Thirty-three years after the nuclear catastrophe that defined its name, Chernobyl has surged back into the popular consciousness. HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries, which dramatized the disaster and the Soviet government’s attempt to cover-up key details, is part of a string of major works that have revisited the Chernobyl catastrophe this year. In February, Adam Higginbotham reconstructed the immediate aftermath in his book Midnight in Chernobyl; a month later, historian Kate Brown’s Manual for Survival hit the shelves.
Brown’s book offers an implicit case for why Chernobyl still resonates today: it was not an isolated accident. Although the twin explosions at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant can be traced to flaws in the design of the reactor itself, the 1986 catastrophe was far from the only example of nuclear contamination in the USSR. Brown synthesizes health records, internal Soviet documents, and interviews with environmentalists and nuclear experts to argue that Chernobyl was part of a string of nuclear catastrophes dating back to the 1960s.
Further, while the 30 kilometer Exclusion Zone outside the Chernobyl plant has long given off the impression that the catastrophe is contained, the health impacts of Chernobyl radiation have spread far into Ukraine and Belarus. As Brown notes, nuclear radiation neither stays in one place nor immediately disappears—it gets embedded in the environment. In one chapter, Brown chronicles the lives of berry pickers in forests of the Polesia region of Ukraine, some 200 miles from Chernobyl. High levels of radiation are trapped in these forests, and they filter into the berries, which are then picked and shipped to the European Union and beyond (officials say that they contain permissible levels of radioactivity).
Earther spoke to Brown about her book and why a re-evaluation of Chernobyl is happening now. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Earther: In your book, you make the case that Chernobyl was not an isolated accident but rather an “acceleration” of a trend of nuclear contamination. What made you say that?
Brown: I was working with a forester in the swampy Pripyat marshes, a good distance away from the Chernobyl accident site. And what I realized is that radioactivity in this region and this ecosystem in the Pripyat marshes predated the Chernobyl accident itself. Then I got into top-level political documents and I realized that the 1986 accident was not the first nuclear accident at that very new Chernobyl plant. There in fact had been 104 accidents and nuclear excursions at that plant in the five years before it blew.
Earther: In what ways are we still dealing with the environmental fallout of Chernobyl today?
Brown: As I traveled around with the biologists, we had this one day where we recorded really high levels of radioactivity in the Red Forest [outside Chernobyl]. And that was because there had been a fire there, and the fire released volatile radioactivity that was stored in the leafs and tree branches.
With climate change, there’s been hotter and drier summers in Ukraine. In the summers of 2015, 2017, and 2018, there had been forest fires in the Chernobyl Zone. Until something radical is done, I assume it will keep going.
There’s also been glacial melting, and that’s a big part of radioactivity from Chernobyl and other nuclear accidents. There was storage [of that radioactive fallout] in glaciers up in the polar north that has 10 or 17 times more radioactivity than elsewhere on the globe. With global warming, that radioactivity stored in glaciers is now melting, and it’s flowing into oceans and it’s been absorbed into the atmosphere and is coming down in the form is acid rain.
And so now it’s like a zombie. It’s being revisited upon us.
Earther: Where do you think the idea that Chernobyl is an isolated accident came from?
Brown: The way we tell accident narratives is to say here’s the beginning, here is it playing out, lots of drama, lots of masculine heroics, and now that the accident is over, we can walk away. We’ve solved the problem. The firemen rushed at the radioactive flames and took a hit of radioactivity, and then they fixed it all up. So the implication is it’s all fixed. And that’s a really empowering narrative because we like to think of ourselves as not bounced around by forces we don’t understand. We like to think of ourselves as in control. You see that in the HBO Chernobyl show. So to think of something that just lingers on and on and doesn’t really end, it’s not a very ennobling or inspiring narrative.
Earther: The HBO show focuses on the lack of preparedness on the part of the USSR. What do you make of that narrative?
Brown: I address this so-called Soviet incompetency in the last chapter of my book. Yes, they covered up everything that could. They had news that they released to socialist countries, and then less news that they released to capitalist countries. They certainly were duplicitous and lied about all kinds of things. But at the same time, they mobilized a massive army of cleanup workers and doctors and farmers and tractor drivers to do whatever they could to fix this problem. They tried to clean soils, clean food products. The first couple of years alone they examined 900,000 people just in Ukraine to see what the lingering health effects were. They moved 120,000 people immediately, and then, much later on towards after the Soviet Union fell apart, they had another 200,000 people removed [from towns in contaminated zones]. They sent out thousands of radiation monitors to try to keep track of this roving, powerful radioactive contaminant that spread very dynamically across the environment. So I don’t think that they were so incompetent.
Earther: Why do you think we are reflecting on Chernobyl now?
Brown: I would think the main reason is that we’re considering nuclear power as the solution to climate change. And you see this on the editorial pages of our big newspapers, in grants from the National Science Foundation, to try to figure out why Americans are reluctant to accept nuclear power. I think the fallback [on both sides] is to say, “Well, look, at Chernobyl.” The people who are pro-nuclear say, “See, Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in human history, and only 35 people died.” Or sometimes the number is 54 people died, or it’s just in the dozens [all of which Manual for Survival challenges as far too low].
Chernobyl, ironically, is used as a selling point for nuclear power, if you can say that the medical environmental consequences are minimal.
The prediction is we will need about 12,000 nuclear reactors on Earth [to fully replace all other existing energy sources] to combat climate change. There’s about 400 right now. That’s a big scale up. And we’ll be putting reactors right outside most big cities and in places that are seismically unstable, places that might be prone to flooding and big storms. If we choose nuclear as our solution, I think that we will find that the acceleration isn’t over.
Michael Waters is a freelance journalist and a student at Pomona College.