Chernobyl – today 30 years of pervasive myths

The children look so puzzled when they lay in their beds awaiting their deaths, says a doctor in Chernobyl Prayer, the heartbreaking book by Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich in which she writes about an event that she considers the most important in the 20th century, of greater significance than all the wars and revolutions during the same period. She sees Chernobyl as the doorway to a new era in which not just knowledge but also “pre-knowledge” plays a part for humanity, clashing with its previous conceptions about itself and the world.

Chernobyl Prayer is a book about death and particularly one of the most frightening ways to pass: death from radiation. It becomes deeply moving when Alexievich listens to Ljudmila, the wife of one of the rescue workers that participated in the initial phase and received a lethal dose of radiation. “He is not a human being any more, he’s a reactor”, warns a doctor when she wants to hug her dying husband. Radiation from the walls in his hospital room had become so powerful that the scale on the dosimeter was insufficient. Many of the doctors and nurses got ill after some time, and died.

The book consists mainly of interviews with people who have experienced the catastrophe from different perspectives, and lets them speak freely, personally and deeply upsetting. Decease and death appears endlessly in the stories: Black spots on bodies, bald children, nervous afflictions, “atomic tan”… One man got blood cancer after two months, the same as a twelve-year-old boy whose father had worked in Chernobyl. “Over the roof of the wrecked reactor passed 3,600 soldiers… They were young boys… They too are dying now.”

Accompanying this chaos of death was total confusion and contempt for life shown by the Soviet authorities, as perceived by ordinary people. Workers and soldiers were sent on missions where radiation levels exceeded accepted limits, and no one seemed to know what actually happened and much less what really should be done. People had to cling to popular myths, such as one saying that alcohol is a protection against radiation, a prophylaxis widely applied.

Alexievich refers to independent Russian environmentalists saying that 1.5 million people have died following the Chernobyl accident. Cancer frequency in Belarus has increased 74-fold, they say. “Radiation is the leading factor behind population decline.”

All this is overwhelming. So much so, that after 400 heavy pages the reader suffers some fatigue. In other words, the author’s feat is impressive. However, there is one thing to add: most of her claims regarding the effects of radiation are indeed wrong, completely wrong!

In an interview with herself, the author says she has worked with her book for twenty years. Had she spent just a couple of hours of reading the most insightful and thorough study of the whole Chernobyl history ever conducted, she could perhaps have saved a few years of her work. Around 140 of the world’s most prominent experts from some 20 countries made this authoritative study, followed up frequently through the years with the initial results confirmed. (An Internet search for UNSCEAR 2000 provides readable abstracts.)

The expert’s core conclusions can be summarized in a few sentences. All of the 134 individuals who suffered acute radiation sickness were plant personnel or fire fighters who participated in the first 24 hours of rescue operations. 28 of them died within three weeks. Until 2008 an additional group of 34 had died, some of them from repercussions of radiation injuries. Of those who got acutely sick from radiation a majority is thus still alive.

An estimated 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer were discovered after extensive scanning of the affected populations. Though being a benign and operable form of cancer, it is not without problems. The emission of Iodin-131 from the reactor is considered to play a part, since this isotope (with a half-life of 8 hours) finds its way to the thyroid gland and stores there. Some objections have been raised against too simple conclusions. One is that cytological abnormalities that otherwise had not been detected, and possibly not had developed into cancer, were found due to the broad scanning. Another is that many of the cases appeared just shortly after the accident, while cancer usually takes many years to develop.

Apart from these cases, nobody has got cancer or died from radiation following the Chernobyl accident. In the words of the United Nation’s group of experts: “There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure”.

The children who was puzzled facing their radiation death never existed. The thousands of young boys on the reactor roof never died from radiation (or died at all),. A 74-fold increase in cancer frequency is a pure bluff. And so on. Alexievich’s book is a catalog of more or less absurd myths and fantasies in which she obviously agrees but possibly tries to avoid responsibility for by placing them in the mouths of others.

Such as the case with the “beaming” rescue worker: a human being exposed to external ionizing radiation does not become radioactive. Isotopes spread outside a wrecked reactor, such as Cesium-137, are bound to particles that easily can be brushed away. The limited amounts of Iodine-131 that stays in the body cannot possibly make anybody a “reactor” or induce radioactivity on hospital walls, much less kill the doctors and nurses. Alexievich offends her interviewee who in her innocent ignorance only conveys bizarre but predominant myths that the author has set out to pander.

The ignorance that Alexievich shares with so many is founded on an absurdly exaggerated conception of the dangers with ionizing radiation. People do not get sick, much less die, from the doses received after the Chernobyl accident. If that had been a fact, we would have experienced millions of such victims around the world, simply because natural radiation is of the same magnitude on numerous places on the globe.

If there had been rational reasons to evacuate the “Ghost city” of Pripyat permanently, parts of the west coast of Sweden should also be depopulated, simply because the radioactive doses received are the same in both places. The Swedish case is so far worse in that the radiation follows gases that penetrate buildings and people’s lungs.

Assumptions regarding long-term cancerous effects from radiation rest on a controversial, so-called linear hypotheses. In short, it means that there is no harmless dose, regardless of how small it is. This is an assumption that does not apply to any harmful substance that people can encounter. In addition, the hypothesis is probably impossible to prove when it comes to radiation.

There are in fact contradicting studies that show lower cancer frequencies among populations in areas with higher background radiation than average. An exceptional case is the city of Ramsar in Iran where people have lived since time immemorial and where radiation in some places exceeds tenfold the level, which usually requires evacuation after nuclear accidents. Nor in Ramsar is the cancer frequency higher than in other places.

And what about the Soviet confusion? Unlike what people in the countryside according to Alexievich seem to have experienced, the state bureaucracy appear to have functioned meticulously, judging from the detailed and comprehensive statistics the UN experts present.

Nevertheless, there was much suffering, increased illnesses and raising mortality in the affected region. Since radiation had nothing to do with it, the experts sought the real answers, which they found in the extreme physical and psychological hardships people had to endure due to the forced evacuations. Other UN bodies such as UNDP, UNICEF and IAEA have confirmed, in their own studies, the devastating consequences of the forced relocation.

Under the influence of media and interest groups spreading excessive fear of radiation, the Soviet decision makers felt the pressure to order evacuation of an area 5,000 times larger than the radiation hazard really would have required. Since this forced relocation was the main cause behind the suffering, Alexievich and her allied fear mongers bear a heavy responsibility for the human anguish she describes.

As if life was not hard enough for people in the region there followed just four years after the accident a devastating “capitalist revolution” in the already suffering countries. Economies collapsed and people were struck hard. In Russia, 10 million men died in the beginning of the 1990s as a direct consequence of the capitalist “reforms” that wiped out half the industrial capacity and swept away all social safety nets.

During the last half century carbon based energy has claimed 1,000 times more deaths than nuclear energy, in the “production phase” alone. Regarding harmful effects for the world population as a whole the ratio is certainly even more remarkable. To switch from carbon to nuclear energy thus saves innumerable lives, apart from reducing carbon dioxide emissions that undoubtedly is one of the greatest threats to human survival.

However, these truths are vain. Alexievich’s dream that we will face an era in which pre-knowledge eradicates knowledge seems partly fulfilled. Nuclear energy and radioactivity are areas where post-modernism has triumphed and where no factual descriptions can compete. The overreaching and wonderful myth has taken over, according to which also the completely ignorant are free to construct any arbitrary truths they wish.

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