A Review of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future

By Kate Brown, ISBN: 978-0-393-65251-2; 384 pages; $27.95 hardcover.

As a professor in an undergraduate physics department, I welcomed a Chinese atmospheric nuclear test and the radioactive cloud it produced that would pass over Muncie, Indiana in a few days, providing an opportunity to demonstrate the practical uses of nuclear physics to my undergraduate students. I borrowed a giant filtered vacuum cleaner from friends in the Environmental Sciences Program, recruited a crew of undergraduate physics students from my class, mounted the vacuum cleaner on the roof of the physics building and began scanning filters with gamma detectors as the cloud from the Chinese test dropped radioactivity. We proudly determined that the fission explosion had come from a plutonium core, not a uranium core and presented our results to the Indiana Academy of Science. Until I read this book, it never occurred to me that the radioactivity from the cloud might pose a risk to me and my students and more importantly the people of Muncie, Indiana.

The Manual for Survival is first and foremost a history of the response of the collapsing Soviet Union under Gorbachev to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. At that time the medical effects of radiation were known to very few members of the medical community in the U.S.S.R. Essentially the Soviet government orchestrated a massive underestimation of the damage done to citizens even far from the destroyed reactor particularly in Belarus and the Ukraine as well as to people in the vicinity of the reactor explosion which Brown points out may have been a nuclear explosion and not just a result of the reactor over-heating. Responses both in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were heavily shaped by the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. Brown uses this to make the point again and again that people absorb radioactive isotopes from their environments by many pathways if the isotopes are present in the first place. For example, she sites workers who handled raw wool from sheep who were exposed to fallout from Chernobyl. The workers came down with radiation sickness although they themselves had escaped exposure to fallout.

The major error made by most of those (both Soviet and western experts assessing the effect of Chernobyl on local populations) was to depend on measures of gamma ray intensity in the atmosphere. But this ignored the effects of fallout on fields which contaminated the food eaten by most of the population and it ignored the isotopes which they inhaled. In particular, studies ignored the outbreak of thyroid cancers in children whose bodies, starved for iodine (which was lacking in the area around Chernobyl), readily absorbed radioactive iodine and concentrated it in their thyroid glands. These studies also leaned on the massive and lengthy Life Span Study of the Japanese survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US Atomic Energy Commission begun in1950, five years after the last nuclear detonation there. According to Brown, General Leslie Groves suppressed evidence that fallout after the main blast affected Japanese soldiers and civilians as well as American soldiers. Thus, his $20 billion investment (the author fails to tell us what year dollars these were) in a nuclear weapon would not be wasted due to nuclear weapons being banned as chemical and biological weapons had been because of their effects on civilian populations, and Americans would not seem to be morally bankrupt. Because Soviet, UN and other foreign studies used the resulting study in their work, they made casualty estimates that were a factor of 100 lower than those of Greenpeace and local medical personnel.

Brown, a historian, visited the areas in the former USSR affected by the Chernobyl accident. She studied archives at the national and local levels and interviewed survivors, both those evacuated from the vicinity of the reactor and those still living in areas that received heavy fallout. She also interviewed medical personnel at all levels who would talk to her. She has based this book on her interviews and work in the archives of various Soviet towns and republics. All of these are carefully documented in her bibliography. Unfortunately, Brown makes no effort to present the case in favor of the use of nuclear reactors for the production of civilian power. She seems to have had better luck obtaining interviews with scientific leaders in the U.S. but does not present much information about other nuclear events except for Chernobyl. Perhaps this is not surprising as the Survival Manual is actually a history of the reactor accident and its effect on local populations as well as the Soviet government’s attempts to mitigate (or cover up) its effects. These attempts employed measures such as seeding fallout clouds to protect citizens in large cities despite negative effects on rural areas and populations due to radioactivity deposited on fields where crop plants, first eaten by farmers and then shipped to cities, absorbed radioactive isotopes. Fields also produced dust that put radioactive isotopes into the air breathed by people and animals.

The accident at Chernobyl has recently been the subject of an HBO series, which has claimed 19 Emmy nominations including best limited series and three of its leading actors. It has also sparked a wave of tourism to the exclusion zone around the reactor and the contaminated city of Pripyat which is safer since the Ukrainian government built a new, well-designed dome over the reactor. It is now 40 years since the reactor exploded, and physicists and physicians around the world should apply new knowledge to Chernobyl and its consequences.

This book is the result of Brown’s heavy investment of time, and it is not a joyous or quick read, nor does it present or pretend to present a balanced discussion of nuclear power and potential accidents. However, it questions assumptions physicists commonly make that should probably be questioned. It is thoroughly researched and well documented. On the whole, it makes for heavy and troubling reading but it asks questions that most physicists, including me, should ask themselves. This makes it worth the effort involved in reading it.

Ruth Howes
Ball State University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.