The Monster Within: On Two New Books About Chernobyl
By Bathsheba DemuthMay 12, 2019
Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham
Manual for Survival by Kate Brown
A week before the May Day parade, technicians 80 miles away in the Chernobyl nuclear power complex initiated a shutdown of Reactor Number Four. The procedure was meant to test a safety protocol. The personnel running the test were behind schedule and rushed; one man was new to his job, and the chief engineer on duty had gone two days without sleep. None of them knew that the water-and-graphite design of the high-power channel-type, or RBMK, reactors at Chernobyl contained a critical instability. Under the right conditions, the boron-carbide rods meant to reduce the chain reaction in the reactor core could provoke the exact opposite, a runaway release of energy. In the wee hours of April 26, Chernobyl’s engineers accidentally created those conditions. The reactor began to burn. Within its uranium heart, the temperature climbed nearly to that of the surface of the sun. A massive steam explosion propelled its 2,000-ton lid through the plant’s ceiling, sending a pillar of purple flame 500 feet into the night.
The explosion at Reactor Number Four comes early in Midnight in Chernobyl, Adam Higginbotham’s compulsively readable forensic recounting of the disaster. The first 80 pages are an elegant tour through the Soviet civilian nuclear program — shrouded in secrecy, prone to accident, devoted to gigantism and weapons-grade plutonium.
Higginbotham’s descriptions of nuclear design and the behavior of isotopes are blessedly clear. We know, therefore, what it means that the stricken reactor emitted gamma rays, which “pass straight through a human being without slowing down, smashing through cells like a fusillade of microscopic bullets,” or that the plume of debris contained radioactive isotopes, like iodine-131 and strontium-90, that distort organ function from within. Radiation takes many forms, variable in lethality but all invisible. Readers know what the firefighters who arrived at Reactor Number Four did not: how a perverse unseen force ricocheted inside their bodies from the moment they approached. Working amid gouts of steam and smoldering graphite fuel, many of the first responders removed their helmets and jackets. Within half an hour, they were vomiting and their skin purpled with radiation burns. Most would be among the official toll of Chernobyl dead, the 28 people who succumbed to acute radiation sickness.
As the initial meltdown gives way to daylight, a bungled evacuation, and the government’s attempt to conceal the accident, Higginbotham’s attention remains humane. The people pulled toward the reactor’s maw — helicopter pilots, medics, engineers, a city planner — are given sympathetic portrayal. Not everyone emerges a hero, but the only true villains are the high-level Soviet functionaries who concealed the hazards of radiation and the frequency of accidents from nuclear workers and the public. Based on years of interviews and thorough research, Midnight in Chernobyl is a portrait of people confronting ruin for which there was no precedent, training, or guide. Their work was impossible.
Engineers flying over the blown reactor could see, deep amid the wreck, a pulsing glow: something was still burning. Helicopters began dumping sand and lead on the remnants of the core, hoping to stifle reactivity. Temperatures within continued to mount. The possibility of another explosion, or that the molten fuel would burn downward toward the water table and contaminate the drinking water of millions, gives Higginbotham’s narrative ceaseless tension. Engineers tunneled below the plant to make a containment cell. Radiation scrambled the electronics of robots, so people were ordered in to clear debris in shifts lasting just minutes; any more was fatal. Despite these courageous attempts, Higginbotham makes clear that what averted further disaster was not human ingenuity. The temperature in the smoldering core cooled on its own, eventually enough to allow the construction of a massive concrete tomb. Outside, tens of thousands remained displaced from radioactive earth.
Midnight in Chernobyl is written in a tight temporal mode: the clock-ticking buildup, explosion, attempts to keep the reactor contained, hospital wards and displaced families, and, finally, the trials of plant managers, sentenced in proceedings almost Stalinist in their showiness. The result is as haunting as cinema. The remains of Chernobyl’s reactor remain in my mind’s eye, a Frankenstein monster of melted concrete, uranium, sand, and metal that will endanger life on earth longer than Homo sapiens have existed.
Higginbotham reminds us that nuclear power is hardly a thing of the past; the United States has a hundred plants, China is on a nuclear building spree, and there are still RBMK reactors operating in Russia. But it is possible to close Midnight in Chernobyl and mentally seal Reactor Number Four in the sarcophagus of Soviet negligence and decline. “The further we move in time from the disaster,” historian Sirhii Plokhy writes in his 2018 Baillie Gifford Prize–winning book, Chernobyl, “the more it seems like a myth.” A titillating but distant monster.
Thirty-three years ago, my husband took early steps on Kyiv streets that emitted gamma radiation, gummed into the asphalt in Chernobyl’s wake. His grandmother put iodine in the family’s water, which was a thousand times more radioactive than normal, to keep their thyroid glands from absorbing iodine-131. On May 15, children and pregnant women were evacuated from the city. What did they carry with them, in bodies that had for weeks breathed in what Chernobyl exhaled? And what of those parts of Ukraine and Belarus where the main plume of Chernobyl vapors fell, coating villages in radioactive black rain?
Kate Brown’s Manual for Survival is a riveting complement to Midnight in Chernobyl with a difference in geographic and temporal focus: where Higginbotham stays close to Reactor Number Four, Brown follows the clouds of April 26 across Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, and over three decades.
Chernobyl was built in a swamp with mineral-poor soils, ready to absorb radioactive elements and feed them into the tissues of mineral-deprived plants. Floods carried radioactive water into fields, where its burden of isotopes nourished crops and livestock. The carcasses of 50,000 animals slaughtered in the summer of 1986 were not buried as what they were, radioactive waste, but shipped to sausage factories and leather tanneries. In one wool-processing facility in northern Ukraine, women’s noses began to bleed. The fibers they handled were highly radioactive. Eventually, orders arrived to pile the contaminated wool near the factory until the isotopes decayed. Dilution and time was used also with radioactive meat, mixed with clean to make an officially tolerable dose; polluted milk blended with clean so it would not set off dosimeters; vegetables canned so they could be preserved beyond the half-life of the isotopes within.
Chernobyl sent its mark across the Soviet Union this way. And beyond: 300,000 tons of Greek grain, made radioactive by fallout from Reactor Number Four, was blended with clean wheat and sent as food aid to Africa and East Germany. In 2017, US Homeland Security stopped a truck crossing from Canada. The “radiating mass” that alerted their dosimeters and led to worries of a dirty bomb was blueberries, picked in the marshes around Chernobyl.
Brown’s Chernobyl disaster is diffuse, and also chronic. While much radiation science dismisses long-term exposure as a problem, Manual for Survival finds a different story in its substantive archival sleuthing, and in the work of local citizens and scientists who tracked symptoms from a generalized weariness to respiratory and digestive problems and autoimmune diseases: evidence of what Soviet doctor Angelina Guskova termed “chronic radiation syndrome.” While this diagnosis, like most Soviet nuclear science, was kept a state secret, evidence for it proliferated. Villages around Chernobyl filled with children bearing the neck scars of thyroid cancer treatment. Miscarriage and infertility increased. Natalia Lozytska, a physicist, found Kyiv contaminated with cesium-137 and other isotopes, and children prone to fainting and nosebleeds. The Soviet government disavowed any link between these symptoms and Chernobyl. Lozytska, disguised as a cleaning woman, tried to smuggle information about this chronic exposure and its ill effects to international experts in 1988, but she was stopped by the KGB. Elsewhere, Soviet security services were erasing years of data from Belarusian hard drives.
Manual for Survival documents the condescension of Western scientists toward Soviet front-line doctors with their stories of diverse symptoms. Chronic radiation sickness was not a recognized diagnosis in the West, nor would it become one. When the World Health Organization sent a delegation to the Zone in 1989, its members were all on record downplaying the health impacts of ionized radiation. Brown implies that this choice appeased the nuclear powers, concerned that studies from Chernobyl would further lawsuits filed by citizens exposed in the course of weapons testing. The United States had, by then, exposed Nevada to at least three Chernobyl’s worth of radioactive fallout. Kyiv was not the only city with gamma rays in its streets.
Yet if denial was the desire, the nuclear countries received what they wanted: international studies concluded there was no link between chronic radioactive exposure and the reported increase in autoimmune and other disease, and they downplayed the number of thyroid cancers in children. The delegation recommended, instead, that the guidelines for a lifetime safe dose of radiation be dramatically increased. Their view is in line with subsequent scientists, who emphasize how soybeans grown near the Chernobyl do not carry any gene mutations, and that wolves and elk and bears have reclaimed the forests around the plant. The monster has indeed become distant. But other scientists find forests that will not decompose, pine trees with twisted, deformed boughs, and barn swallows weighed down by tumors. “That’s what we want to know,” radiation scientist Anders Møller asks. “Are we more like barn swallows or soybeans in terms of radiation-induced mutation?” Brown is confident answering that we are more swallow, and like the swallows, unwilling participants in the “chaos of millions of curies of radioactive nuclides let loose on earth.”
Brown anticipated pushback against this argument that low-level, long-term radiation exposure has chronic impact, and that the suffering it produces has been resolutely ignored, if not outright hidden, by international experts. She was correct; reviews of Manual for Survival are tagged, on Twitter, with rebuttals from nuclear scientists and advocates of nuclear power. The result is a debate about nuclear energy that seems healthy in a moment when turning away from fossil fuels is imperative.
But these critics also miss what is to me Brown’s larger and more radical point. It is not just that nuclear power has dangers that distribute themselves unequally across landscapes and societies. It is not even that these dangers have been denied and ignored. It is that Chernobyl is but one aspect of a postwar mode of living indebted to acceleration — in the use of fossil fuels, production of plastics, manufacture of pesticides, consumption of a thousand other chemicals. All that speed has marked our bodies. It has marked some more than others, opening them to new and strange kinds of suffering.
The appeal of Brown’s critics has emotional clarity. If nuclear fallout left no mark, I do not have to think about the isotopes lodged in my husband’s bones, wondering if he moved away from Kyiv in time. Nor do we, in aggregate, have to turn from a faith in technological solutions to environmental precarity. I envy Brown’s critics their certainty that nuclear power leaves no dangerous trace, that our species can adequately shepherd Reactor Number Four’s toxic hulk, that the world can keep accelerating. But Manual for Survival argues convincingly that such security is the actual myth. After all, those blueberries from Chernobyl crossed the US border; radioactive enough to be a dirty bomb, as food they fell within international permissible norms. The monster is not distant. It is in us.
Bathsheba Demuth is a historian of the United States and Russia. Her first book, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, is forthcoming from Norton in August 2019.
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