A new book by a historian from the Massachusetts of Technology (MIT) alleges that scientists and officials at United Nations, the Red Cross, and World Health Organization covered up evidence that hundreds of thousands of people died from radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.
If the allegations in Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future are correct, then its author, Kate Brown, will have successfully overturned the strong scientific consensus that the Chernobyl accident will, at most, result in the deaths of just 200 people over an 80-year life span.
“International scientists suppressed evidence of a cancer epidemic among children, sidelined scientists who did not submit,” Brown alleges, “because they had much larger radioactive skeletons in the closet from nuclear bomb tests.”
Brown’s book has been positively and uncritically reviewed by journalists and historians for Science, Nature, the Economist, and the Times of London, all of which reported on the book’s findings as a factual without interviewing, citing or quoting any of the scientists who were the subject of Brown’s book.
The reviewer for the Economist, Noah Sneider, the magazine’s Moscow bureau chief, even emailed to Brown last Friday to say, “I wanted to write you directly to say that it’s absolutely magnificent. An eye-opening, awe-inspiring tale. One of the best books I’ve read on any topic recently. Bravo”
Brown alleges that scientists and officials were motivated to cover-up the true public health impact of Chernobyl because, if the true impacts of its radioactive fall-out were known, the governments of nuclear-armed nations would be forced to admit that far more people were poisoned and killed by nuclear weapons testing in the past.
“Minimizing both the number of deaths so far and the on-going health consequences of the Chernobyl disaster provided cover for nuclear powers to dodge lawsuits and uncomfortable investigations in the 1990s,” writes Brown.
The reviewer for Science, historian Elena Aranova, repeats Brown’s claims, writing “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.”
A major review of the science by the United Nations shows that humans are exposed to 200 times more naturally-occurring radiation in their food than from the fallout from weapons testing.
Brown concludes that hundreds of thousands or more were killed by Chernobyl. “The Ukrainian state pays compensation to 35,000 people who spouses died from Chernobyl-related health problems,” she writes, and points to another estimate of 150,000 deaths. “That range of 35,000 to 150,000 Chernobyl fatalities — not 54 — is the minimum.”
Radiation experts say there is no evidence of any relationship between radiation illnesses and government compensation for individuals.
She argues that “scientific administrators” in “UN agencies… drew from a well-known toolbox of tactics familiar from controversies surrounding lead, tobacco, and chemical toxins.”
Repeatedly the historian emphasizes what she calls “the suppression of the record of catastrophic damage in the Chernobyl territories” which included not only cancers but also “diseases of the blood-forming system, digestive tract, and endocrine, reproductive, circulatory, and nervous systems.”
In a phone interview, Brown told me, “I’m not asking people to believe me. I’m not the scientist who has done the work. I’m just pulling out of the archives what Soviet scientists, mostly Ukrainians and Belarusians, five years after the accident.”
In fact, Brown’s book argues not only that the whole of mainstream science surrounding Chernobyl is wrong, but so too is the mainstream science regarding the health impacts of radiation.
Brown ends her book with a manifesto calling for a sweeping reassessment of the impact of low levels of radiation on health including from “medical procedures, nuclear power reactors and their accidents, and atomic bombs their fallout. Few people on earth have escaped those exposures.”
Brown claims nuclear weapons testing fallout resulted in a rise in thyroid cancers, childhood cancers, and declining sperm counts among men all around the world, from Europe to the U.S. to Australia.
“In the name of ‘peace’ and ‘deterrence,’ military leaders aged global nuclear war,” Brown writes. “The period of nuclear testing qualifies as the most unhinged, suicidal chapter in human history” — a claim that would make weapons testing more deadly than World War II, which resulted in 50 to 80 million deaths.
Radiation Scientists Dispute Brown
The world’s leading radiation scientists, most of whom are independent academics who have studied the Chernobyl accident for the last four decades, strongly dispute Brown’s claims, and point to hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers based on decades of research.
“I don’t think Kate Brown has ever sat on an IAEA or UNSCEAR committee – I have,” wrote Dr. Geraldine Thomas, professor of pathology at Imperial College-London and founder of the Chernobyl Tissue Bank, using the acronyms for the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Radiation.
Scientists from around the world, including representing the Red Cross, all came to the same conclusion: the vast majority of harm they witnessed was from poverty, dislocation from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and mental health problems created by fears of radiation. “The International Red Cross sounded almost exactly like the UN officials,” writes Brown.
“It is just not true that the scientists try to minimize the effects of radiation,” Thomas added. “ It would actually be against their own best interests to do this. They are mostly academics and are required to produce large amounts of money and papers for their Institutes. You would be expecting them to argue for larger effects of radiation as the more serious the health consequences the more the money flows.”
Why, then, would radiation scientists be covering up evidence that low doses of radiation are harmful, I asked Brown. “A lot of people zip in [to areas affected by Chernobyl radiation] for a couple of weeks,” Brown told me, “and they talk to people for a couple of weeks and get datasets others have collected and then go back and run the numbers.”
I asked Thomas if Brown had accurately characterized how she worked, and Thomas replied, “I have worked with Ukrainian scientists for the last 35 years, and visited Ukraine on many occasions, including once 6 weeks after a Caesarian section for my second child, which think shows how committed I am.
“I have had a very longstanding commitment to Ukraine in particular,” Thomas wrote in an email, “and I can assure Kate that if the scientists we work with thought there was anything that needed to be brought to our attention — and that would potentially provide more funding for their Institutes — they would have mentioned it to us.”
Thomas defended her Ukrainian scientific colleagues saying, “The fact is that the majority of the scientists out there are extremely dedicated individuals who understand that everything has to be evidence-based. If they had good scientific evidence of the things that Kate claims they would be telling us all about it.”
What about all of the birth defects, like the child in the photo that the Times of London ran with the review of Brown’s book? “I don’t doubt that children were born with birth defects,” wrote Thomas, “unfortunately this occurs everywhere.
“The issue here is attribution,” explained Thomas. “In order to attribute an effect to exposure you have to have a baseline with which to compare it, and then also take into account increased ascertainment – and the method by which you screen can increase that ascertainment hugely.”
I asked Brown for evidence supporting her claim that Chernobyl radiation led to an increase in birth defects. She sent me three documents, all by the same scientist, Wladimir Wertelecki. One was published in a chapter of a book edited by the anti-nuclear activist, Helen Caldicott.
The other two were published in Congential Anomalies (impact factor: 1.1) and the other in Birth Defects Research (impact factor: 1.6). “We did not prove with this study that radiation causes birth defects,” Wertelecki admits.
The evidence that Chernobyl radiation increased thyroid cancer is far stronger, but “only around 25 percent of all the cases can be attributed to radiation,” explains Thomas.
What about the increase in thyroid cancers globally, which Brown claims are from nuclear weapons testing? The best-available science attributes most of the “increase” to better detection methods and finds “no evidence” that it came from radiation. Scientists say more plausible factors are changes to iodine intake, chemical exposure, and obesity.
Brown relies heavily on a scientist named Yury Bandazhevsky, whose research finds “that although ambient levels of radioactivity have decreased over the years, the rate of health problems has continued to rise among children born to exposed parents.”
Says Thomas, “his papers are not peer-reviewed……. Kate seems to have taken the views of the ‘usual suspects’ into account, but dismisses mainstream science where there is peer review, and accountability. The ‘usual suspects’ tell a good story – but without a shred of evidence from studies that are appropriately powered and controlled for confounders. Unfortunately, most of science, when done properly, is pretty boring – maybe that’s the problem.”
Indeed, Oxford University’s Martin School conducted a major review of the health impacts of low levels of radiation and wrote critically about the supposedly scientific sources Brown relies upon in Manual for Survival.
“It is totally untrue that we just look at average doses and don’t consider the various pathways of uptake to people,” responds James Smith of the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Portsmouth in Britain, who wrote a long critique in the Journal of Radiological Protection of Brown’s book.
“There are hundreds of papers on this including many on uptake to mushrooms, berries, private milk production etc in natural and semi-natural ecosystems. In the 1990’s there was even an EU project devoted just to semi-natural ecosystems.
“Kate may not be aware of this, but there is a whole journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry devoted to the science of dosimetry and hundreds (probably thousands) of other papers across the scientific literature.”
Thomas agreed. “There have been many very careful studies conducted at huge expense over many years and it is a shame that she dismisses these and concentrates on contentious studies carried out by others that are not highly regarded within their own community.”
Brown points out that there was some initial skepticism among some scientists that there would even be a rise in the rate of thyroid cancer, the only cancer that rose after Chernobyl, according to the mainstream, U.N.-endorsed science.
But Thomas, who started and runs the Chernobyl Tissue Bank, said, “Those of us who worked on the animal models of thyroid cancer weren’t surprised, we knew all about the supersensitivity of the developing thyroid to 131-I.”
In a phone interview, I asked Brown what might explain why her view was so different from that of Smith and Thomas and other mainstream academic scientists. “Jim is a real stalwart for an older view that you can have low doses and that they can even sometimes be good for you and that in general they are not harmful,” said Brown.
Smith rejected Brown’s accusation. “I’ve never said radiation isn’t at all harmful and am not a proponent of radiation hormesis,” wrote Smith.
I asked Brown how to square her account with the work of scientists like Thomas. Brown replied, “There’s a debate going on, right! Between the Gerry Thomas and Jim Smiths and… You could call Helen Caldicott!”
What, in the end, explains why so many doctors in Ukraine and Belarus thought they were seeing evidence of radiation impacting health?
“There were huge social changes taking place in the former Soviet Union that have affected the disease landscape,” explained Thomas, “and that is a significant confounder in all that she claims.”
Indeed, throughout Brown’s book she describes people living extremely difficult, impoverished lives characterized by drinking large quantities of vodka during the day, and burning wood for fuel. According to the World Health Organization, breathing smoke from wood and biomass kills 3.8 million people every year.
Studies find that living a large polluted city increases mortality risk 2.8 times more than being a Chernobyl clean-up worker
The WHO calls the “psycho-social impacts” of Chernobyl the “main public health impact” and noted that “Chernobyl-affected populations had anxiety levels that were twice as high than non-exposed population,” writes WHO, “and were more likely to report multiple unexplained physical symptoms and subjective poor health.
WHO singled out local doctors for spreading fear. “To some extent, these symptoms were driven by the belief that their health was adversely affected by the disaster and the fact that they were diagnosed by a physician with a ‘Chernobyl-related health problem.’”
In the end, Brown claims that the evidence collected and assembled by Greenpeace is more reliable than that collected by hundreds of scientists working under the auspices of the UN and other international agencies.
“Greenpeace employees came to respect the work of local doctors, which they had first overlooked,” she writes. “Greenpeace became an important clearinghouse to collate and translate work of local scientists not known abroad.”
Brown’s Manual for Survival, which rests on their testimony, largely does the same, though cracks in her narrative occasionally allow different voices to shine through. A man hired by Greenpeace told Brown that he “found basically health children ‘but a very sick medical care system.’”