Unreported Deaths, Child Cancer & Radioactive Meat: The Untold Story of Chernobyl via Democracy Now!

Following a mysterious nuclear accident in Russia that left seven dead, we look back at the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. It sent a cloud of radioactive fallout into Russia, Belarus and over a large portion of Europe, but the death toll from Chernobyl remains unknown. Chernobyl is considered the worst nuclear accident in history, but Kate Brown, an MIT professor of science, technology and society, says much of what we understand about the disaster is inaccurate. Her new book, “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future,” chronicles the devastating and underreported impact of radiation on tens of thousands in the Soviet Union that went unreported for decades. Brown says, “After about five years of research, I realized that much of what we know about Chernobyl is just either incomplete or fully incorrect.”


KATE BROWN: Yeah. You know, we feel like we know a lot about Chernobyl, and that’s what I thought when I started this project. And I worked my way through 27 archives and talked to three dozen scientists and farmers and people who worked with the Chernobyl accident, and I followed biologists around the Chernobyl zone who work there twice the year. And after about five years of research, I realized that a lot — much of what we know about Chernobyl is just either incomplete or fully incorrect.

For example, we think of there’s just one Chernobyl zone. Tourists stream in there every day. But what few people know is that there’s a second Chernobyl zone that’s nearly as radioactive as the first Chernobyl zone. It’s in southern Belarus. And it was created because a couple of days after the accident, Moscow leaders realized that a big storm front was brewing, and it was heading northeast toward several large Russian cities, including Moscow. So they sent out pilots, and the pilots manipulated the weather so it rained radioactive fallout on rural Belarus to save the big Russian cities. Now, this successful triage operation probably prevented the exposure of millions of urban dwellers, but, at the same time, they didn’t tell anyone in Belarus, not even the Belarusian Communist Party leader, that they had done this. So people lived in — about 200,000 people — in these rural areas in southern Belarus in terrifically raging hot conditions of radioactivity.

Another misconception we have about the Chernobyl zone is that about 300 people were hospitalized. These were mostly nuclear plant operators and firefighters. That was only one count from one hospital. What I found, working through the archives, is that 40,000 people, with 11,000 of them being children, streamed into hospitals in the summer after the accident for Chernobyl-related exposures. Especially people in the southern territory of Belarus were wondering, “What’s going on? Why are my children fainting? Why are they nauseous or have dizzy spells? Why can’t all of us get out of bed in the morning?”

So, that’s another misconception, is, you know, how — what kind of fatalities. If you look at U.N. records, they say from 35 to 54 people died from Chernobyl exposures. They project that in the future 4,000 people might die of cancers. What I found is that Belarus and Russia, where most of Chernobyl radioactivity went, have not been brave enough to make a count, but that in Ukraine, 35,000 women receive compensation for their spouses who died of Chernobyl-documented exposures. Now, these are just men who died. These are not children. It doesn’t — the count doesn’t include women. It doesn’t account anybody who wasn’t married. Off the record and at the Chernobyl visitors’ center, they give a number of 150,000 Ukrainians dead from Chernobyl exposures. Not 35, but the number is at least 35,000.


KATE BROWN: We might wonder, you know, why is there no real conclusive science. We know a lot about high doses of radioactivity and what that does to humans. That’s just like that accident that just happened in Russia on August 8th. People die from acute radiation poisoning. That is easy to detect. It’s fully documented. And we have a big study from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. But what scientists will tell you today is we really don’t know what happens to people exposed to low doses of radioactivity chronically over long periods of time. And that’s the Chernobyl syndrome, right? And this is far more likely, let’s hope, in the future, that people will not be exposed to nuclear bombs again, but that we probably will have, on this globe, more nuclear accidents at nuclear power plants. We have dozens of power plants that are over 40 years old that are operating. So we need to know what happens when people are exposed in a Chernobyl-like situation to a slow drip of low doses of radioactivity.

And what I found, working through the agricultural records in the Soviet archives, is that, quickly, radioactivity saturated the food chain. It was in the wheat, tea, honey, milk, meat. They had 100,000 livestock that had been severely contaminated. They butchered these livestock. And loath to throw this out as radioactive contaminants, as just nuclear garbage, they sent manuals — and this is why I call my book Manual for Survival — they sent instruction manuals to the packing houses in Belarus and Ukraine, and they said, take — “Grade the meat in three levels: low, medium and high levels of radioactivity. The low and medium levels, take that meat, mix it with clean meat and make sausage. Send that sausage all over the Soviet Union. Label it as you normally would. Just don’t send any,” the instructions say, “to Moscow.”

The high-level meat was supposed to be put in freezers, so that it could decay. And over time, they hoped, that meat would be cleaner and safer to eat. But quickly I found in the archives that packing houses were writing Moscow, saying, “We need more freezers.” That’s how much high-level radioactive meat they had. They got no more freezers, so they found some train cars, and they stuffed tons and tons of high-level radioactive meat in refrigerated train cars and sent that meat to Baku. Nobody in Baku wanted it. They sent it on to Yerevan and etc. For four years, this radioactive train, filled with — you know, sort of a ghost train filled with radioactive meat circulated the western half of the Soviet Union, no one wanting to touch it. Finally, in 1990, KGB officers buried that train car back in the zone, the Chernobyl zone, where it should have gone in the first place. So, what we see are sort of a path of contagion, where people were ingesting radioactive contaminants in their food and taking it in on the dust. It was sort of an uncontrollable mix of radioactivity going all over the place.

Read more at Unreported Deaths, Child Cancer & Radioactive Meat: The Untold Story of Chernobyl

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