An important new book rigorously examines the impact of nuclear accidents. The evidence underlines just how destructive nuclear is, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Kate Brown, Manual for Survival. A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (Allen Lane 2019), 420pp.

Few issues are as polarising in green politics as the question of nuclear power. For some, the history of nuclear accidents, from Windscale (1957) and Three Mile Island (1979) to Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), shows that nuclear power is inherently unsafe. For others, the fact that the official death tolls stand at 54 for Chernobyl and none for Fukushima is a demonstration of nuclear power’s safety. As Morris Rosen of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in the wake of the Chernobyl accident in 1986, ‘Chernobyl shows us that even in a catastrophic accident, we are not talking about unreasonable deaths’ (p.22). 

It was this official view of the casualties of Chernobyl which led George Monbiot to conclude in April 2011, after the Fukushima accident, that the anti-nuclear lobby ‘has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health.’ This was a particularly ‘terrible disservice’, as Monbiot put it, because nuclear power is for some an important part of a low carbon future. Mark Lynas, for example, argues that ‘nuclear power is … environmentally almost completely benign’ and that ‘anyone who marches against nuclear power today … is in my view just as bad for the climate as textbook eco-villains like the big oil companies.’ [1]

If campaigners against nuclear power were fighting a safe, viable alternative to coal and gas out of ‘nuclearphobia’, that would indeed be a serious error. The issue is however not as clear cut as proponents of nuclear power would have us believe. Remarkably, although it has been more than thirty years since Chernobyl, the mainstream position is still that, aside from the 54 confirmed fatalities, ‘the final death toll will never be known’. We have apparently learnt so little from Chernobyl that scientists managing the aftermath of the Fukushima accident in 2011 were still saying that ‘they had no certain knowledge of the effects of low-dose exposures to radiation in human beings’, as if such a thing had never happened before (p.3). Kate Brown’s measured and well-informed study is an attempt to provide some of that missing certainty. 

Disputed death toll

As Brown comments, the gulf between the official Chernobyl death toll and the estimates by Greenpeace and others is a ‘Grand Canyon-sized gap’ (p.3). Greenpeace stated in 2005 that 200,000 people had already died as a result of radiation exposure from Chernobyl and that they expected a further 93,000 fatal cancers. Later estimates have put the total number of deaths at just shy of a million people. This discrepancy in the death-toll estimates is not a recent phenomenon; the health effects of Chernobyl were disputed from the very first.

Brown’s review of Soviet health officials’ reports showed that up until 1990, the message was that few of the population of the lands around Chernobyl had experienced any health consequences. In 1990, though, Chernobyl became ‘a cause for all who wanted to denounce Soviet rule’ and the contents of the reports shifted dramatically. The contaminated areas were now a ‘zone of catastrophe’ where very few people were healthy. ‘They had suddenly reversed themselves: the same ministry, the same years, but different numbers. I tried to sort it out. Somebody, at some point, was lying’ (p.164).

The same wide range of verdicts on Chernobyl’s effects appears in accounts of what has happened in the Chernobyl Zone, the area close to the plant which was evacuated and abandoned after the accident. No one denies that there were some immediate effects; this area includes, for example, the Red Forest, so called because all the pine trees there turned red and died from radiation. For some, however, the area, without a human population, has now become a haven for wildlife. James Smith, Professor of Environmental Science at Portsmouth University, argues that numbers of various species, including large mammals like wild boar and elk, started to recover from the accident after a couple of years, and went on rising for ten years after that. In 2015, he and others produced a short article contending that ‘the Chernobyl exclusion zone supports an abundant mammal community after nearly three decades of chronic radiation exposures.’ Against this rosy picture of the effects of radiation, biologists Tim Mousseau and Anders Møller’s studies of the zone since 2000 show an entire ecosystem under threat as the long-term effects of radiation depress numbers of microbes, then pollinating insects, then fruit, then trees and birds. As Mousseau told Brown, ‘every rock we turn over … we find damage’ (p.131).

Mousseau and Møller’s work has been criticised for lacking double blind trials (the scientists gathering the data on insect, bird and animal numbers know they are working in the Chernobyl Zone so could be unintentionally depressing their counts to get the results they are expecting). Unsurprisingly, they dismiss this: ‘taking a bird census is not rocket science’ (p.130). It is worth noting that the methods used by Smith’s team seem at least as open to bias, since their estimates of numbers come primarily from statistical models according to the degree of radioactive contamination found, supplemented by others’ helicopter counts of wildlife. With a record of the level of radioactivity in different areas, Smith told Brown, ‘he could extrapolate damage from radioactivity to plants and animals. He did not need to go to the Zone. Computational studies combined with levels of radioactivity told him what he needed to know’ (p.131). 

The tangible effects of radiation that Brown recounts from her visits to the Zone seem hard to dismiss, and seem closer to Mousseau and Møller’s picture than to Smith’s. The conflicting accounts of the Chernobyl ecosystem highlight a key difficulty in the debate about the effects of long-term exposure to radiation. At the time of Chernobyl, as far as Western doctors were concerned, the only possible result of radiation poisoning was acute radiation syndrome. Either you die from a massive dose of radiation, as the firefighters and others who died after Chernobyl did, or you escape scot-free. Similarly, contaminated areas are barren wilderness, glowing in the night, or nature recovers as if the nuclear accident had never happened.

Minimising radiation impact

This all-or-nothing understanding of the effects of radiation dates back all the way to the Life Span Study into the effects of atom bombs dropped by the US on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. There is evidence that this study minimised the long-term effects of radiation, including clear increases in leukaemia reported by doctors on the ground, as part of the Manhattan Project’s concern to ensure that nuclear weapons were not categorised as banned chemical or biological warfare. In so doing, it set up an expectation that the effects of nuclear explosions were obvious and immediate. 

The view that Chernobyl caused and is causing many more deaths than the 54 who died from acute radiation poisoning requires the existence of chronic radiation syndrome; a range of more nebulous and varied symptoms than acute radiation poisoning which is therefore much more difficult to diagnose. Unlike their Western counterparts, Soviet doctors in 1986 did have a model for understanding chronic radiation syndrome and the potential effects of radiation exposure on the descendants of those exposed.

The Soviet doctors would have trained in compulsory Lysenkoism: the rejection of Mendelian genetics and belief in environmentally-acquired characteristics. This was, of course, an example of the Stalinist regime imposing scientific orthodoxy for political reasons. It was, however, also a conceptual model which got Soviet doctors closer to our current understanding of how epigenetics does indeed allow for environmentally-acquired characteristics to be passed on, including, of course, genetic damage as a result of radiation. Some Soviet scientists would also have had access to a secret forty-year study of the health effects of chronic low doses of radioactivity on the people living near the Mayak plutonium plant in the Urals, which found significant increases in death rates and cancers.  

Brown concludes that the reports and studies by Soviet doctors from the areas affected by Chernobyl in 1986-1989 are likely to be reliable, especially as they were fighting to get facts about the situation on the ground recognised in the face of official denials of any adverse health consequences. The evidence suggests that these were in fact considerable and occurring over a far wider area than the Chernobyl Zone. In a nuclear accident, the reach of the fallout and extent of the radioactive contamination depends not on proximity but on wind speed and direction, topography and a range of other factors, even how much vegetation there is to absorb the radiation. When the leaves fell from the trees in Kiev in the autumn of 1986, they had taken in so much radiation they had to be disposed of as radioactive waste. 

At Fukushima, we seem to have got lucky, as the wind immediately after the accident blew much of the fallout out to sea. At Chernobyl though, wind from the south west threatened to bring the fallout to major Russian cities, including Moscow. To avoid this, military planes were scrambled for cloud seeding, with the result that the radioactive rain fell on south-eastern Belarus rather than on the Soviet capital. (The pilots received acute doses of radioactivity in the process, leading to a range of serious health problems.) This meant that some Belarussian provinces received much higher doses of radiation than many areas much closer to Chernobyl. 

Chernobyl evidence

That people close to Chernobyl were receiving immense doses of radiation was clear straightaway. Brown interviewed a doctor from Ulasny, a village in southern Belarus not far from Chernobyl. She remembered how, when they were evacuated, she and her neighbours ‘were all sunburned, a strange purple suntan … They are all gone. I can think of only ten people from Ulasny who are still living’ (p.31).

For those who were not evacuated, radiation continued to reach them day after day, not just in the air but from local food and milk.

‘As the people in the Chernobyl lands went about their lives … as they ate and breathed and slept in linens that were ten times more radioactive than permissible, their biochemical composition changed. Picocurie by picocurie, they were becoming a part of reactor No.4, the reactor that no longer was’ (p.131). 

Despite the contentions of some pro-nuclear writers that it is perfectly possible to be both highly radioactive and healthy [2], Brown shows that there is clear evidence that there was indeed a public-health catastrophe for the people in the fallout zone. ‘The majority of adults and especially children in the contaminated areas were sick’ (p.195). In the town of Veprin in Belarus, which was outside the Chernobyl Zone, but which was evacuated because of radioactive contamination in 1990, a pre-evacuation assessment of its seventy children found that only six could be characterised as healthy. 

The health problems were not restricted to the childhood thyroid cancers which even defenders of nuclear power admit would be a result of a nuclear accident, particularly in children who were not given doses of iodine. (Radioactive iodine is released by the nuclear explosion and will be absorbed by people’s thyroids unless said thyroids are full of clean iodine. Children in Ukraine and Belarus would have been particularly at risk of this because the local soils and therefore food are low in naturally-occurring iodine, so their thyroids would have taken in more of the radioactive dose.) In the weeks after the accident, seemly everyone in the contaminated areas had cold-like symptoms and digestive issues. Rates of anaemia rose dramatically, as did rates of miscarriages, stillbirths and birth complications, together with cancers and a range of cerebral-vascular and neurological conditions. 

The experience of workers at a wool processing plant in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv seems to demonstrate the wide range of health issues caused by the radiation. Although Chernihiv was not particularly close to the reactor, the plant received large amounts of wool shorn from sheep slaughtered because they were radioactive. When the workers started to become ill, the wool was withdrawn from production, but then sat in a heap beside the area where the workers went on their breaks, because no one knew what to do with it. Officially, only a couple of workers suffered some minor exposure, but the testimony of the surviving workers told a different story:

“After Chernobyl, a lot of us are gone,” one woman sighed. “They didn’t all die in one day,” she continued. “They took sick and passed away gradually, from heart problems, from cancers.” Another woman added, a finger on the list, “Look, none of these drivers are alive. They died when they were just forty or fifty. Volodia is gone. Victor too. And Kolia.” They went on like that, sounding out the name of each dead comrade (p.94). 

The variety of symptoms attributed here to Chernobyl is consistent with those of other groups known to have suffered from chronic exposure to radiation, such as the workers at the Radium Dial Company in the 1920s, who were exposed to radiation by licking the brushes they used to paint glowing numbers on to watch faces. However, the obvious rejoinder to the catalogue of health problems and early deaths for the Chernihiv wool workers would be that there is no proof that these are indeed related to Chernobyl.

The control case

Just as with Fukushima, where it is sometimes argued that the apparent increase in numbers of thyroid tumours in children is an artefact of the testing regime, the argument could be that these are typical problems in such a population, given artificial significance because of their exposure to Chernobyl radiation. In the same way, even where it is recognised that there was an increase in rates of death and ill health in the contaminated areas after Chernobyl, this is attributed to the stress of the evacuation and to worry about contamination. Chronic radiation syndrome, in this view, is stress about radiation, not caused by radiation. 

Brown is well aware of these arguments, but paints a picture of public-health effects in the contaminated lands which is difficult to hand-wave away. The uneven distribution of the Chernobyl fallout also provided an important control: populations who were highly contaminated but did not know they were. Rivne, in Ukraine, is 300km west of Chernobyl and was not identified as contaminated until 1989. For those three years, therefore, the population was living in ignorance with a high level of radioactive contamination, without any of the stress of evacuation or additional medical monitoring. Between 1986 and 1989 the area showed dramatic increases in a range of conditions comparable to the areas which were recognised as contaminated, with the only difference being that in Rivne, rates of some conditions like childhood tumours were even higher, as no efforts had been made there to reduce children’s exposure or send them away. 

Brown’s ultimate estimate of the Chernobyl death toll is some way short of the most extreme, 985,000 figure, but clearly well in excess of the official 54. Ukraine is currently paying a survivors’ pension to 35,000 spouses of Chernobyl victims, so that should serve as a baseline. Brown was told, off the record, by a scientist at the Kiev Centre for Radiation Medicine that their estimate is in the region of 150,000 deaths in Ukraine. If this is correct, there would presumably have been at least these many deaths in Belarus as well, given the distribution of the fallout. Brown’s conclusions appear securely rooted in what is clearly an abundance of contemporary evidence and come over as both calm and measured. The question, therefore, is why, more than thirty years after Chernobyl, this work on its effects still needed to be done. Why wasn’t this common knowledge, and why is it still so controversial? 

The authorities and evidence

It is evident that the default reaction to evidence of the dangers of nuclear power from authorities is to suppress the evidence. The official line about the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 was that it might cause one or two extra cancer deaths. When State Health Commissioner Gordon McLeod reported in 1980 that he had found a doubling of child mortality in the ten miles around the plant, ‘the governor did not order an investigation of the problem but instead fired McLeod’ (p.60).

There are clearly plenty of dirty secrets around nuclear. Examples include the inherent fault in the Chernobyl-type reactor (in certain circumstances, shutting it down causes it to speed up, rather as if the brake pedal in a car had become an extra accelerator), ignored because the model also produced more plutonium to enable the Soviet Union to keep up with the US arms programme. They also include the deliberate exposure of Marshall Islanders to US atom-bomb-test fallout to see what would happen, and the still secret nuclear testing which meant that Muscovites turned out to have too high a level of radioactivity in their bodies to serve as controls for Chernobyl effects. 

The concerted effort to suppress indications that nuclear power might not be safe goes beyond these specifics, however. It represents government commitment to nuclear power which, Brown argues convincingly, arises from the fact that it enables the production of nuclear weapons. Green proponents of nuclear power as a solution for climate change rarely discuss its role in nuclear-weapons capabilities. In this, they are following the line developed over many years by the US Department of State and the IAEA, that there is a complete separation between nuclear weapons (dangerous) and nuclear power (safe). The difficulty they keep having is that it is patently not true.

The Chernobyl accident itself was clearly a problem for this argument: ‘A civilian reactor that also manufactured plutonium for bomb cores and accidentally blew up (like a bomb) greatly muddled these distinctions’ (p.22).

The UK’s new generation of nuclear reactors, like Hinkley Point C, were given the go-ahead, after some years in which it had seemed that nuclear power was on the way out, at the same time as the decision to renew Trident. So clear are the connections between Hinkley Point C and Trident that it has been argued that ‘the government is knowingly engineering an environment in which electricity consumers cross-subsidise this branch of military security’, and that the £20bn cost of the nuclear power station should be counted as defence spending. 

Nuclear power and nuclear weapons

In this context, the importance of the official, low death toll from Chernobyl (and Three Mile Island, and Fukushima) is obvious. As Brown puts it:

If Soviet scientists could prove that large scale exposures to “low” doses of Chernobyl radiation harmed only a few dozen firemen, then they could show that even the worst nuclear accident in human history had no effect on human health. And if that were true, then the fallout from nuclear testing, the seeping radioactive waste from the bomb factories, the civilian reactors that daily emitted radioactivity, the widespread use of radiation in medical treatments, and the exposed bodies of workers, patients and innocent bystanders in secret medical tests could be forgotten (pp.152-3).

Ultimately, the case for nuclear power’s safety seems to be a three-fold one. Modern reactors are very safe; even if they aren’t, then radiation isn’t harmful; even if it is, you can just take an iodine dose and you’ll be fine. Any fears that the dangers may be a little more profound than this are dismissed as irrational distrust of authority, as for example in Fred Pearce’s scathing take on former residents unwilling to return to the areas around Fukushima. Given the long history of official secrets and lies about on nuclear issues, this seems a strange area about which to argue that we should give implicit trust to our governments. At the very least, the lack of an honest accounting of the effects of Chernobyl does not exactly build trust in official assessments of the dangers of subsequent or future accidents. 

The future is not currently looking bright for nuclear power, with new reactor designs proving so inherently complex that several projects are many years and many billions over budget. In the meantime, the ageing previous generation of nuclear reactors are now so worn out that they are becoming (even more) unsafe. Authorities in Aachen issued residents under 45 with iodine tablets in 2017 because of fears of an accident at Belgium’s Tihange nuclear plant. While it is sometimes argued that the short time we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions necessitates using nuclear power rather than switching to large-scale renewables, it looks rather as if it is nuclear power for which we don’t have time. 

Even if this were not the case, the unity between nuclear power and nuclear weapons should give us pause. The US military machine, and its imitators in the UK and other Western countries, is a considerable cause of climate change and other environmental damage and locks us into a system based on oil. Nuclear power only exists at all as part of the military machine that we have to eliminate if we are to deal with climate change. It makes no sense to see it as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem. Kate Brown’s measured, honest and important examination of the effects of Chernobyl should be a nail in its coffin.

[1] Mark Lynas, The God Species. How the planet can survive the age of humans(Fourth Estate, London 2011), pp.10-11.

[2] See for example Lynas on radioactive mice in the Zone, ibid, p.175.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.