Book review: Manual for Survival. A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, by Kate Brown

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"In honour of what cause do we perish?"

On April 26 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, exploded with around the force of four Hiroshima-type bombs and spewed out a consequent volume of radioactive fallout that had its own fingerprints on it. The response of the Russian authorities was completely chaotic, totally insufficient, and mendacious.  The rulers of this "socialist paradise" left hundreds of thousands of their citizens to their fate, to the growing ambient decomposition of "every man for himself" that was to be the hallmark of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the political and social tremors around the wider world three years later.

Panicked authorities gave no significant warnings such as staying indoors, or point out the dangers to food, milk and drinking water. The May Day parades in Kiev of thousands of schoolchildren were forced to go ahead a few days later and group after group of them marched. The kids struggled for breath and for many their skin showed unusual purple sunburns. Technology was used to seed rain clouds and bring the radioactive fall-out away from Moscow and down into Ukraine and Belarus. Soldiers, workers, prisoners showed exceptional bravery in trying to put the reactor's fire out but the official disaster death toll of 54 of these "liquidators" is plainly another big lie.

There was a military dimension to Chernobyl in that it produced plutonium for nuclear bombs. There had already been 1042 nuclear accidents in the USSR over five years, with 104 at Chernobyl alone. Forget about the usual lie of "operator failure", Chernobyl's RBMK reactor was inherently unsafe and efforts to stop it melting down fed more fuel to the fire. By summer 1986, 15,000 people exposed to Chernobyl's radiation were treated in Moscow's hospitals; 40,000 checked into hospitals in Kiev, Gomel and elsewhere in the east of the country. Half of the 11,600 treated in Belarus were children. The Central Committee of the Communist Party was told by the Minister for Health that 299 people were hospitalised; part of "the Politburo's alternative universe", says Kate Brown.  Not that being hospitalised did much good in the face of an already patchy and overburdened service that sorely lacked ed beds, equipment and, most of all, knowledge about what they were dealing with. What they were dealing with was not only ignorance, but also the lies and smoothing words of a state that called itself socialist but was in reality a highly statified form of capitalism.

Widespread contamination and official cover-up

The spiralling wind carried the radioactive debris from Chernobyl right around Europe and the heavy rain brought it down to accumulate the poison into "hot-spots", with  for example three in Britain, Cumbria, Wales and Devon, about which there was no official explanation - not a word. In the years after the explosion the amount of strontium-90 in the bones of people living in Zagreb, nearly a thousand miles away, doubled. In Ukraine and Belarus and other parts of the USSR, people continued to eat the meat, fruit, vegetables, drink the milk and water, and burn the peat fuel and timber that were all repositories for accumulated and accumulating radioactive cocktails. Lorries were way above the "safe" levels for contamination - given that the safe levels were arbitrary and deliberately underestimated - after carrying sheep's wool and other by-products saturated with radioactivity. Some produce taken through EU contaminated areas was chopped-up with "clean" stuff and sent as aid to Africa. Blueberries from Ukraine and Belarus continued to be picked, warehoused, put in fancy containers and sent to the EU. All the blueberries from this region were radioactive, some of them highly so. They were mixed up with the lower doses and sold in supermarkets and delis across the EU, after which ubiquitous TV food programmes extolled their "miraculous health benefits".

Kate Brown has done a real service in her research and analysis and though no revolutionary her analysis clearly indicts a system of production for profit and militarism for the unfolding public health disaster. Her odysseys in and around the exclusion zone, talking to workers, farmers, peasants and officials at every level, are interesting and revealing, giving this book a much more urgent feel. She was in the Soviet Union before and after its collapse where she clearly identifies a chaotic situation where everyone was left to their own devices, the plunder and ruthlessness of the security forces that harassed, jailed and tortured anyone who suggested that a public health disaster was unfolding.

But this is not a "this is where communism gets you" diatribe that runs alongside the "victory of capitalism". Kate Brown rightly exposes the calculated callousness, stupidity and cruelty of the Russian bourgeoisie but also talks to many brave individuals throughout Russia who raised the alarm and continued to do research and ask questions, with some of them paying a heavy price. In Ukraine, Belarus and other parts of Russia there were widespread strikes and disquiet and cynicism regarding official "explanations" and their advice (the Manual reference in the book's title refers to the manuals that the Russian authorities put out after the disaster along the lines of there being "no problem", with the actual problems being obliquely referred to afterwards). The book goes far wider and deeper than one incident and Kate Brown makes the point that the Chernobyl event is only one part of a continuum of nuclear pollution from the Cold War until now, and she  clearly illuminates the cover-up that necessarily accompanies it.

In East and West – the ruling class is careless about life

The US general in charge of the nuclear bombing of Japan, Leslie Groves, rejected claims of nuclear poisoning, and the medical section of the US army report on the physical damage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is missing from the US National Archives to this day. It was dismissed as "something small", "to be disregarded". In the Three-Mile-Island disaster, Pennsylvania 1979, scientists estimated one or two extra cancers. When State Health Commissioner Gordon McLeod announced 9 months later that child mortality in a ten-mile radius had doubled, he was sacked. Apart from all the nuclear "accidents" before and since Chernobyl - Windscale, Dounreay, before, St. Louis and Fukushima after, to name only a couple, nuclear testing has set off bombs, sometimes in secret, high in the atmosphere and deep into the ground with no concern as to their effects. The normally conservative US National Cancer Institute estimated that nuclear tests in Nevada caused between 11,000 and 220,000 thyroid cancers downwind. To this can be added all other nuclear testing, secret or not, British, French, Pakistani, Indian and Chinese.

In 2015, the physicist James Smith published a one-and-a-half page paper stating that wildlife was abundant in the alienation zone of Chernobyl. Smith had never been to Russia but the media lapped it up, reporting and re-reporting it along the lines that "nature will sort everything out". It even gave rise to "Green" eco-tourism around the Chernobyl zone, documentaries and TV wildlife programmes showing how everything was returning to "normal". But as Kate Brown shows, intrepid scientific researchers in the same area at the same time were finding radioactive damage "under every rock they turned over". Nature has bitten back against nuclear pollution with a vengeance on a global scale and in the long term. Despite all the evidence the UN and its offshoots continue to deny the scale of the problem. The idea that a little radioactivity is good for you persists. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) continues with high and arbitrary thresholds. In 1995 Unscear (UN Scientific Committee for the Effects of Nuclear Radiation) said nothing needed to be done because there was no problem and that they had been "exaggerated and incorrect", with the UN saying that increasing thyroid problems are "easily treatable".

The cynical balance-sheets of capital

Nuclear fallout permeates a human body through the skin and through every orifice. It's not the sole cause of cancers but a major cause. It also causes respiratory problems, heart problems, gut problems and those of the brain and nervous system. We were told that the rise in cancers was mainly due to the fact that "people are living longer" and through advances in medical care. The "living longer" line is one the bourgeoisie uses a lot: you're getting ill - it's because you are living longer; it's your fault - die earlier and save the state some money! In any case life expectancy is now falling in the US and Britain and much more dramatically in poorer areas while the male fertility rate is falling, particularly in the northern hemisphere where radioactivity tends to cluster. And the argument about living longer doesn't explain the rise in childhood cancers; twenty to twenty-five years ago a child with cancer would bring doctors and specialists from far and wide. Now? Now they appear in clusters everywhere in young bodies which soak up and accumulate nuclear pollution.

And while nuclear energy has a strong military component,  it is also an important source of energy in the capitalist economy. And as such it is a typical showcase of the short-sighted, unsustainable) approach inherent in capitalist economic balance-sheets. Thus for example the calculation of the cost of energy production in a nuclear plant never takes into consideration the huge technical difficulties involved in getting rid of nuclear waste. All the different ways of getting rid of it or even just storing it involve astronomical costs, which will be an ecological and economic burden for centuries. All this is of no interest to the respective energy companies.


Kate Brown notes with disgust that in the 1960's the western bourgeoisie came up with the concept of the "collective dose" of radiation (ignoring its accumulative and complex interactions) giving a cynical and arbitrary "cost benefit" which weighed the negatives of nuclear testing on the population against the "positives of increased security" from possessing tested nuclear weapons. Decadent capitalism is driven to develop its weapons of destruction in order to defend itself against the historical obsolescence of the national state, which is a central factor in its permanent drive towards war. It is irrational and dangerous but capitalism is enmeshed in this logic and will continue this deadly drive whatever the cost; nature is already having its revenge. This is the “cause in whose honour we perish” in answer to the question raised by those immediately affected in Ukraine. The calculated indifference to the suffering masses by the state, the lies, the blatant cover-ups of the facts, the deceit are not aberrations but an inevitable part of a system based on exploitation, profit and national defence..

Baboon, 3.5.2019




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