Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, by Kate Brown, Allen Lane, 432 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0241352069
Instead of taking at face value the official narrative of what happened at Chernobyl in 1986 and how much damage was done, Kate Brown has resorted to meticulous and time-consuming field research of her own to uncover the truth. Over four years, with the aid of two research assistants, she accessed twenty-seven archives in Europe, the former Soviet Union and the US, interviewed dozens of people, attended conferences and visited contaminated farms, clinics, schools and factories. Ultimately, despite tireless efforts, she managed only to arrive at an approximation of the facts, given how commonly the truth was denied, suppressed, redacted or erased.
In the north of Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, Chernobyl nuclear power plant was a thriving extensive enterprise served by the purpose-built town of Pripyat when on April 26th, 1986, reactor No 4 exploded, vaporising about five per cent of the core and spewing radioactive flames and gases high into the air. An estimated environmental dispersal of 50 million curies of radiation was later revised upward to 200 million; equivalent to releases from four bombs like the one dropped on Hiroshima. Masses of people, many beyond the reach of counsel and services, were exposed, leading to multiplying morbidity on all scores in all cohorts. When it comes to nuclear fall-out, unknown unknowns abound. Yet Russian and UN agencies still claim that fifty-four fatalities, a few thousand easily treatable thyroid cancers in children, and stunted but reviving ecologies in the Zone of Alienation (an area of 2,600 square kilometres, about the size of Luxemburg) were the only adverse outcomes from this then purported worst nuclear accident in human history. Civil protest was suppressed, files and floppy discs disappeared, and petitions buried under smear campaigns. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that the Red Cross and Greenpeace collaborated with field workers to establish some of the horrifying reality.
Brown shows that the US and other countries also censored and destroyed evidence of radiation’s long-term biological toxicity, especially following low to moderate doses, which delay symptoms, meaning millions of impaired people are excluded from casualty counts. She hardly needed to mention the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) ignominious but still extant 1959 agreement to be restrained by US-sponsored nuclear advocate the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from investigating and reporting the human health risks of nuclear radiation. Those who tried to probe atomic poisoning could find themselves fired, arrested or worse. Such obstacles stymie the demand for proper wide-ranging studies into the actual consequences of massive lasting contamination of living beings.
Brown’s introduction is preceded by a map of radioactivity’s spread across Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The book is subdivided into seven content parts: 1. The accident: 2. Hot survival: 3. Man-made nature: 4. Post-apocalypse politics: 5. Medical mysteries: 6. Science across the Iron Curtain: 7. Survival artists. After a conclusion come acknowledgements, an index, an archive and interview list, and copious notes. A nimble, capable writing style and thoughtful structure ease engagement with content. Manual for Survival is a monumental accomplishment that breaks new ground, bringing together scattered reports by citizens, public servants and independent scientists whose perspectives clash with authority’s accounts of limited harm. The reader is left in no doubt about nuclear radiation’s deadly enduring legacy, at the same time as the realism of HBO’s recent five-part history docudrama for TV, Chernobyl, has also riveted viewers.
The acclaimed 2017 Project Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, lists the hundred most promising options for reversing global warning in order of priority. Nuclear energy is placed twentieth, but a closer reading reveals this decision to be wisely qualified as only for retention during the transition phase to full sustainability. Nearly five hundred nuclear power plants currently produce 10 per cent of the world’s energy. In 2016, construction began at a new plant at Hinkley Point, only 240 kilometres from the Irish coast, across the Irish Sea in Somerset. Ireland’s nuclear experience is not mentioned by Brown, but it is not negligible. Ireland lays claim to neither nuclear plant nor weapon but once almost did: a prospect inspiring protest rallies in Wexford, drawing crowds of over 20,000 people. The first gathering was impressive enough to be nicknamed Ireland’s Woodstock. One account is provided in Liam Leonard’s 2008 book The Environmental Movement in Ireland.
In the 1970s, an oil crisis and soaring prices woke the Irish government up to the country’s dependence on foreign energy sources. The big hydro-electric power station at Ardnacrusha on the Shannon, built in the 1920s, had reached maximum capacity, while electricity consumption was rising at 10 per cent a year. The Electricity Supply Board (ESB), in charge of Ardnacrusha and the grid, had just built a fine pumped-storage hydroelectricity station on Turlough Hill in Wicklow but even this was considered an insufficient addition. By 1970, 75 per cent of Ireland’s energy came from oil. Nuclear energy was first put forward in 1968 as a potential solution. A planning permission application for four nuclear reactors was lodged with Wexford County Council in 1974, submitted by the Nuclear Energy Board (NEB), set up in 1973 to promote nuclear energy under the Nuclear Energy Act of 1971.
Carnsore Point on the Wexford coast, distant from population centres, was deemed the perfect location, convenient for maintaining boiling and pressurised water reactors, and for processing uranium. Preparations to build four reactors there were well advanced by the late seventies, at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds. The nuclear power plan enjoyed all-party backing and much support from the scientific community and even from the heritage body An Taisce. With inflation high, local leaders and the Chamber of Commerce were keen to reduce poverty and unemployment. The merits of the plan were summarised in a 1971 study. The Fianna Fáil government wanted to present a progressive front for Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. The Industrial Development Authority (IDA), struggling to secure multi-national investment since its birth in 1959, viewed nuclear energy as its big chance.
The ESB aspired to the UK model, especially that of the Windscale nuclear plant in Cumbria, launched in 1951 and later renamed Sellafield, where spent fuel was reprocessed and stored. Its location, 170 kilometres away from northeastern Ireland, made Sellafield the main dumper of artificial radioactivity into the Irish Sea: the top concern of the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Wexford County Council received some initial objections, but questions were discouraged. In 1973, concerned parties began congregating in Rosslare to co-ordinate dissent. Wexford residents created the Nuclear Safety Association (NSA), which accelerated anti-nuclear activism, and received international support, especially from Friends of the Earth and from Petra Kelly of the German Green Party. This Carnsore Collective was the forerunner of the Irish environmental movement. David Nolan, who chaired the local NSA, dedicated himself with Harvey Boxwell to fighting the nuclear power threat. The NSA vice-chairman was Wexford politician Brendan Howlin, who became leader of Ireland’s Labour Party in 2016. The group obtained signatures of those objecting to the power station plans and deposited a petition with the county council. They demanded a public inquiry before the first brick was laid, only to be dismissed by junior government minister Ray Burke.
In 1975, NSA became CONSERVE, the Council for Nuclear Safety and Energy Resource Conservation. A book published the following year by Trinity physics professor Dr Robert Blackith set out the group’s stall. The Power That Corrupts condemned the ESB’s energy policy. Leaflets warned of manufacturing links between nuclear weapons and power plants like those mooted for Wexford. Set up in 1975 to extract natural gas from the Kinsale field, Bord Gáis restored hopes about alternative energy availability. This development halted headway in Carnsore for two more years when incoming minister for industry and commerce Desmond O’Malley revived interest in nuclear energy. The following year, the Dáíl passed Energy Ireland, a roadmap created by an interdepartmental group for diversifying and ensuring continuous supply, to include power stations using both coal and nuclear energy.
At a 1978 European Economic Community forum, the physicist who replaced the ignominiously dispatched Robert Oppenheimer as director of the US’s nuclear weapons programme, Edward Teller, said that nuclear reactors would be wasteful in a country with such small energy use. The electorate consistently rejected the Carnsore proposal in polls. Neutrality was still cherished. Civilian nuclear facilities elsewhere had been repeatedly adopted for military purposes. The effect on society would be incalculable. The lack of public support and of a record of trustworthy governance militated against introducing nuclear energy. Disposing of nuclear waste remained an insoluble nightmare ‑ and yet doubters were labelled backward.
Then in March 1979, half of the Three Mile Island reactor core in the United States melted. Radiation shot skyward before hailing down. The industry denied everything, but stories of sickness and forced evacuations of residents told the public enough. In the ensuing panic, plans for reactors in Carnsore were put on hold. Anyone who asked was told the scheme was postponed. Heavily criticised, Desmond O’ Malley resigned. Fine Gael’s John Kelly supported those calling for a public inquiry. O’Malley’s successor, George Colley, was a nuclear sceptic.
The NEB fell by the wayside until the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. The board then started monitoring ionising radiation passing over Europe and enforcing standards. In mid-sixties America, Dr John Gofman, cholesterol pioneer and inventor of the Linear Non-Threshold model, wondered about radiation’s impact on the human body, and initiated large-scale research. He and his colleague Dr Tamplin reviewed data from Japan’s Life-Span Study of atomic bomb victims. Observing how cancer and genetic injury so often succeeded radiation poisoning, Gofman and Tamplin concluded in1969 that safety guidelines for low-level exposure were way too high and recommended their reduction by ninety per cent. The US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) disputed the findings, and General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, promptly ordered confiscation of the exhaustive medical documentation used, depriving humanity of this unique trove. After all, the AEC and CIA had been capable of running “a useful genetic study on the effects on these people” – radiation-soaked Rongelap natives returned to their island just days after the 1953 Marshall Island bomb tests. The poor, coloured, imprisoned or intellectually disabled were used as guinea-pigs, injected with plutonium, or served irradiated food without informed consent.
As Brown recounts, result reports were destroyed in 1973, and another independent researcher, Thomas Mancuso, fired in 1977. In the 1990s, Joseph Lyon encountered insider obstruction when gathering statistics for the National Cancer Institute (NCI) on elevated sickness after Nevada tests: a further example of the high-level sabotage Brown repeatedly detected. Experts finally agreed in 1996 they were wrong, some might say criminally, to doubt the severity and prevalence of radioactive diseases in Chernobyl. Rather than safety guidelines being lowered, however, the trend is to raise them farther after each big nuclear event affecting populations and their homes, foods and workplaces, as if the logistics of sane response otherwise is too overwhelming.
Acknowledging Gofman’s work, the National Academy of Science carried out an enormous study on the biological effects of ionising radiation, or BEIR, for short. Findings confirmed warnings sounded by Gofman. The anti-nuclear movement had enjoyed its first victory in 1975 with the cancellation of construction of a plant in Wyhl Germany. By then, the World Anti-Nuclear Service identified employees in the nuclear energy production sector as particularly stressed. Gofman’s death in 2007 left a gap. Other influences on public consciousness were John Hershey’s report of radiation sickness in Hiroshima, and Cold War proliferation threats.
On May 2nd, 1986 in Ireland, elevated radioactivity was detected, active caesium 134 and 137, and iodine 131, from an air filter sample in north Dublin. Levels increased by thirty per cent around the country in subsequent days as heavy rains dripped atmospheric contamination from Chernobyl on the soil, mostly in Ulster and the midlands. A westerly Atlantic wind carried the plume away a few days later.
Again, radiation safety levels, in becquerels, were adjusted to accommodate the new normal. Other countries were soon accusing Ireland of exporting radioactive powdered milk. Sheep farms in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were monitored and even a decade on, high radiation levels were still picked up in the Republic, quietly inducing fatal cancers. But Chernobyl is not the worst culprit. After fallout from bomb tests, and from the Fukushima accident, the lesser known 1957 Mayak disaster near Kyshtym, Russia, or the combined fallout from Sellafield and from the world’s largest reprocessing plant at La Hague, France, are the third worst radioactive polluters of the oceans. La Hague is plagued by thousands of times the approved levels of radioactive krypton-85, and above average numbers of leukaemia cases.
After the Three Mile Island accident, independent American politician Ralph Nader became a leading anti-nuclear advocate. His 1977 book The Menace of Atomic Energy remains instructive. Over sixty US nuclear reactor projects were cancelled between 1975 and 1980 due to onsite protests. During the UN’s Special Session on Disarmament on 12 June 1982, a million Americans railed against nukes inside the Great Lawn of Central Park.
Too often, nuclear plants around the world sit near major geological fault lines. Examples include Indian Point in New York, Diablo Canyon in California, Akkuyu in Turkey, and Sendai in Japan. Gofman’s recommended 1970 ban on locating commercial nuclear reactors in or near cities was ignored. Plant operations routinely release by-products: long-lived fission elements including radioactive plutonium-239, isotopes of iodine, caesium, radon and selenium, mixed in with minor actinides like curium and americium. A safe method of storing nuclear waste has not yet been invented. Vitrification comes closest, where chemicals are extracted from high-level waste, folded into glass rods, put in sealed steel containers and then buried, in salt preferably, to delay melting, with fingers crossed. Deep geological disposal is proposed for long-term management but remains controversial, having to withstand millions of years of half-live releases in some instances, and entailing transport and other hazards. Lower-level waste is sealed in cement or recycled.
Anti-nuclear protests date to the bombs dropped in Japan in August 1945, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and civilian fallout. Nuclear explosions produce immense heat followed by rapid cooling. They can release hundreds to thousands of tons of nitric oxides, which damage ozone, shake the earth’s poles and alter electro-magnetic fields. Ultraviolet solar radiation can more easily pass through a depleted ozone layer, the protective magnetosphere, to then burn the earth’s surface and imitate solar wind’s effects on weather.
When America ended land and sea nuclear testing under the weight of public antipathy, and President Eisenhower announced the Atoms for Peace programme for the manufacture of civilian nuclear energy “too cheap to meter”, American and Russian military took their experiments to outer space, from 1958 to 1962, harming the ozone layer even more with thermonuclear explosions in the space atmosphere which sent out new radiation belts around the planet, caused satellite dysfunction and equatorial pole disturbances. Tests trigger global storms, as radionuclides and other gaseous fallout float far away. Electromagnetic pulses emitted, which meddle with weather and electronic infrastructures, have been isolated and replicated to make new weapons.
The US alone ran over a thousand nuclear bomb tests between 1945 and 1992, each more lethal than the last. Another thousand were carried out elsewhere. There have been at least two hundred nuclear reactor accidents as well, many non-reported, as Soviet authorities had hoped for Chernobyl. Some sources directly attribute over two million human deaths to atmospheric testing. Negligence during tests in the 1950s, when milk was contaminated, earned the US government a guilty verdict by a judge in 1984. Attempts to employ bombs for alternative goals like mining were sabotaged when Storax Sedan exploded underground in 1962. Record volumes of radiation released raised health risks for millions of people. The United Nations announced in 2000 that nuclear radioactivity has spread across the entire earth. Nature everywhere now bears the tattoo. The Anthropocene was born with detonation of the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico Desert on July 16th, 1945, copper-fastening the Great Acceleration of human progress and associated earth degradation. The revised standard to minimise dangerous releases is zero yield from sub-critical tests.
Science Space Review papers confirm deadly chemical escape, the ionosphere warmed by high-frequency waves, and radiation belts scrambled by very low frequency waves. During debates in the 1970s on disarmament and Test Ban agreements, the UN also tabled a ban on environmental modification, or artificial climate change. This strictly confidential laser and particle beam technology was developed by the American military from the late 40s as a weapon to alter weather patterns. It was used in the 1990s Star Wars programme called HAARP – High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program. It builds on Project Popeye, when the American military interfered with seasonal rains during the Vietnam War to ruin crops and deprive the Viet Cong of a means of sustenance. This ability to conjure up tornados, droughts or floods could stop any army.
With four critical priorities of pacifism, the environment, health and social justice uniting members around the world, the Green Party surfaced first in Tasmania in the sixties and Sweden in the seventies. Once news of Britain’s military alliance with the USA leaked in early 1952, the British anti-nuclear movement was born. Operation Gandhi entailed small sit-down protests outside the UK War Office, and at Aldermaston, England’s prime atomic research plant. Pacifists were incensed at the superpowers’ hydrogen bomb tests later that year. A fisherman on the Lucky Dragon, a boat ninety miles away, was fatally injured by radioactive debris emitted by America’s 1954 Castle Bravo test in the Pacific. But in diverse conditions, whether in space, underwater, underground, over-ground, tests continued, with radioactive yield varying per site and size.
In 1955, Mary Harrison walked from Salisbury to London, and other women protested by sitting in Golders Green, where the freshly formed Committee for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons distributed leaflets and supervised letter-writing campaigns. The Committee became a National Council after England announced a date for its own hydrogen bomb test at Christmas Island in May 1956. Writers and politicians of mainly Labour persuasion took up the cause. Eminent polymath Bertrand Russell wrote to Khrushchev seeking help. Russell and Einstein’s 1955 manifesto against nuclear arms and for peaceful dispute resolution was written on behalf of, “members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt”.
Women wearing black sashes walked in procession from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square days before the test date. A group of prominent men launched a separate association called the Direct Action Committee. The National Council assembled at Westminster Central Hall on February 17th, 1958 and rechristened their organisation the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Their influence would be far-reaching.
Gerald Holtom designed the classic logo of a drooping cross. Hugh Brock suggested a fifty-mile march from Trafalgar Square to Aldermaston that Easter. Thousands of people signed up and trudged to Falcon Field opposite the research facility. Despite a provisional nuclear test ban, a march in the opposite direction went ahead in 1959. Even more people, many non-British, showed up. Twenty thousand people eventually reached Trafalgar Square, fully behind unilateral nuclear disarmament and an end to American occupation of UK military bases.
The Direct Action Group’s more forceful attitude annoyed the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as it triggered police ire against campaigners, but the Labour Party’s avowal of disarmament as policy in 1960 was a step in the right direction. Infighting deflated public interest, as did mixed messages about the Cuban Crisis of 1962, when the Soviet Union pointed nuclear weapons at America to protect Cuba from US aggression. With America already aiming nuclear missiles at Russia from Italy, Britain, Turkey and elsewhere, hypocrisy was at play.
Anything from 15,000 to 25,000 nuclear weapons and counting now burden the planet, from a cumulative production tally of about 130,000 bombs, most made in either America or Russia, and smaller numbers in up to thirty other countries. The heat and light accompanying each air blast means nukes are up to millions of times more destructive than conventional bombs. America’s 1952 super bomb named Mike gave off five hundred times more power than did the Hiroshima explosion, and incinerated a Pacific island. Live particles floated far and wide to settle around the planet. A kiloton equals a thousand tons of TNT and is the measure used to define explosive energy or yield. Atomic fission bombs generate fourteen kiloton yields in contrast with at least 7,000 kiloton yields created by later fusion bombs.
The radiation that can cause severe burns, systemic sickness and death makes up fifteen per cent of a nuclear bomb’s output. Just fifty of today’s bombs could kill two hundred million people. In 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences invented the Doomsday Clock. Sixty years later, in 2007, the minute hand moved forward two minutes, from seven to five minutes to midnight. Ten years later, in 2017, it advanced another two and a half minutes due to extra risks from nuclear terrorism, rogue state arms acceleration and general nuclear renewal.
In Ireland, the Radiological Protection Act passed in 1991 established the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland to replace the NEB. The institute merged with the Irish Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 and acts as a government advisory body and public educator. It sets safety limits, controls risks, and licenses and regulates sources of ionising radiation. The 1999 Electricity Regulation Act banned the use of nuclear fission for electricity generation. However, through national grid linkages, Ireland avails of energy created by nuclear activity elsewhere. With Brexit imminent, England is due to withdraw from Euratom, a body set up in 1957 to ensure peaceful use of nuclear energy around Europe.
The All-Ireland Nuclear-Free Local Authorities Forum raised concerns about the proposed construction of a nuclear power plant in Northern Ireland as announced in 2005. Appraisal of Newry in 2019 as a nuclear waste repository was shot down, for now. A 2006 Forfas report recommended nuclear energy for the Republic of Ireland. The jeopardy has not completely gone away, but now, where those intended nuclear power plants would have dominated the Carnsore Point horizon, a windfarm turns out clean energy.
Meanwhile, Kate Brown documents the contemporary busy berry-picking season in the Polesian forests around the Chernobyl exclusion zone and how the harvest, monitored by Geiger counter and excessively radioactive to this day, is then transported without warnings across Europe and even the world for general consumption. She also visited meat, milk and wool factories situated in areas outside the official zone but coated with even more radioactivity. Former employees, many of whose colleagues had since died, told her about piles of “hot” skins and carcasses lying outdoors without barriers and being transported unmarked cross-country, even cross-continent. Since the accident, up to eighty per cent of Belarus children presented with somatic pathologies, including deformities, cellular irregularities and age-inappropriate conditions like stroke, cardiac arrest, and neonatal cardiac cavities known as Chernobyl heart. Countless bodies of workers and patients absorbed isotopes sufficiently to classify them as walking radioactive waste.
None of this made it into official records, bar a few confidential archived records only recently opened. In several instances, the author was the first person from anywhere signing in to examine these records. Surveying misshapen mature trees in the swamps, Brown perceived that “Chernobyl was not a single event but was instead a point on a continuum: the radioactive contamination of Polesia lasted more than three decades. Chernobyl territory was already saturated with radioactive isotopes from atomic bomb tests, [the accident] an acceleration … in a chain of toxic exposures that restructured the landscape, bodies and politics.” 2003 measurements of caesium-137 still revealed levels up to ten times higher than the accepted limit in many Belarusian children. Scientists conceded that fallout half-lives were lengthening; an admission that theoretical models of radioactivity behaviour do not necessarily transfer to the real world. Type of landscape is another variable on potency. Nothing except the fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and water we ingest mop up radiation as effectively.
Historian and professor Kate Brown teaches environmental and nuclear history at MIT, a subject which should be on every curriculum given misinformation campaigns about renewable energy’s flaws disseminated by the fossil fuel and armaments industries, both closely allied to the nuclear industry, but also by states and other players, for whom the precautionary principle has turned out to be pie in the sky. We are all hot now. Common knowledge in this field should always be suspect, and cover-ups expected, given past form.
Caroline Hurley lives near an Irish bird reserve where contact with nature inspires ideas, and occasionally poems. Some have appeared in Poetry 24, anthologies, and elsewhere.