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Soviet data, long dismissed by the West, document the Chernobyl disaster’s devastating legacy

Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future

Kate Brown
430 pp.
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Thirty-two years after the explosion at the nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl has become a synonym for nuclear disaster. Although it is recognized as the worst nuclear accident in the history of nuclear power, there is still no clarity about its health impacts.

Two decades after Chernobyl, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations (UN) Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation stated that “fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers,” because radiation levels were considered too low to have caused any detectable harm. This conclusion was based on data derived from the atomic bomb survivors life-span study, a program that began in 1950 to document the long-term health effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian scientists vehemently disputed this assessment, estimating Chernobyl-linked fatalities in the hundreds of thousands.

The UN agencies later recognized a broader spectrum of Chernobyl-related health effects, yet the idea that there were no long-term consequences to human health proved hard to dislodge. The UN-WHO-IAEA assessment was repeated in many venues and was cited by journalists as a scientific consensus.

After the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, residents in the affected region were told by experts from many of the same international institutions that there would be no direct long-term health effects because their radiation exposure was low. Because there was no post-Chernobyl equivalent to the atomic bomb survivors life-span study, the argument went, the data on the Japanese survivors remained the gold standard of international nuclear regulations. The notion that no such data existed, however, was not entirely true.

Kate Brown’s meticulously researched Manual for Survival is the first environmental and medical history that recovers decades-long efforts of scientists and doctors in Ukraine and Belarus to document the long-term health impacts from the Chernobyl meltdown. Unlike the Japanese atomic bomb survivors life-span study, which began 5 years after the exposure, Soviet doctors worked in contaminated areas right after the Chernobyl accident—many of these areas populated by people who didn’t know that they were exposed to radiation. Over the years, Soviet scientists amassed vast evidence of a broad range of debilitating health effects from low-level radiation, including cancers; anemia; gastrointestinal problems; and severe disorders of the liver, kidneys, thyroid, and other organs. The individuals who collected these data risked their careers and lives, enduring harassment from regional politicians and Soviet secret police and accumulating radioactive isotopes in their own bodies.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, international agencies dispatched teams of scientists to make an independent assessment. In perhaps the most revealing part of the book, Brown documents the efforts of the UN organizations and the IAEA to sideline the Soviet data. The logic was, in part, political.

In the early 1990s, as scientists from Ukraine and Belarus presented their evidence of the wide-range public health disaster unfolding in their now-independent countries, the United States and other nuclear powers faced a wave of lawsuits from “downwinders” who believed they were poisoned by radioactive fallout from nuclear test sites. Admitting that the symptoms and diseases being documented in Ukraine and Belarus were related to Chernobyl radiation could put the United States, France, and the United Kingdom on the line for billions of dollars of payouts.

Using some of the same strategies employed by the tobacco and oil industries to manufacture doubt about the health effects of smoking and the anthropogenic nature of global warming, respectively, international agencies sought to dismiss Soviet data that documented Chernobyl’s health effects.

The reasons for sidelining Soviet data were also epistemic, Brown explains. Soviet scientists did not use, and were critical of, Western risk estimate methods. Western scientists, on the other hand, were dismissive of Soviet medicine. They also did not trust the scientific methods used by Soviet biologists, having come to associate Soviet biology with Trofim Lysenko and decades-long obstruction of Soviet genetics.

If Lysenko became a “synecdoche for the politicization of Soviet science,” the Chernobyl story can well serve as a synecdoche for the politicization of international nuclear science. Manual for Survival is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the local and global effects of Chernobyl and its continuing impacts.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, USA.