T217. Chernobyl

 

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Project Save the World Podcast / Talk Show Episode Number: 217
Panelists: Kate Brown
Host: Metta Spencer

Date Aired:  30 March 2021
Date Transcribed and Verified:  7 May 2021
Transcription: Otter.ai
Transcription Review and Edits: David Millar

Metta Spencer  

Hi, I’m Metta Spencer. And today we’re going to Chernobyl. only thank goodness, we don’t really have to go to Chernobyl. Or we can do it by curiously through our guest, who knows the place pretty well and the surroundings very well. This is Kate Brown, who’s a history professor at MIT, and who speaks Russian and knows Russian. So that was a big asset for her research, which produced a book a couple of years ago. Can’t remember the title. Okay, what’s the title of your book,

Kate Brown  

Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future 

Metta Spencer  

Good. Well, it’s a terrific book and before that you had a book with a, I think, more memorable title… Plutopia. Yeah, a wonderful title that described the risks of living around a place, such as Hanford, Washington, where the plutonium bits for American nuclear weapons were produced, and it was not a healthy place. Okay, so let’s get down to business, Kate, because I know you’ve got to rush off and do other things today. Tell me about your book, I’m going to let you do most of the guidance. You know what you need to cover on this? I let me say this much. Before I read your book, I had heard estimates about how many people had been killed in the Chernobyl disaster, ranging from I think, 20, or something like that to 1 million. So, it’s someplace in that vicinity, which is one hell of a wide swathe of population to try to, you know, well, what kind of an estimate is that? But you are in a position to actually look at documents that probably would have been ignored by the rest of the world who didn’t speak Russian, right? and talk to people. So, what did you find out? And what did you conclude? And what is this a healthy environment around there? Or What’s the situation?

Kate Brown  

Well, that was one of my main questions is, you know, we have this large range of possible fatalities from Chernobyl, we know definitely 33 firemen and nuclear plant operators died. And a lot of the UN documents have this range between 33 and 54, dead from Chernobyl, and then, you know, a couple 1000 kids with easily treatable, they would say that word, cancer. And then Greenpeace and other organizations had much higher counts 200,000 potential people who would eventually die. So, I, I worked, you know, I thought I would go into the first Ministry of Health archives of the Soviet Union and try to figure out if I could, if I could get, you know, just the sheer answer about, you know, fatalities and public health impact. So wanted to know about the environmental impact. So, I worked my way through about 27 archives for this story, because as I got into the archives in Kiev, and I moved on, to the provincial archives, into the National Archives in Moscow, and then over to Belarus, and did the same sort of up and down the ranks of government bureaucracies. I was finding a pretty disturbing story of people on the ground, who were mostly doctors and radiation monitors. And they were saying, … we don’t know, there are no radiation… we have no maps of radiation and where it’s spread, and we’re told everything’s fine. And we’re told that our food is fine. But what we see is a troubling uptick in the frequencies of diseases among the populations that live in our areas, and they start sending these letters in… to Kiev, and Kiev usually cleans it up and sends it up to Moscow. And I see… this correspondence starting to happen… within a couple of months of the accident, the official count is 300 people were hospitalized after the accident. That was just a number from one hospital. And that hospital was a special radiation medicine hospital in Moscow, where they brought the most acute cases, but not 300. But my count is 40,000 people were hospitalized from Chernobyl exposures in the summer after the accident — in about a quarter of these people… 1000 of them were children. As time goes on, at that age, I thought, well, how are they getting these exposures? And so, I went into the Ministry of Agriculture records. And I found that though Moscow officials said, you know, we’ve tested the food and we find the food is safe — is that in classified documents, they’re saying they’re finding irradiated food all the way up and down the food chain pretty much everywhere where humans congregated. They brought with them radioactive isotopes from the surrounding countryside, in the forests, into the villages and towns where they lived, and so places of human habitation became your epicenters. Because of human activity. Humans take what they find in that larger area. They bring it where they live because of that, and because of the food sources… people were taking in chronic levels, low dose levels of radioactivity. So, this makes for a, you know, a very different situation from Hiroshima. Hiroshima was counted as one big X ray and the atomic bomb survivor studies, calculates this sort of less than a millisecond of exposure of gamma rays going through people’s bodies, and then those gamma rays keep going. And they count the damage that those milliseconds of gamma rays in the bodies caused. So, when… officials came in, in the… late 1980s, and early 1990s, and said… we’re looking at these doses, these people are receiving because they held up Geiger counters, they looked at the gamma rays coming from the soils and coming from the trees. And these doses are far lower than the Hiroshima doses. So therefore, we don’t expect to see any health problems… they were counting gamma rays in the, in the trees, ambient environment, you know, they would hold a Geiger counter up and say this is … like what you’d find if you flew in an airplane, that kind of stuff. But what was different about Chernobyl from Hiroshima was that people were eating radioactive substances in their fruit, you know, just incredible, you know, it’s in the milk. It was in the meat, it was in the wheat, the honey, the tea, backyard vegetables, you name it, in the water people drink. They tracked in… the mud… as they went inside, you know, so it was in the air, is in the dust. So, this is this is the kind of situation — that you really had no existing large scale health studies to measure. So, they extrapolated to Hiroshima, but that was sort of a false level of comparison. And over and over again, the Russian and Ukrainian medical people and scientists kept saying, but you have it wrong, you’re not listening to us. We you know, we have all these kids here. After three years, and then four years, especially with thyroid cancer, we used to never have thyroid cancer in children. And now we have, you know, 20 in Ukraine, and 30 in Belarus, and then the next year … 100. And the numbers kept growing like that. The international community knew as the Soviet Union fell apart, the international community took over assessing the health and environmental consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. And then as they came in, first, you know, the World Health Organization came in, and within two weeks, they said, we don’t see any problems. Nobody took that assessment seriously. So then, Moscow invited the International Atomic Energy Agency… IAEA is set up… to promote peaceful Uses of nuclear energy. So, they’re a lobbying organization. And they knew they were like, if we do an assessment, nobody will believe us, because we’re a lobby. We’re a nuclear lobby. So, they created a Interagency Committee called the International Chernobyl project, which the IAEA led, but it looks like a more neutral organization, the International Chernobyl program, an interagency UN project. And so, they went in… did … studies and they ran them against some version of data and published this report in 1991 that said… 33 people died. We don’t see any… people on the ground are not healthy, but we don’t think their health problems are related to Chernobyl exposures, it’s probably a psychological stress that’s causing their problems. And we recommend, two things not happen — that were in the works to happen, the UN was raising money to have to move 200,000 people from Chernobyl contaminated areas because local doctors on the ground were seeing receiving this tremendous series of health problems, problems related to the thyroid and the endocrine system, circulation system, digestive tract disorders, autoimmune disorders, and birth defects.

Metta Spencer  

These primarily cancers or

Kate Brown  

other Oh, these are what this are like sub-acute effects… that’s the other problem with a version of studies is they only look for acute effects, deaths and cancers that caused death. But people were getting sick with… chronic ailments that really caused life, daily life, to be miserable, but they weren’t dying immediately from them, they will linger around with these problems, we find that people have, on average — the one study that’s looked at this — about 15 years shorter lives than everybody else in in Ukraine and Belarus, so they’re not dying immediately from it, but their quality of life is, is pretty miserable. And so, like what we have is new charts at the county level that shows before 1986, the Soviet medicine medical system would look at every kid and they’d say 80% of the kids are in the healthy category, and 10-20% have some chronic illness or another — after 1987, those numbers flip. And what we see is 80-90% of kids have one or two chronic health problems, and 10-20% are deemed healthy by… Soviet metrics. So this is big, you know, so this, these are the kinds of things people are getting really alarmed about. And so, they wanted to move people to safer ground — 200,000 people, a big movement, they originally only moved 220,000 people so almost double the number are gonna be moved again. And the other reason Ukrainians are asking the UN for monetary help in the form of $1 billion in today’s money to move these 200,000 people and to carry out a long term, large population health study of Chernobyl survivors, based on this idea of chronic low doses of exposure, so they wanted to do a Hiroshima-type study, but in this different radiation context, the IAEA study, they rushed it so that it came in before that pledge drive, went in the General Assembly of the UN, and they rushed it and they said, listen, we don’t see any reason to have to fund these projects. We see no health problems; we don’t think we’ll see any in the future except maybe a tiny bump of kids with thyroid cancer in the future. At the time, they had biopsies of kids who had thyroid cancer in the present, but they didn’t acknowledge — they said, you know, we’ve heard stories of thyroid cancer, but those stories and publication are anecdotal in nature. So I went on to work in about five UN agencies.

Metta Spencer  

I could only ask what was going on at that point? Was there some kind of… vested interest? Certainly, this is the this is the group of investigators who were set up by and accountable to IAEA right. So, in a way they had their loyalties is that

Kate Brown  

that’s a great question that what’s going on at the time? It’s a great question, because you know, here we are at the end of the Cold War. And what happened at the end of the Cold War is that there’s no longer reasons to… keep the same kind of vigilance on nuclear secrets. So, Yeltsin starts in 1992, he opens the Soviet archives and says, take a look at what we’ve got here. Look at the Soviet record, the Americans start to opening their nuclear archives, and the [US] Department of Energy is forced by protesters… starting in the mid-1980s, to release in declassified documents, same things happened in Great Britain. So, all of a sudden, all these people are coming to their governments, and they’re saying, look, look at this record, I was living downwind from the Nevada Test Site, I was living near the Hanford plutonium factory. I was living next… in Algeria, where the French were testing. I was living in Western Australia, where the British were testing nuclear weapons. And I feel like my health problems are due to those exposures. And so, lawsuits, billions and dollars potentially of lawsuits are popping up like mushrooms after rain. And so, the Association of American Health Physicists met a year after Chernobyl in 1987… right outside of Washington, DC. Health physicists are people who… deem, you know, if nuclear reactors are safe, and if, you know, people who work in reactors have had exposure… they’re the people who do this. And so, they were meeting to have their annual professional conference, business as usual. But they were met, and a keynote was given to them by… a lawyer from the Department of Energy. And he said the biggest threat to nuclear power today is not another accident, like Three Mile Island seven years ago, and Chernobyl last year — but lawsuits. And so, they went these health physicists went into breakout groups, and they were schooled by Department of Justice lawyers to learn how to become effective witnesses on behalf of the US government, to defend against lawsuits… under the guise of objective scientists.

Metta Spencer  

That is just appalling.

Kate Brown  

So that’s the content. And then you could say,

Metta Spencer  

did the whole profession sort of line up behind the government in this o

Kate Brown  

Well,

Metta Spencer  

I mean, not everybody because I like case of individual corruption or what kind of thinking went on among people who are professionals supposed to be looking after the public health who is so easily persuaded to lie if that’s what the implication is of what you’re saying.

Kate Brown  

I’m not saying that they lied, I’m saying that they were strongly encouraged in school to have a certain particular kind of response. And if you think about this time, I mean, who you know where to help physicists work, they usually work for some facet of nuclear industries or a nuclear regulatory agency or they work in a government agency. So, there were very are very few independent scholars who work on these issues. A couple of steps forward, Steve Wing at the University of North Carolina, David Richardson, also an epidemiologist, Rosalie Bertell… she wrote to the UN and said, I’m, I’m willing to help … but those letters went unanswered, these people were not tapped, they tapped into people who already were sort of industry scientists. So, they also had another motivation, you know, in addition to losing biopsies, or overlooking evidence, which is that they’ve been working for decades with these Hiroshima models, which, which were manifest in these charts. And these charts said, If you got this certain exposure, you had this… extra percentage of getting cancer .05 or .02%, of getting cancer in the future. And they worked with these models. And… if you… worked in… radiation diagnostics, … you give people CAT scans. We gave people x rays, you gave people radioactive iodine, just to cure their cancers. So, to suddenly flip around, and say, oh, gosh, we’ve been dying, we’ve been giving people these doses of radiation thinking it was safe. And now to suddenly have to change the science that was behind… those parameters, that risk-management strategy was just a big, intellectual leap to take. And it took a long time, it took them until 1996, to recognize the huge epidemic of childhood thyroid cancer in Ukraine and Belarus and Western Russia, they finally had to say, yeah, you know, the Russian doctors were right, when they were talking about this problem in 1989. There is a big epidemic of… cancer. And it came quicker than we realized it, quicker than our stated latency period. And it came was much more powerful than effect. So, this is the kind of, you know, scientists, slow science, conservative, and maybe that’s good. So, I don’t want to accuse them of blindness, I think that they believed in their science, and they believed in the goodness, and the value of their knowledge, and to have it upset by Chernobyl. And then, you know, on the part of scientific administrators who often direct scientists, who pay their bills and give them tasks who publish, release, or don’t release the studies that they do, the scientific administrators could mobilize Chernobyl, they could say, look, Chernobyl… world’s worst nuclear accident, and only 50-55 people died, we can handle it, as Burton Bennett said, have a view and we can handle that kind of damage and go forward into the… beautiful nuclear future. So, Chernobyl became this really critical, you know, deposition lawyers working for plaintiffs looked for Chernobyl studies to try to make their case in court. Health physicists, you know, working on behalf of these governments looked for rival Chernobyl studies, in order to make their case in court about people being exposed in bomb tests, people being exposed to bomb production facilities. So Chernobyl was this critical point. What I found is I did my research is that about this question of fatalities. The… Russian governments published no records about it, neither casualties or fatalities related to Chernobyl, they just there’s just almost nothing out there. Ukraine… got the least amount of Chernobyl radiation, but they do have some numbers…  they give compensation to 35,000 women whose husbands died with a Chernobyl-related illness. That’s 35,000. That’s a very limited number because it just includes men who are old enough to marry and who were married and who had documented exposures. It includes no children, includes no women, in that count. In the 2016 (30 year) anniversary of Chernobyl, Ukrainian officials said that they estimated 150,000 Ukrainians had died. And that’s one Republic out of three, that was heavily hit with Chernobyl, they got 20% of Chernobyl radiation in Ukraine, 80% went to Belarus and western Russia there. So somewhere between 35,000 and 150,000 is a minimum low count for Chernobyl fatalities.

Metta Spencer  

So, you could do some arithmetic and multiply the population size of Belarus and Russia the areas that were exposed, and how much radiation they got. And now, do some, you know, some estimates, right?

Kate Brown  

Yeah, somebody who’s good at math should do that.

Metta Spencer  

Yeah, I think grade school math would do it.

Kate Brown  

Sure. I could.

Metta Spencer  

A 10th grader could certainly do it. Okay, so what who didn’t do that? Has anybody actually made? No? Well, I know that there’s some kind of document that’s in Russian, that was published, some tiny excerpt or synopsis was published in a US journal. And I’m sorry, I don’t remember any more than that. But that it was… these people were estimating a million total deaths. And what am I referring to? Because I, you know, my memory is

Kate Brown  

That was the Yablokov study done with, you know, he worked. The late Alexander (Alexey) Yablokov… compiled all the studies in the Russian language related to Chernobyl, and he kept this growing… compendium, and he was published under the New York State National Endowment of Humanities. And that’s that that estimate comes from that publication from about 2006. I think it’s been he kept updating it until he just died a couple of years ago, he kept updating it throughout his life. So that’s where that’s like, all sort of public peer review, you know, in Russian, kind of peer- reviewed work in Russian, Ukrainian, and Russian. And that’s where that Greenpeace also supports. 

Metta Spencer  

Of course, I’ve heard people say that that’s not a credible source. But, you know, what do you think is that? Is that what kind of numbers should one pay attention to? Or how many of them would you pay attention to?

Kate Brown  

Well, I didn’t use that source, because it’s been so maligned. So, what I used were archival records… the data that fed many of those papers that were done by Ukrainian, Belorussian, Russian scientists. And so, I could check tracking them through the archive, I could check as they were being created, as the studies were in the first forum, the studies and they gather the data, I could check the data, I could see what they’ve… accomplished. So, it’s sort of like, you know, if the papers in those Yablokov studies are sort of the end result, what I was looking at was all the supporting work that led up to it. And I mean, they were there, you know that this is a very valuable font of knowledge. I think more researchers should go into these archives, because what it does is it records for the first time in human history, we have a record of what happens to people when you’re exposed 24/7 to chronic low doses of radiation. And, you know, the Hiroshima study started five years after the bombing, they only formed… AEC, the Atomic Energy Commission only started to fund this in 1950. And they were slow. So, like, some people might have been asked about their exposures. 10 years after the bombing. Here, we have these turnover records, where radiation monitors and doctors are on the ground gathering information within weeks of the accident, and then they keep doing that and all that raw data is stored in the Soviet archives. It’s extremely valuable. And you can

Metta Spencer  

Go see it.

Kate Brown  

Anybody can go see it.

Metta Spencer  

I mean, you could read it. I couldn’t. Okay, good. Now, I’ve heard a couple of questions. One is I have heard that the WHO is in some sense compromised by its power relationship vis-a-vis IAEA, that the WHO has done no significant amount of real evaluation of the health effects or can’t be trusted for the work that’s done, because they are not really allowed to do the kind of research that they should be doing because it’s supposed to be all in the bailiwick of the IAEA. Can you comment on that? Is that true? And what should be done about it?

Kate Brown  

Well, supposedly there’s… an agreement a Memorandum of Understanding In which the World Health Organization cedes authority on nuclear medicine to the International Atomic Energy Agency, I didn’t find any sign of that memorandum. Not that I had full access, especially, I have very limited access to records. But what I did see is that the World Health Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Agency got into a skirmish because… World Health said “We should be deciding on assessments on Chernobyl and health because we’re the health people.” And the IAEA said, “We’re the radiation and nuclear people we should decide.” The IAEA basically won that battle, because they were ranked higher in the UN family… they had a higher status, they had more money. In fact, they had so much money that the UN Scientific Committee for the Effects of Radiation, it’s supposed to be an independent body that looks at the effects of radiation on human health. were basically sort of detailed, you know, inside the IAEA, they gave them funding, they circulated staff through UNSCEAR. And when, you know, people who worked at the UN said, you know, these two agencies are basically merged, we should just formally merge them. And they’re saying this new in the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s, they’re like, No, no, no, we need to have unscared appear to be an objective, independent body, separate from the IAEA. So that’s how things work. There’s a lot of you know, like, at any time in place, things will, you know, there’s politics, like in any human agency, if you look at the IAEA’s website, now, they have a lot to say about cancer, Zika virus — they do, one of their, you know, sort of part of their portfolio now is health, and it’s kind of fascinating, you know, transformation of that agency from just focusing on reactors, and other sort of nuclear policies, to getting into the business of health.

Metta Spencer  

And would their estimates now, the more accurate you think, are they telling it straighter than they used to?

Kate Brown  

I don’t see any sign of that.

Metta Spencer  

No, you still think that there’s still some kind of

Kate Brown  

I just mean, they haven’t updated the documents, everybody’s, you know, quotes that 2006 document, 15 years old, with, with gives these projected casualties into the future, you know, all that all that work, we have more information. Now we have, you know, we need to have funding for study. Until that happens, and there’s it’s not too late to do a long-term study and the effects of terrible exposures. But certainly, that those old documents, you know, referring to those old documents from 2006, highly political. doesn’t make any sense.

Metta Spencer  

So, what we should be demanding is some kind of new effort to start telling the truth, not just about Chernobyl, but about the whole the whole business of exposure to radiation. Right. And how many people have been affected by it in the world? You know, I mean, I, one of my dear friends, Doug Saunders just wrote an article in The Globe and Mail saying, “Oh, we’ve drawn the wrong conclusion about Fukushima, because Fukushima shows that nobody has died. And it’s really an okay thing.” Have you looked at any of that? Do you? And by the way, I mean, the Fukushima thing, I suppose the if the effects are at all there, they would occur more like the effects of of Chernobyl than of of Hiroshima, because people would be affected by ingestion of the of the radiation, more than a sudden blast of it. Yeah.

Kate Brown  

Is that right? Or what I’ve learned, I have not looked into Fukushima because I’m, I’m an empiricist. And I believe in working in primary sources and working in the language of a place, so I don’t know Japanese. So I haven’t met read, you know, what I’ve read, but you read, you know, in the English language press, but I haven’t looked into that, I, what I’ve become convinced is that every nuclear event is really its own particular incident that may or may — this is less easy to extrapolate from event to event — that we, that each needs to be studied separately because it’s ecologies, the nature, the cocktail of environmental of radioactive toxins, and individual, the kinds of bodies that are exposed, they’re all original. They’re all quite unique. And I’m sorry, do we have to go so

Metta Spencer  

and that’s that it’s been very enlightening and you are good at talking. getting it out there quickly. So, thank you very much. Have a great day. Okay. Somebody to see you again.

Kate Brown  

Thank you. Take care. Bye bye.