Remember images of the miracle of nature supposedly flourishing around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine, many years after the devastating release of radiation? And how supposedly few people died or got sick. Well, not surprisingly, it turns out to be a fabrication.
MIT Professor Kate Brown in her new book “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future,” has finally revealed the truth as she writes: “Moscow leaders’ strategy was to admit only what could not be denied.” Soviet officials hid the radiation’s impact through “secrecy, censorship, counterespionage, and fabricated news.”
Dear Comrades! Since the accident at the Chernobyl power plant, there has been a detailed analysis of the radioactivity of the food and territory of your population point. The results show that living and working in your village will cause no harm to adults or children. – pamphlet issued by the Ukrainian Ministry of Health.
Officials and experts from the US, France and other western countries, alarmed by how the disaster might spur opposition to nuclear technology, were happy to conspire in concealing the health consequences. Western officials blamed stress—not radiation—for health issues, out of fear of Chernobyl’s implications for other radiation exposures and possible lawsuits.
A 2006 United Nations report suggests Chernobyl caused only 54 deaths. A year earlier Greenpeace had indicated that 200,000 people had already died as a consequence of the disaster.
There was never any long-term study of health consequences, including the effects of exposure to radiation over time.
As noted in a Guardian review: Thousands of deaths have never been properly investigated, which means the opportunity was never taken to study in detail how radioactivity affects us. Brown often follows the descriptions she gives of a victim’s decline with a sentence such as: “His death is not included in the official count of 54 Chernobyl fatalities.”
The Ukrainian state pays benefits to about 35,000 people whose spouses apparently died from Chernobyl-caused illnesses. The figure is only for Ukraine, not Russia, or Belarus, where 70 per cent of Chernobyl fallout landed. Some scientists at the Kiev Institute of Radiation told her they think 150,000 deaths is a more likely baseline for the Ukraine alone.
As for the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, some animals may be surviving, but the area as a whole is wrecked, right down to the vanished micro-organisms that should be converting radioactive leaves into soil. We want to believe that nature can mend anything we destroy but, in reality, the destruction continues: it is “etched in the ecosystem of the zone, in the bodies of mice, the leaf litter of the forest floor, the tumours that cloud the vision of barn swallows”.
The book reports on workers in the factories that processed huge volumes of radioactive wool from highly contaminated sheep, who did not know that picking up the most radioactive bales was like embracing an X-ray machine while it was turned on.
‘Oh, we were full of radiation. Ping, ping, ping,’ the sorters remembered. ‘We took off our smocks and they balled them up and threw them away. We asked what kind of dose we got. They said, “You don’t need to know.”’ Thirty years later, the women sorters fingered their throats and described problems with thyroid disease, adult-onset diabetes and cancer.
“The fact that some international experts continue to proclaim the ‘worst nuclear disaster in human history’ amounted to only 49 deaths and 6,000 cases of ‘easily treatable’ thyroid cancer stretches credibility the farthest,” she writes. “Wherever I looked (and I was usually the first researcher to sign out the files), the evidence of a public health disaster was overwhelming, and it came from almost every possible quarter.”
In Belarus, one-third of milk and one-fifth of meat was too contaminated to use in 1987, according to the official in charge of food production in the state, and levels became worse the following year. In the Ukraine, between 30 and 90 percent of milk in “clean” areas was judged too contaminated to drink.
Brown visited a forest in the Ukraine where people pick blueberries for export, with each batch being tested for radiation. She observed bundles of blueberries over the accepted radiation limit are not necessarily discarded. Instead, berries from those lots are mixed in with cleaner blueberries, so each remixed batch as a whole falls under the regulatory limit. People outside the Ukraine, she writes, “may wake to a breakfast of Chernobyl blueberries” without knowing it.
Such mixing is legal as long as the overall mix of berries falls within the limit of 600 becquerel per kilogram set by the EU after the Chernobyl disaster. Polesian berries are often marketed to the western European customers as organic. Radioactivity does not affect that designation, writes Brown.
Despite the fact that the nuclear disaster presented scientists with a unique living laboratory, few funding agencies have been willing to finance Chernobyl studies on non-cancerous health effects.
In Chernobyl-contaminated Polesia, however, few people doubt that ingesting radioactive toxins over decades has a biological cost. Many locals complain of aching and swollen joints, headaches, chronic fatigue and legs that mysteriously stop moving.
“What is clear is that underestimating Chernobyl damage has left humans unprepared for the next disaster,” she concludes.
Maybe one day Professor Brown will also reveal the truth about Fukushima.