Chernobyl at Thirty: A Special Edition Environment and Health Roundtable

Nuclear power station row in Chernobyl. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

Starting on April 26, 1986, an explosion rocked the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine and quickly cascaded into the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen. As the disaster itself was still in its early stages, the debates began over just what and how bad its effects would be. Those controversies have never stopped, even as Chernobyl’s more slowly unfolding impacts, such as thousands of thyroid cancers, have become ever more unmistakable. Roads not taken might have taught us more—there were no long-term follow up studies done akin to those on the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which might have offered greater conclusiveness. And the disaster has certainly stirred its share of imaginative and dubious mythologies. But Chernobyl has also bolstered new realizations, in matters of health and medicine and also in ecological, social, and political realms.

I invited the authors in this roundtable to bring their different disciplines to bear on central questions of knowledge stirred by Chernobyl, by drawing from their presentations at the recent meeting of the American Society for Environmental History in Seattle. The historian Kate Brown reflects on some disturbing dynamics by which international bodies drew conclusions about the science of the disaster’s aftermath. Then the political scientist and historian Melanie Arndt surveys other long shadows of learning and knowledge that Chernobyl has cast, in the nuclear industry and in social movements as well as among Chernobyl’s children. Finally, biologist Tim Mousseau shares findings about wildlife in the disaster area, collected by himself and others, and considers how those findings challenge widespread reports of a flourishing ecology near Chernobyl. Together, our contributors go beyond a simple rehash of this most frightening of human-made disasters to offer important insights on what it can and should mean for us today.

This roundtable will also be featured in the forthcoming launch of a new addition to the H-Net Commons, H-Envirohealth.

– Christopher Sellers

Why Do We Know So Little About Chernobyl’s Human Toll?

Kate Brown

In Minsk in March 2016, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, I was struck by Belarusians’ attitude to the disaster, which hit their country the hardest. Seventy percent of Chernobyl fallout came down on fields, forests, towns, and villages of Belarus. A cab driver did not know the date, April 26, 1986, even though both his parents worked in the Zone cleaning up radioactive waste and later died of Chernobyl-related cancers. I asked a young woman who had been exposed in Gomel in the days after the accident and who had suffered from recurring bouts of thyroid cancer what she was going to do for the anniversary. “Nothing,” she emphatically answered. “Nothing at all.” A conference commemorating the accident in Minsk drew only a small crowd. At it, the director of the Belarusian National Archives, Anton Wiliki, chastised the group of scholars. He had thousands of documents about the accident, he said, and very few researchers had ever been interested enough to take a look. The 30th anniversary was going to pass by the academic communities of Ukraine and Russia with hardly a blip on their radar.

The Red Forest in Chernobyl where dead trees do not decompose. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

The Red Forest in Chernobyl where dead trees do not decompose. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

Why this disinterest in what is arguably mankind’s largest technological disaster? The answer to this question is complicated and intricately tied to contemporary politics in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, but some of the responsibility for the failure to see and grasp the complex of medical and social problems that issued from the disaster falls with the international community. From the first months after the accident, which issued an estimated 50 to 90 million curies of radioactive gas and particles into the atmosphere, the international community of scientists connected to regulation and promotion of nuclear power worked closely with political leaders and scientists in Moscow to minimize the perception of damaging health effects. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued its first assessment of health effects in 1987, one year after the accident. In it, IAEA scientists calculated estimates of the amount of curies that issued from the burning nuclear power plant and then estimated doses to the population living in the shadow of the fallout. From the estimated doses, they predicted that other than several hundred emergency workers who suffered from acute radiation sickness, there would be no detectable increase in health problems, even in the most contaminated regions.1 At the same time, however, Soviet doctors in contaminated provinces were reporting that their patients were suffering from a series of chronic illnesses at rates they had never seen before. In the highly contaminated Polessia region in Ukraine, 82% of all children had at least one chronic illness.

Chernobyl aerial view into the core, with smoke from the graphite fire and core meltdown. Fair use.

Chernobyl aerial view into the core, with smoke from the graphite fire and core meltdown. Fair use.

As Gorbachev’s perestroika started to lift the ban of Chernobyl health problems in the Soviet media, journalists began to write of sick children, suffering farmers, and clean up workers. Crowds gathered in front of Communist Party headquarters in tiny towns that had never been known to have dissidents. By 1989, environmental groups emerged demanding to know more about the “radiological situation” in the contaminated territories. They wanted more aid and resettlement for people living in the most radioactive areas. Panicking, Moscow leaders again turned to the IAEA and the World Health Organization for help.  The IAEA organized a team of 200 international scientists who carried out investigations for eight months in the contaminated regions. The long-awaited IAEA Report on Chernobyl health effects concluded that there “were no health disorders that could be attributed to radiation.” The longer, Technical Report, published in 1991, qualified this sunny evaluation, predicting a noticeable spike in thyroid cancers in the future, but none in the present. The technical report mentions “reports” of childhood thyroid cancer, but found these to be “anecdotal in nature.”

Since 1989, however, medical staff in Belarus and Ukraine have noticed sharp increases in what had been very rare occurrences of thyroid cancer in children. The usual rate of one case per year for every million children grew to six in Belarus in 1989, then 30 in 1990. Ukraine, by the same period, had twenty cases.2 Local scientists tried to alert international scientists to this growing epidemic, but got nowhere. Soviet science was considered to be too poor and politicized to be trustworthy. Only ten years after the accident did the international community accept the findings that indeed the epidemic in childhood thyroid was caused by Chernobyl radiation. That, however, is the only health effect the IAEA and WHO recognize today.

A Chernobyl for All?

Melanie Arndt

“We All Live in Chernobyl,” announced a banner at a demonstration around 4,500 miles west of the exploded reactor in Soviet Ukraine on May 3, 1986. It was just a few days after the Western media had transmitted the first news about the meltdown in Soviet Ukraine and alarmed many people around the world.3 The banner was unfurled at the construction site of the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island, just off the coast of New York City. It was only one of a handful of nuclear power plants in the US waiting to go online when the Chernobyl accident happened. Seabrook and others that had been targets of earlier protests became fully operational, but Shoreham never did.

What does it mean: we all live in Chernobyl? Do we actually all live in Chernobyl? Wasn’t Chernobyl a genuine Soviet accident? Didn’t the radioactive cloud stop at the French border, for example?4 Wasn’t radioactive Turkish tea actually good for your health; might it even stimulate sexual desire?5 And do we all still live there now, even though the accident seems long forgotten in some of the most affected regions of Eastern Europe? Why, if we all live in Chernobyl, does it seem that we still know so little about Chernobyl?

An abandoned house in Chernobyl. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

An abandoned house in Chernobyl. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

What’s clear is this: Chernobyl’s radioactive fallout contaminated not only Eastern Europe, but also large regions beyond the Soviet borders. It became one of the coffin nails for the Soviet Union and an iconic revelation on the other side of the Iron Curtain, where it spurred major—if sometimes only temporary—changes in the perception of the dangers of nuclear energy production. As the nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg stated shortly after Chernobyl, in similar vein to Shoreham demonstrators: “A nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere.”6

Chernobyl also affected the way the nuclear industry was managed around the planet. In more or less openly communicated or solicited responses, engineers and plant operators across the Western world surveyed their own reactors, while political institutions revisited their emergency regulations. In this sense, Chernobyl actually did contribute to the production of new knowledge in regard to technological and safety standards.

The knowledge (and non-knowledge) produced by Chernobyl was not confined to technological, health, and ecological realms. Inextricably intertwined with these aspects of the disaster was knowledge and understanding of a very different kind: social and political. Chernobyl spurred the sensitization and mobilization of wide segments of the public across diverse countries, particularly those networks of people that could be—or in the case of the Soviet Union, began to be—described as social and environmental movements.7

In the Soviet Union, the lifting of the censorship with regard to nuclear issues in 1989 led to a flood of ecological (and other) revelations—reason enough for some to term the period “catastroika” instead of perestroika. On the other side of the collapsing Iron Curtain, in Western Europe and the United States, former “enemies” became most active in efforts to mitigate the disaster’s consequences. They supported emerging social and ecological movements by providing time, attention, money, humanitarian aid, and in many cases even temporary homes for more or less affected children from the Soviet republics and their successor states.

“Chernobyl children”—the approximately one million children from Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia who have come to “the West” since 1989—traveled with their knowledge or at least their representation of both the disaster and the Soviet Union. On their return trips, they not only carried new sneakers and other gifts, which were envied by their non-“Chernobylcy” neighbors,8 but they also took post-Cold War knowledge with them. Learning and knowledge exchange—if also the sustenance of ignorance or lack of knowledge—were fundamental to these experiences, among all the parties involved.

A woman in a Belarus village. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

A woman in a Belarus village. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

Their recuperative travels enabled many “Chernobyl children” to redefine the frightening disaster experience in a life-affirming way, by acquiring social capital to help them cope. This redefinition was not always as successful, however, as in the case of Svetlana Bodrunova, who was more ambivalent about her experience traveling abroad. She did conclude, though, that “in the end it [Chernobyl] made me a cosmopolitan.” Without the accident she might not have been able to travel to foreign countries; her Chernobyl-related trips offered her linguistic and cultural know-how and contacts that enhanced her personal and professional life. The inter- and transnational networks woven by and around the “Chernobyl children” as they traveled contributed to the globalization of knowledge about the disaster.

In many ways we actually do all live in Chernobyl. Among them, the supposedly low-probability “residual” risk that it showed to be all too possible and real has changed the global discourse on nuclear energy, with consequences seen and unseen for every corner of the planet. We live in different Chernobyls, however. The differences are not just the obvious ones, between those directly affected by the radioactive fallout and those who are more indirectly concerned, via transnational debates about nuclear technology. That the knowledge of this disaster and its consequences has also been governed and distributed so unequally has also shaped contrasts between the Chernobyls in which we dwell.

Chernobyl at Thirty: What Have We Learned About Radiation’s Effects on Wildlife?

Timothy A. Mousseau

Thirty years ago the largest nuclear disaster in history occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in what was then the Soviet Union. A nuclear fire burned for 10 days and injected enormous quantities of radioactivity into the atmosphere, contaminating vast areas of Europe and Eurasia. The total fallout was on the order of 6% of the radioactivity released from the 2000+ atomic bombs that have been detonated since 1945. Even now, radioactive cesium from the Chernobyl disaster can sometimes be detected in food products from around the northern hemisphere. And in many parts of Europe some animals, plants, and mushrooms sustain levels of radioactivity that render them unfit for human consumption. Though 71 years have passed since the explosion of the first atomic bomb, followed by worldwide contamination from atomic bomb testing and over two hundred accidents and incidents at nuclear facilities, the biological consequences of radioactivity are still fiercely debated.

Tree rings in Chernobyl showing effects of radioactivity. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

Tree rings in Chernobyl showing effects of radioactivity. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

Nevertheless, the past decade has seen considerable progress in documenting the consequences of radioactivity on natural populations of plants, animals, and microbes. Specifically, recent studies from Chernobyl, Fukushima, and naturally radioactive regions of the Earth have provided fundamental insights concerning the consequences of chronic, multigenerational exposure to low-dose ionizing radiation.

For example, it was recently documented that many of the organisms in the Chernobyl region have suffered genetic damage as a consequence of radiation exposure, but that the antioxidant status of individuals likely plays an important role in reducing the damage caused by radiation. There is even evidence that a few species of birds may have adapted to radiation by changing the way they use antioxidants in their bodies, although the evidence of adaptation in general is sparse. Curiously, evolutionary history may play a significant role in determining vulnerability to radiation with species that have historically shown high mutations rates being the most likely to show population declines in Chernobyl.

Mouse with cataract in Chernobyl. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

Mouse with cataract in Chernobyl. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

Overwhelmingly, and despite the occasional, largely anecdotal reports of game animals thriving in the Chernobyl ecosystem, the documented consequences of radiation in Chernobyl and Fukushima are by and large negative for the individual organisms exposed to the radiation. As with Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bomb survivors, the birds and mammals have cataracts in their eyes and smaller brains as a direct consequence of exposure to ionizing radiation in the air, water, and food.

As with some cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy, many of the birds have malformed sperm, and in the most radioactive areas up to 40% of the male birds are completely sterile. And tumors, presumably cancerous, are obvious on some of the birds in areas of high radiation, as are developmental abnormalities in some plants and insects.

Given the undeniable evidence of genetic damage and injury to individuals it should not be surprising that many organisms show reduced abundances in areas of high contamination. In Chernobyl, my research partners and I conducted studies in which all major groups of animals surveyed show lower population densities in the more radioactive areas. This includes birds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, grasshoppers, spiders, and even mammals, small and large. However, not all species show the same pattern of decline and some species show no effects of radiation on density (e.g. wolves); a few species of birds appear to show higher numbers in more radioactive areas, perhaps because of relaxed effects of competitors or predators, as is likely the case for some mammals.

An albino chaffinch in Chernobyl. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

An albino chaffinch in Chernobyl. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

In recent years, my research partners and I have tested the generality of our Chernobyl studies by repeating them in Fukushima, Japan. Overall, we have found very similar patterns of declines in abundance and diversity, and our studies have benefited from more sophisticated analyses of radiation doses received by the animals. This replication, a hallmark of good science, provides strong evidence that radiation is the underlying cause of the effects we have observed in both locations.

Some members of the radiation community have been slow to acknowledge the ramifications of nuclear accidents for wildlife. United Nations reports related to the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters have largely ignored or discounted much of the published literature related to the effects of radiation on wildlife of the past decade. Although field studies sometimes lack the controlled settings needed for precise scientific experimentation, they make up for this with realism. Our emphasis on documenting radiation effects under “natural” conditions using wild organisms has provided many novel and potentially important discoveries that will help us to prepare for the next nuclear accident. We hope that this research will also help the people still suffering from the consequences of past nuclear events.

(Abbreviated versions of this dialogue have appeared in The Conversation and USA Today.)

Featured image: Nuclear power station row in Chernobyl. Photo by Tim Mousseau.

Dr. Melanie Arndt is a historian at the Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg, Germany, where she is also co-directing a French-German research project on Soviet Environmental History. She received her PhD from Humboldt University Berlin in 2009 and is the author of Gesundheitspolitik im geteilten Berlin (Health Care Politics in Divided Berlin), 2009; Tschernobyl. Auswirkungen des Reaktorunfalls auf die Bundesrepublik und die DDR (Chernobyl: Consequences of the Reactor Accident for the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR), 2011, the editor of Politik und Gesellschaft nach Tschernobyl. (Ost)Europäische Perspektiven (Politics and Society after Cherobyl (East)European Perspectives), 2016, and “Memories, Commemorations, and Representations of Chernobyl.” She is currently working on a book on the transnational history of the Chernobyl disaster. Website. Contact.

Kate Brown is a Professor of History at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.  She is the author of A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (Harvard 2004) and Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2013), which won, among other awards, the 2014 George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH). To read more about Kate Brown’s book Plutopia, see  Brown’s newest book, a collection of essays, Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015.  It explores place and the construction of space as a springboard for histories of communities and territories which have been silenced or destroyed. Website. Contact.

Tim Mousseau is a Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina. His research is concerned with the ecology and evolution of animals and plants with special interests in how adaptations to changing environments evolve in natural populations and the evolution of adaptive maternal effects.  Recently, he has studied impacts of radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters on natural populations of birds, insects, plants and microbes. He has authored or edited 10 volumes and published more than 190 scientific papers. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Explorers Club. Website. Contact.

Christopher Sellers is a Professor of History at Stony Brook University. He is author of Hazards of the Job: From Industrial Disease to Environmental Health Science (1997), Crabgrass Crucible; Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th Century America (2012), and co-editor with Joseph Melling of Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World (2011). He is currently working on a transnational history of lead and petrochemical hazards in Texas and Mexico. WebsiteContact

  1. “Nuclear Accidents and Epidemiology,” Environmental Health, 25, (World Health Organization, Copenhagen, 1987). 

  2. L. N. Astahova,  V. S. Kazakov, V. M. Drozd, E. V. Demidchik, V. A. Matiukhin, “Osobennosti formirovaniia tiroidnoi patalogii u detei, podverhshikhsia vozdeistviiu radionuklidov v sviazi s avarice na ChAES,” Institute of Radiation Medicine, report # 91/763E, November 19, 1991, WHO E16-445-11, #6. 

  3. Karl Grossman, “The Rise and Fall of LILCO’s Nuclear Power Program,” The Long Island Historical Journal 5, no. 1 (1992): 16. 

  4. Karena Kalmbach and Frankreich nach Tschernobyl, “Eine Rezeptionsgeschichte zwischen ‘Nicht-Ereignis’ und ‘Apokalypse'” (“France after Chernobyl: A History of Reception between ‘Non-Event’ and ‘Apocalpyse'”), Politik und Gesellschaft nach Tschernobyl. (Ost-)Europäische Perspektiven (Politics and Society after Chernobyl: [East-]European Perspectives), ed. Melanie Arndt, 237-255 (Berlin: Links, 2016). 

  5. Ayşecan Terzioğlu and Rauchumschleierte Berge, “Die Debatte um den Tschernobyl-Effekt in der Türkei” (“Mountains Covered in Smoke: The Debate in the Chernobyl Effect in Turkey”), in Politik und Gesellschaft, 104-129. 

  6. Alvin M. Weinberg, “A Nuclear Power Advocate Reflects on Chernobyl,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 43, no. 1 (Aug/Sep 1986): 60. 

  7. Melanie Arndt, ed., Politik und Gesellschaft

  8. Russian for “Chernobyl people,” a label used by both the affected people themselves and their supposedly non-affected peers. 

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