ground and they had tremendous problems financing the clean up. Gorbachav said that Chernobyl was the cause of the fall of the Soviet Union. And it was incredibly expensive. Of course, he might say that to deflect any blame levelled his way after the collapse of the USSR, but there is some truth to his speculation.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the consequences for this country was that the US Department of Energy no longer had a justification for classifying documents. In the months before Chernobyl occurred, American citizens had been pressuring the Department of Energy to release documents about the nuclear legacy, and the DOE had started to do that. Peter Bacon Hales writes a history of that process of producing nuclear bombs, but especially of creating space, creating nuclear reservations, and putting the people who worked in these spaces in their special communities dedicated to nuclear bomb production.
He uses this Cold War notion created famously by George Kennan of “containment”—that is, that the US had to contain communism wherever it popped up. The idea of containment is used to talk about how American officials tried to contain nuclear waste (an impossible task), but also, more importantly, how they tried to contain information about radioactive exposures going offsite and exposing citizens. They disseminated information on what he calls a “need to know basis”. This was pervasive.
This instinct not to convey essential information even to on-site workers reminds me a lot of the situation Plokhy is talking about in his book. Soviet nuclear physicists knew of the design problem, of the positive void coefficient and of the fact that this was a really unstable reactor on start-up and shutdown, but they didn’t convey this information to the operators who really needed to know it.
“This instinct not to convey essential information even to on-site workers reminds me a lot of the situation Plokhy is talking about in his book”
Peter Bacon Hales shows that this phenomenon runs throughout the Manhattan Project. He writes so beautifully about it. You can tell that as one of the first researchers to work in these newly declassified records, he was really angry, as an American citizen, about what the Manhattan Project legacy meant for the American landscape. That anger translates into really powerful prose. It’s really worth a read.
How does Chernobyl compare with other radioactive legacies such as nuclear testing?
As an accident, Chernobyl does qualify as the greatest nuclear accident of all time. But we have other spills of radioactive isotypes into the environment that were much greater than Chernobyl.
For instance, in my book Plutopia, I wrote about the plutonium production plants—the Hanford plant in the United States and Maiak plant in Siberia—which each dispensed at least 350 million curies of radioactive waste into the surrounding environment. That’s much bigger, of course, than Chernobyl. The reason why these places are not household names is because the Chernobyl explosion happened on one night; it was a big dramatic accident that the media focused on. But at the Maiak and the Hanford plants, radioactivity was released into the environment as part of the normal operating order. It’s a pretty chilling realisation that while there were some accidents at those plants, the spillage of 350 million curies of radioactive waste was mostly a disaster by design. Engineers dealt with this radioactive waste by dumping it in rivers, or releasing it up smokestacks so it could travel downwind, or burying it in the ground.
“We have other spills of radioactive isotypes into the environment that were much greater than Chernobyl”
Nuclear testing also falls beneath the radar as a nuclear event. We talk a lot about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were two comparatively small bombs. But in the years that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the big nuclear powers tested over 500 bombs into the atmosphere. They blew up 520 nuclear bombs—and those bombs were not dropped on populated points like the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they worked like bombs: the radioactive clouds went way up high into the stratosphere and they travelled quickly, especially in the northern hemisphere following trade winds and coming down with precipitation.
Chernobyl issued an estimated forty-five million curies of radioactive iodine. That’s just one radioactive isotope. Iodine is a powerful short-lived isotope which affects humans because it’s taken up by the thyroid. It causes thyroid cancer and other health problems. Nuclear atmosphere testing, just the Soviet and American bombs alone, issued twenty billion curies of radioactive iodine. Just so you get a sense of the difference.
America was an unusual country in that we had a proving ground that was not in colonies. The UK chose western Australia and the south pacific, France chose Algeria and the south pacific, and the Soviets had Kazakhstan and the polar north. But we put a proving ground right in the American heartland, in Nevada. The first leader of the American Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss thought that it was a bad idea to have a continental test site. Many nuclear engineers agreed with him. But they went ahead with it because the Korean War was making the pacific ground difficult to get to.
As they tested, they realised quite quickly that hotspots of radioactivity were not only landing at ground zero in Nevada but were in Minnesota and upstate New York, Iowa, and Tennessee. What happened was that the radioactive fallout went sky-high and travelled with the trade winds north and east and came down in the first places where it rained: in the humid midwest and the southeast.
“In the years that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the big nuclear powers tested over five hundred bombs into the atmosphere”
That’s something we really haven’t dealt with. The National Cancer Institute did a study and they estimated that there was up to an additional two-hunded thousand thyroid cancers from that fallout, and that was a study that looked only at thyroid cancer. We haven’t really examined any other possible health outcomes. But what we do know is that since the 1940s, in this country and many countries in the northern hemisphere, we have rising rates of cancers of all kinds but especially paediatric cancers which used to be a medical rarity. Male sperm counts in the northern hemisphere have halved since 1945. Now, these are correlations—but whether there’s causation, we really don’t know; we have not done those studies. So, when scientists say we have no evidence of any health problems from global fallout, that’s not because the study has been done. That’s what sociologists call “undone science”. And I think we should ask our leaders and our scientific experts to get more curious.
Your last book is The Politics of Invisibility by Olga Kuchinskaya.
This is an interesting book. Olga Kuchinskaya is a sociologist who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Her book tracks the attention and lack of attention given to Chernobyl issues over the years following the accident. She finds that, of course, at first there were silences enforced by censorship in the years following the accident. Soviet officials did not want anyone talking about radioactivity, radiation-related illnesses, or levels of radiation. They didn’t publish a map until 1989 showing where radioactive fallout had landed and where the radioactive hotspots were. Then she discusses how the topic blew up around about 1989 in local and national press, and eventually became an international story. That story really focuses on wide-scale public health problems that regional and local officials were reporting in the years after the accident—especially the Belarusian Academy of Sciences.
“Soviet officials did not want anyone talking about radioactivity, radiation-related illnesses, or levels of radiation”
They went off somewhat independently and quietly set up their own interesting case control studies. They chose children from the contaminated areas and compared them with control areas far away in clean areas of Belarus. They were reporting these unusually high rates of leukaemia, kids with severe anaemia, and women with birth problems. The Belarusian scientists in the Academy of Science—not in the Ministry of Health—were really doing good work. As censorship fell away, by 1990 they were able to show their work to the public and talk about it. That really got people alarmed.
Kuchinskaya talks about how officials and politicians in Belarus used and instrumentalised Chernobyl as a way of making an argument for national sovereignty: ‘Look what Moscow did to us. We need to therefore have our own sovereign state.’ Kuchinskaya focuses on Belarus, and is originally from Belarus herself, but similar processes were happening in Ukraine as well. Politicians were saying that Chernobyl was our national cross to bear; showing you why the Communist party, or Moscow, or Russia, were to blame for the problem; and why we needed to have independence.
But then in the 1990s with independence, these countries become very poor and really struggled to manage the aftereffects of the disaster. The Soviet Union dissolved, so they don’t have Soviet budgets any more. Belarus especially was in economic straits. And so, the new emergent leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power about 25 years, starts to repress this interest in Chernobyl as a public health problem.
He actually had one of the leading scientists, Yury Bandazhevsky, thrown in jail on trumped up charges of embezzlement. Another guy, Nikolai Nesterenko, was also harassed by Belarussian authorities. Kuchinskaya talks about how Chernobyl disappears from the public eye, became a dangerous topic or one to bring up each year only at the anniversary. She writes about how this new invisibility turns to ignorance, and how the consequences of Chernobyl have become an area of non-knowledge. The radiation effects dissolved into health problems of non-specific origins. That makes the problem become invisible again.
Looking at this HBO series now, it’s interesting to think about Kuchinskaya’s theory of these waves of visibility and invisibility as we cycle through them. Now, of course, we’re in a period of intense visibility. Young people who didn’t know about Chernobyl are saying, ‘Why didn’t we know about this? Why weren’t we taught this at school?’ And many older people didn’t know about the details and nuances of the disaster. I think that part of the reason we’re having this new period of intense focus on Chernobyl is because many countries are thinking about what to do with climate change. How do we reduce the use of fossil fuels? One solution, of course, is nuclear power.
“Part of the reason we’re having this new period of intense focus on Chernobyl is because many countries are thinking about what to do with climate change”
Some people say that nuclear power is safe: ‘Look at Chernobyl, only 35 people died.’ Other people say—using the same accident—that nuclear power is scary and is not safe: ‘Look at Chernobyl, ninety-three thousand people possibly died.’ At the end of the Chernobyl series, it gives this number: between 4,000 and 93,000 dead. There’s a big envelope of uncertainty between those two figures. But they are scary nonetheless. Her book makes for interesting reading right now, especially during this new period of visibility.
I also want to ask about your most recent book Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (2019). Can you tell us about the project?
I went to the Ukrainian archives to see if they had anything in the Ministry of Health files about Chernobyl medical consequences. The archivist said, “I don’t think you’ll find anything—that was a banned topic during the Soviet period.” But I looked and found almost immediately whole multi-volume collections, titled in Ukrainian “The Medical Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster.” When I found that in 2014, I realised that I would be at this project for years, because of this Klondike of records. They had been declassified for a while but the archivist didn’t know they were there because I was often the first person to ask for many of these files.
The only other researcher that had done a lot of archival work on Chernobyl was a really amazing Ukrainian historian by the name of Natalia Baranovska. I describe her story in the book. When Ukraine was in political and economic distress, nobody had the time to deal with Chernobyl anymore. But Natalia realised that these documents were perhaps getting lost or destroyed, so she went around searching everywhere: Moscow, Kiev, Minsk, the Chernobyl site itself. She worked on and off at the Chernobyl site for many years until she got thyroid cancer herself. She published document collections and a few books that were a really helpful start for me.
Her documents led me to other places. I hired two research assistants and we worked through the archives in Belarus, in Minsk down to the province level, down to the county hospital records. We went to Moscow; we looked at the federal level; we looked at the Ministry of Agriculture level and looked at the reports of food saturation with radioactive contaminants.
What we found were two really important things. One is the dynamic qualities of radioactive isotopes mean that they move really quickly through the environment and migrate through food supplies. Within a couple of months, Soviet agronomists and radiation monitors were reporting high levels of radioactivity in the food sources that people really relied on: milk, dairy, grains, berries, mushrooms, and meat.
I found a certificate saying that there were 300 liquidators at a wool factory in Chernihiv. Liquidators were clean-up workers who had documented exposure from dealing directly with the radioactive accident. But Chernihiv didn’t get a lot of Chernobyl radiation; it was about 50 miles from the Chernobyl site. So I was confused by that. I drove up there with my research assistant and we looked around and interviewed people. We found that these wool workers, who were mostly women, had been cleaning and picking up bales of wool that measured 30 millisievert per hour (mSv/hr). To translate, that’s like picking up an X-ray machine when it’s turned on, many times a day.
“There’s a lot of focus on the Chernobyl zone—but the real drama of the accident played out in the rural hinterlands about 50 to 100 km from the site”
What I found was that this radioactivity affected people at great distances from the accident site itself. There’s a lot of focus on the Chernobyl zone—that’s where tourists and journalists like to go—but the real drama of the accident played out in the rural hinterlands about 50 to 100 km from the site. From the medical records, we found that doctors and public health officials sent in the reports they were supposed to send in. The Soviets did a really good job of sending out doctors and medical staff to look at people they suspected had been exposed, and tracked what was happening with them medically. What they show are rising frequencies of a whole bouquet of illnesses—mostly having to do with the thyroid, cardiac system, digestive tract, autoimmune system—and problems with fertility and reproduction. Then, cancers kicked in after about eighteen months to three years. So, I was curious why we didn’t know this story.
As Kuchinskaya showed, it appeared in the press in the 1990s and then went away. So, then I went to the international agencies that took over managing the disaster as the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. I’m not talking about an UN-wide conspiracy, but I found that a few key actors in the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation worked to help Soviet leaders minimise the account of the effects of the disaster.
They did that by gathering evidence of health effects. They found evidence of a childhood epidemic of cancer; they took those biopsies back to the United States, but then they didn’t include reports of childhood thyroid cancer in their reports. In fact, they said the reports of thyroid cancers were “rumours” and “anecdotal in nature.” But they had evidence of what became a big epidemic of thyroid cancer among children. A scientist at the WHO, Keith Baverstock, tried to spread the alarm about the growing number of children with cancer in Belarus—the number was 102 cases by 1991 against a background rate of one in a million. He had a mission backed with funding from the WHO to go to Minsk and bring world specialists in thyroid cancer with him. That was cancelled at the last minute. He sourced some money and went anyway and his bosses tried to fired him, pressured by an administrator at the IAEA.
We find that three key officials in the UN family of nations went around to other UN organisations and said whatever you do, don’t fund Chernobyl relief programmes for Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. You can give them funding for economic relief, but not for Chernobyl because it wasn’t needed. They kept saying that the doses were too low. They said we saw a lot of medical problems when we did a study there but they’re not caused by Chernobyl because, extrapolating from Hiroshima, the doses are too low to cause any problems. So, I report that in my book, that there’s this politicised science coming out. And I wondered why. Why would they do that?
I then realised that at the end of the Cold War, the big nuclear powers (especially the US) were facing billions of dollars of lawsuits from people they had exposed in the production and testing of nuclear weapons. These were marshal islanders, downwinders in Utah, Nevada, and Idaho, and people living near bomb production sites.
In 1987, a group of health physicists met for an industry conference in suburban DC and they were addressed by a layer from the Department of Energy who told them that the biggest new threat to the nuclear industry is lawsuits. The lawyer told the scientists that they needed to be trained to serve as expert witnesses on behalf of the government. Then, a Department of Justice lawyer led workshops at that conference, training health physicists to become expert witnesses to deflect lawsuits. That game plan worked really well. So, the narrative can be: ‘Look at Chernobyl—the world’s worst nuclear accident, and only 54 people died. And that’s not a problem.’ That means that all the other people who are claiming damage around other nuclear sites are just wrong. There is no damage. That game plan worked.
The lawsuits failed for the most part—they failed also in the UK, they failed in France, they failed in Australia and New Zealand, and they failed in Russia. There’s only been a few cases of nuclear downwinders who have won compensation. That was the threat that people in the nuclear industry saw and that was the threat that Chernobyl presented. If these cases of large-scale health problems from low-doses were to be true, then the liabilities would be astronomical.
So, how much data do we have about prolonged low-dose radiation exposure?
That’s the amazing thing. We know a lot about acute radiation exposure. You see that in the HBO special, with the graphic depictions of what happens to a body with acute exposure. Yet, over and over again, scientists have been saying for decades that we don’t know much about low-dose exposure. Right after Chernobyl blew, scientists at the UN said that we have to use this as an opportunity to run a large-scale experiment on low dose exposures; that we needed to do a long term wide-scale study of Chernobyl health effects on par with the atomic bomb survivor study which, at that point, had been going on for several decades.
But that study never got funded because these critical officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency kept saying over and over again that they didn’t see any signs of Chernobyl-related health problems and didn’t expect to in the future because, extrapolating from Hiroshima, the doses were too low. At the time, another branch of the UN was planning a big fund-drive to raise about a billion dollars, in today’s money, to do two things: move people from those contaminated second Chernobyl zones, and fund a big long-term study. That pledge drive failed spectacularly after the International Atomic Energy Agency published the document I referred to above in 1991, saying said that they didn’t find any Chernobyl-related health problems—at a time when they had in-hand evidence in the form of biopsies of an emergent paediatric cancer epidemic.
That was a really costly mistruth for the legacy of the history of nuclear health. Because we don’t have those studies. To this day, scientists say that we don’t know much about low-dose radiation, but we know that it causes some problems and we need to find out more. I’m not against nuclear power. Like most people, I’m concerned about climate change and alternatives to fossil fuel. But I would like to know more. I would like there to be more transparency, and I would like there to be more good science in the sphere of low dose studies. If we’re going to have a new nuclear renaissance, I think we need to know a little bit more first.
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