The Overlooked Aftermath of the Chernobyl Nuclear DisasterHistorians/History
tags: interviews, historians, Chernobyl, nuclear history
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Billmoyers.com, Alternet, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights and the history of medicine. His email: email@example.com.
April 26, 1986. Ukrainian Republic of the Soviet Union. The Number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. The blast propelled a massive amount of radioactive material into the atmosphere. This fallout covered a wide area of what is now Ukraine and Belarus, and western Russia. Soviet officials put the death toll at no more than 54 people.
Within weeks, the Soviet government declared that the radioactive fallout posed no danger to human health, and it offered reassurance to affected citizens as it distributed numerous manuals with recommendations on continuing to live in the contaminated regions.
Eventually international agencies such as the United Nations also minimized the human health and environmental aftereffects of the Chernobyl explosion. Those who complained of problems from nuclear contamination were labeled “radiophobic.”
Acclaimed historian Professor Kate Brown embarked on an unrivaled journey of scholarly investigation to learn more about the aftermath of this devastating nuclear disaster. In her impassioned and lively new book, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (WW Norton), she recounts her findings based on extensive archival research, travels in the “Zone of Alienation” and beyond, and numerous interviews of scientists, officials, factory workers, farmers, health care professionals, radiation monitors, and others.
In her exploration, Professor Brown found evidence of extensive medical and environmental damage from radioactivity in Ukraine, Belarus, and beyond. She also unraveled an international effort to minimize public awareness about the dangers posed by nuclear power, nuclear testing, and nuclear weapons research. She traces similar efforts to downplay damage from radioactive contamination since the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and warns of the dangers that the nuclear radiation presents after almost eight decades of nuclear weapons and energy.
Based on her investigation, Professor Brown learned of dramatic increases in cancer, birth defects and other medical problems linked to Chernobyl. As documented in archives and as reported to her by scientists and other professionals, she found that tens of thousands of people—not a few dozen—died as the result of radiation from the massive nuclear explosion. She also describes ongoing medical and environmental problems that persist in the aftermath of the disaster. And, as clean energy initiatives often prescribe nuclear energy as an alternative to carbon-based fuels, Professor Brown calls for careful consideration of what happens when technology fails and we are left with in the wake of nuclear disasters. Her book raises profound environmental concerns based on careful investigation in the vein of Rachel Carson’s iconic volume Silent Spring.
Kate Brown is currently a professor in the Science, Technology and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is renowned for research that illuminates the convergence of history, science, technology, and bio-politics. She has written three other award-winning books, including A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland; Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten; and Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. Plutopia earned many awards including the American Historical Association’s Albert J. Beveridge and John H. Dunning Prizes for the best book in American history: the George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History, the Ellis W. Hawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize of the Association for Slavic Studies, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Robert G. Athearn Prize from the Western History Association.
Professor Brown’s teaching and research are also widely recognized. For example, she has received numerous fellowships and, in 2017, she was awarded the Berlin Prize by the American Academy in Berlin. Her current research focuses the history of “plant people:” indigenes, peasants, and scientists who understood long before others that plants communicate, have sensory capacities, and possess the capacity for memory and intelligence.
Professor Brown generously responded by telephone to questions about her work as a historian and her new groundbreaking new book, Manual for Survival.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations on your groundbreaking book on the Chernobyl disaster, Professor Brown. You are a recognized expert in Soviet and Russian history. What sparked your interest in this field? Was there something in your family background or in your childhood that drew you to this history?
Professor Kate Brown. I don't have any Slavic heritage or anything that I know of. But I remember I went to a movie called Red Dawn about the Soviets attacking Colorado. And fortunately, the Coloradans had guns and they could defend themselves. It’s a stupid movie and I recognized it to be a cult movie or propaganda, but I was upset that the kids in the movie theater were cheering every time a Communist was killed. And I went home and I was complaining to my parents about it. My mom was there smoking a cigarette and she says, “Well, do something about it. Study Russian and change the world.” And I decided, well dammit, I'll just do that.
The very next week I signed up for classes in everything Russian. Russian history, Russian grammar, and Russian literature mostly in translation. My aim was to go to Russia and see if it really was an Evil Empire. I guess I’ve always liked to know things for myself rather than relying on someone else's knowledge.
Robin Lindley: And then you traveled to Russia.
Professor Kate Brown: Yes. By 1987, I had enough Russian grammar and language to study in Leningrad as an exchange student. Just then all kinds of interesting things were starting to happen between Gorbachev and the United States. After that, I just kept going. I was part of a crowd of Westerners who worked in the USSR at the end of that polity. Gorbachev liberalized visas and politics, which made it easier to spend time in Soviet Union and carry out joint programs.
Robin Lindley: Did you also work as a journalist?
Professor Kate Brown: Yes, I did. When I was in Seattle in a graduate history program at the University of Washington, I initially didn't have funding for my studies, so I worked through a work study program. I worked for KCTS, the public television station, on their weekly news magazine. And then I worked at KUOW, a National Public Radio station where I was a beat reporter. The job wasn’t complicated. I’d get to work at eight in the morning. They'd say, Boeing's on strike or there is a problem over water rights at the Snoqualmie Falls. And I'd go off and I'd get some interviews and I'd have my story on the radio by 4:00 PM, whatever the story. That was a real crash course both in figuring out how to get a lot of information really fast and how to organize material into a news story. I learned to stick a microphone in people's faces. And I learned to tell a story with a narrative arc. And then I met some people at the TV station who went on to make documentary films. They hired me as a researcher and scriptwriter for their documentaries.
And in 1992 I ended up in Munich working for Radio Free Europe. And then I went to Moscow and I did some stories for Radio Free Europe from there in the fall of 1992.
I have that kind of experience, and I enjoyed it. But then I thought I wanted to do longer form journalism and I wanted to write my own books. I didn't want to just write a story that's on in the course of a day. And I wanted more control over the stories I told and how I told them, as opposed to the rigid format, whether it was TV or in short form journalism. So, I chose a career in academia, which meant I would have a smaller audience but I could have more autonomy in what I wrote.
Robin Lindley: And you pursued grad school and earned a doctorate in history, but you wanted to write for scholars and the general public.
Professor Kate Brown: Academia is full of all kinds of wonderful ideas and fantastic research-driven, creative work. But sometimes academic writing turns off popular readers. And so that was one other missing part for me. Was it possible to do nuanced, creative research and then tell about it in a way that's compelling and can reach any kind of high-school level reader? That's always been my mission. So I wrote my dissertation as a first-person travelogue. I got some trouble for it because dissertations are usually more formally written, but I was stubborn and finally my advisors just said do whatever you want.
Robin Lindley: Did that desire to put your brand on a scholarship bring you to history graduate school?
Professor Kate Brown: I didn't think so much of a brand, but as a lease to liberate myself from the constraints that I saw imposed on grad students and academics, and we often put these constraints on ourselves.
Robin Lindley: Your journalism background served you well. Your writing is very engaging and accessible. I believe you have described yourself as a partisan historian. In Plutopia, your book on the plutonium cities of Hanford, Washington, and Ozersk, USSR, you included information from non-expert people you interviewed who actually lived in the areas you wrote about in addition to your archival research. You also broke from most scholarly writing with first-person reporting on your research.
Professor Kate Brown: When you work in the archives, you get kind of a sketch or an outline of what real life is like in whatever period you're studying. And, when you go to a place, especially if it's going to a place for recent history, you can see what it looks like. You can see how the physical world is also an actor in your stories: the way the rivers flow, how the soils soak up water.
You can read the archival record, but it really helps to get the fine grain detail by going to a place and then talking to people. People can really clue you into their local knowledge that is so important. And they know things that experts don't know. They know things that you only get a glimmer of working in the archives.
I don't just take people's word for it. After talking to people, I can go back to the archives and try to cross-check what they tell me. Often, I have a whole new understanding of an event after hearing firsthand accounts.
Robin Lindley: And you also did extensive interviews for your new book on Chernobyl.
Professor Kate Brown: With Chernobyl, I did a good number of oral histories. What I found in the archives is that the officials were having arguments among themselves. Some doctors and scientists who studied the accident were reporting major health problems. But experts in nuclear medicine who were Moscow, Vienna, Paris, or New York were saying that, with the kinds of emissions and the kinds of estimated doses that they calculated people received, they didn’t expect major health problems. They would explain the rise in the frequency of disease by saying that these people were anxious, or they drank too much, or they had a poor diet and a poor economic situation. They basically devised an alternative narrative to attribute to those health problems, though I didn’t see hard evidence of drinking or a rise in anxiety. So, what helped, I think, is that I would just go talk to people and get their stories, and confirm one version or another of the oral histories with the material in the archives. But then I still wasn't sure.
So, in this project, I took yet another step and I enrolled myself as a participant observer with two biologists who were the only two scientists I could find who regularly worked in the Chernobyl Zone twice a year since 2000. They are like clockwork arriving in the Chernobyl Zone in June and in September. They use the contaminated Chernobyl Zone as a natural experiment, a massive field lab. I started going along with them, and I learned a lot. I learned forensic methods to detect radioactivity in the natural environment as I traveled with them. Later, outside the Zone, when I went to Chernobyl-contaminated areas where people continued to live, I could see evidence of damage in the environment using techniques that I had learned from the biologists.
And that was a third way to cross check the story, which I knew was going to be controversial. I was really intent on verifying the stories I was getting. And, as I was talking to people, I figured I could use science also. People lie and archives lie, but maybe trees don't.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for describing your approach to research. Did your research for Plutopia on those plutonium cities spark your book on Chernobyl?
Professor Kate Brown: For sure it did. I felt like this was a bit of a sequel for Plutopia. I started out with a very different set of questions for Plutopia, but I kept running into these farmers, whether they were in Siberia or in Eastern Washington, who had very similar stories to tell me about their health problems. And I knew that they weren't talking to each other and they didn't share a common language.
I tried to do as much research as I could in archives, but those cities were both military sites. The American government wasn't terribly curious about what happened off site of the nuclear reservation. And the Russians kept some studies of people living down river and downwind of the plant who were exposed, but those studies were off limits to me as a researcher. So I figured Chernobyl might be a good place to look and try to get more about that health story because it was a civilian site and it happened later.
I walked into the archives in Kyiv (Kiev) one day. I asked what they had from the Ministry of Health on the medical consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. They said that was a censored topic during the Soviet period and I would not find anything. I asked to look anyway.” Sure enough, it took three seconds to find a whole document collection entitled “The Medical Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe.” Big bound collections. I started reading them and I realized that the archivists didn't know about these files. They discouraged me not because they were trying to deceive me, but because nobody else had ever pulled them before.
Robin Lindley: It surprised me those files had been untouched until you came in.
Professor Kate Brown: Yes. And over and over again, I had that experience in Minsk and Zhytomyr, Gomel and Mogilev. To be the first to check out the files. With two research assistants, we found files down to the county level. In sum we found thousands of records that described, in one way or another, environmental exposures and health problems.
I also was convinced that I came across again untapped archives in the Belorussian Academy of Science. The Belorussian government was doing a great job of ignoring the contamination story and pretending Chernobyl didn’t exist, but scientists at the Academy had privately gotten very worried and they started their own case control studies on several topics, but mostly related to children's health and the health of pregnant women. And those studies are really convincing. They had all the relevant data such as dose estimates. I guess that's when I determined I believed what’s called the alarmist stories.
Robin Lindley: What were some of your major findings on the medical and environmental consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe? The official death toll was about 50 people but you learned that radiation illness probably contributed to tens of thousands of deaths.
Professor Kate Brown: Yes. The official death toll most often cited in the big publications is that 33 to 54 people died from the Chernobyl explosion, but that’s just from the acute effects of radioactivity. Those were fireman and plant operators who were exposed massively right during and right after the accident, and most of them died within the next couple of months in one hospital in Moscow.
But I found the death toll was much higher. I found that not 300, the official count, were hospitalized after the accident for Chernobyl exposures, but 40,000 were hospitalized, 11,000 of them were kids were hospitalized for exposures in the summer after the accident.
The Ukrainian government gave compensation to 35,000 women whose husbands died from causes related to radiation. Now that number is limited. It included just men who had documented exposures. It doesn't include children or women or babies. And that's the number just for Ukraine, which got the least amount of any radioactive fallout, while Belarus received far more.
We tried really hard to get some kind of count for Belarus and Russia about fatalities from Chernobyl, but there simply is no kind of official count. So, 35,000 is the lowest possible number. On the thirtieth anniversary at the Chernobyl visitor center, the official tour guide said that the death toll was at least 150,000 in Ukraine alone.
Robin Lindley: How again did you come up with the figure for men who died?
Professor Kate Brown: About 35,000 wives received compensation because their husbands died from a Chernobyl-related radiation illness. That means that these men did some kind of work in which they were monitored so they had a film badge or some other dose estimate. Their doses were recorded or reconstructed, and then their illnesses were on a list of illnesses that were attributed to Chernobyl contamination. They died leaving their widows some income as compensation. So that's how that number was created.
Robin Lindley: What evidence did you find on birth defects?
Professor Kate Brown: There's all kinds of evidence in the book. The evidence I had was a study here and a study there and observations here and there. But the one study that's been done that fits standardized Western protocols was by Wladimir Wertelecki who teaches at the University of South Alabama. He carried out a study in the northern province of Ukraine. He found that there was a six times higher rate of neural tube birth defects (a category that includes spina bifida and anencephaly) in people who live in those northern regions. He also found elevated rates of cesium in the bodies of people in that northern Rivni Region.
Anencephaly and spina bifida are also big problems in Eastern Washington [the site of Hanford]. In 2010 the State of Washington became alarmed because there was a 10 times higher than expected number of babies with anencephaly in Eastern Washington, especially in the three counties around Hanford. They did a study and wrote a report that you can get it online. To the best as I know, this little epidemic is not over and the numbers continue to be high. The Washington State epidemiologist wrote in this report that they don't know what's causing these defects. He said they looked into all kinds of things such as nitrates and pesticides and genetic factors and radiation from Hanford.
They reported that they were told by the Department of Energy that radioactivity does not leave the Hanford site. If you know anything about Hanford, you know that’s a statement that only a very gullible person would believe. So that's largely a silent, unexplored topic, but one we see in areas where people have been exposed to radioactivity.
Robin Lindley: What a tragedy for those families. Another issue that's related to the physical health consequences of the Chernobyl disaster of course is the mental health of citizens after the catastrophe itself. I think you mentioned cases of posttraumatic stress disorder and just the general stress of living in that situation.
Professor Kate Brown: The United Nations’ bodies first said that the health problems were from the fear of radiation. But some researchers and scientists find that real neurological damage caused by exposure to radioactivity can cause emotional disorders. There are also people who work in microbiology who have found that when you have a disorderly microbiome in your gut that is damaged from some toxin, whether it's a chemical toxin or a radioactive contaminant, that that can trigger emotional problems as the gut serves as a sort of a second emotional brain. A lot of how we feel every day has to do with our microbiome and our gut.
These cases suggest a lot of unanswered questions. A purpose of the book is to urge citizens to ask their leaders and public health officials to get more curious about the long-term effects of chronic low doses of radioactivity. We know a lot about high doses of radioactivity and human health, but researchers repeat that they know next to nothing about low doses. We know about high doses from the Hiroshima studies. We don't know about these low-dose effects because we have never really studied people who live in those conditions.
Robin Lindley: Your book serves as a call for further research. What were some of the environmental consequences of the disaster that struck you? You mention harm to animals and plants and even decreased pollination.
Professor Kate Brown: What was really striking was when I went from the Ministry of Health records to the State Committee for Industrial Agriculture records, I saw that the people in the Soviet Union did their best to monitor food supplies and levels of radioactivity in the in soils, water and air. And when they found high levels of radioactivity, they went in with bulldozers and they scraped away the topsoil and dumped it far away from the villages. And they scrubbed down surfaces and asphalt and buildings with chemical solvents to try remove any radioactivity.
They could get these villages to a level of making them livable, but then they would come back two weeks later, and the radiation levels would be nearly as high. And they realized that radioactive isotopes could mimic minerals that plants and animals need to survive, that go from soils, air and water into the plants, then into the animals. And then, because humans sustain themselves on plants and animals, they take in these materials and bring them to their villages. And as they go into the villages with their shoes or their tractor wheels, they bring in dust and dirt from the forest and the field. And that all those contaminants gather in human population points.
So the exposures for humans were consistently from ingesting contaminants. Once you ingest radioactive isotopes, the natural biological barrier of your skin and your body no longer helps, and beta and alpha particles penetrate your skin. Once they're inside your body, they can do a lot of damage to lungs, hearts, various organs, and inside the joints. They wreak havoc on bone marrow.
But before these acute problems, people have subacute problems. And interestingly enough, we don't much care about those. Few journalists have asked me how many people had digestive tract disorders or respiratory problems. Mostly, they want to know more about cancers and deaths and birth defects—the acute problems. But subacute problems mount in a body. A person may have that one chronic disease, but maybe two or three subacute problems. A family would have several people with chronic health problems. They're still alive and not in the death toll, but their lives are shorter and far more painful. They are not able to be productive as members of the community in terms of work and a creative life.
None of us would wish this kind of medical history on our own families and communities. And that's I think something that we don't statistically track because we have failed to ask this question.
Robin Lindley: The damage to the immune system must be serious.
Professor Kate Brown: Yes.
Robin Lindley: One of the themes of your book is the international effort to minimize evidence about the medical and environmental consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. You also note that there's a long history, even in United States, of covering up problems with radiation illness. That goes back to the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when General Groves refused to disclose the effects of radiation. You recount a history of similar cover up efforts since then.
Professor Kate Brown: Unfortunately, we have a real track record in the United States of minimizing the record of radiation exposure and illness. We have a long-term life span study of the survivors of the Japan bombings, but that study doesn't take into account radioactive fallout. It estimates that the doses survivors received was that of one big x-ray that lasted a second. But the other exposures, the Chernobyl-like exposures, with people living in these environments who take in radioactive contaminants by ingesting them in the air in their lungs or through the food cycle, was never considered as part of that study. There were also exposures of Marshall Islanders and people from the Nevada test sites. We really don’t know what happened in those cases for a lack of curiosity.
Finding out about radiation is a real threat [to nuclear power advocates]. In 1987, a group of health physicists, specialists in nuclear medicine, had a convention in Columbia, Maryland. A lawyer from the Department of Energy addressed them. He said that after Chernobyl, the biggest threat to the nuclear industry was lawsuits. He announced that they were going to break out into small groups with lawyers from the Department of Justice to train them on how to become expert witnesses in defending the US government against lawsuits. These scientists then served as “objective” witnesses in lawsuits where Americans took corporations to court for their exposures in the production and testing of nuclear weapons. It comes as no surprise that few won those lawsuits.
Other nuclear powers including Great Britain, France, and Russia, were facing similar lawsuits. If industry scientists could say that Chernobyl was the world's worst nuclear accident and only 33 or 54 people died, then those lawsuits could and indeed did go away.
Robin Lindley: When you were traveling through the Zone of Alienation and when you were finding information that a lot of people probably didn't want you to have, were you threatened? Did you feel that your safety was endangered at all?
Professor Kate Brown: No, I didn't. Since I published the book there have been a couple of people who are industry scientists and a guy who runs two pro-nuclear NGOs, and they make a living by promoting the nuclear industry. They’ve been attacking me and my book but they're not disinterested parties. Other than that, I haven't really endured any hardships.
Robin Lindley: I'm glad. With the KGB involved and a series of cover ups, your book reads like a thriller. It’s a compelling scholarly expose’ with popular appeal on what happened after Chernobyl.
Many witnesses you spoke with were women who were close to the ground level in areas of contamination--the sort of people you wanted to hear from who'd lived through this experience. They included doctors, teachers, and women who work in the wool and leather factories, among others. Their contribution to your book was impressive.
Professor Kate Brown: Yes. Well, women are the ones who take care of the kinship networks. They're the ones who normally, especially in Soviet society, take care of family members when someone is sick. And women are also the ones who staffed hospitals. Being a doctor in the Soviet Union was a low paying job usually left to women. Men were researchers who worked in institutes and universities. So, it was women who noticed these trends in poor health and they're the ones that are there in the book. The women were the ones sitting around in the waiting rooms and they exchange information there day after day for hours, and they start to see trends.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for that personal insight from your travels. What was the political fallout of the Chernobyl disaster in terms of the future of Mikhail Gorbachev and the fall of the Soviet Union?
Professor Kate Brown: Gorbachev said at some point after the fall that the main cause of the fall of the Soviet Union was Chernobyl, but I'm not sure Gorbachev is the most reliable person to ask on this point because everybody else in the former Soviet Union blames him for the collapse. So it makes sense that he was looking for outside factors to deflect attention away from himself. But, as I worked through archives, I took note of the incredible resources that the Soviet government spent to try to deal with this disaster from cleaning up this huge territory and then putting a sarcophagus over the reactor itself. In Ukraine alone, they sent out 9,000 medical staff to look at everybody they could find who might have been exposed to contaminants. They dealt with the medical fallout, and set up studies of the ecology and the human health problems. And on and on.
Chernobyl was a huge drain at a time when the Soviet Union was experiencing a collapse in oil prices and oil exports, the main source of hard currency revenue. And so Chernobyl was certainly a confounding factor.
And then they kept this all under wraps and they weren’t honest with people. When, in 1989, they finally published the first maps of radioactivity showing the high levels of radioactivity in places where people were living for three and a half years, residents were furious. People poured out to the streets in June 1989. There were marches and strikes and pilgrimages and protests, and new people started to run for office.
Robin Lindley: You recount some of the history of previous nuclear accidents in the Soviet Union. Wasn’t the Soviet military using nuclear weapons to stop forest fires, or is story apocryphal?
Professor Kate Brown: The story I report my book that we have from archival sources and one eyewitness was that there was a gas fire in a well when someone digging tapped into underground flows of gas and that caused a fire in the ground. They couldn’t extinguish it. They tried for a year to put out the fire this way and that, and finally a team came from a closed military establishment in Russia and they dug down 200 meters, right next to the gas fire, and they dropped a nuclear bomb in there and blew it up, expecting to spill this big mound of dirt on top of the gas fire and just snuff it out. But what happened instead is somehow the bomb went sideways horizontally, and not on the gas fire. And then the plume from the nuclear bomb went up through the gas well and just made this huge column a mile in the sky from the explosion. And then fallout rained down. They had to evacuate Russian soldiers and villagers nearby. It was not far from Kharkiv.
That was in the 1970s. And that was in the same year that a nuclear explosion for civilian purposes became an experiment that went disastrously wrong. And there are lots of incidents like that.
They had 104 accidents at the Chernobyl plant in the five years before the big accident in 1986. It was a tottering enterprise to run. Lots can go wrong and lots apparently did.
Robin Lindley: What have you learned about the nuclear accident in Northern Russia this past August where here was an explosion perhaps involving a missile experiment?
Professor Kate Brown: I only know what we all read in the papers. I've been reading a little bit in the Russian papers and they don’t have much more than what's in the English papers but this seems like a case of press the replay button from Chernobyl with denials that it happened. And then, seven Russian scientists died. That's significant. There’s a lot of secrecy about the situation. It doesn't appear to have created anywhere near the levels of radioactivity and fallout as Chernobyl. They were trying to develop some kind of weapon, but we don't know exactly what. There's some speculation about a weapon for a nuclear submarine or some kind of missile. So it's unclear.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations on your new role at MIT as a professor in an interdisciplinary program.
Professor Kate Brown: I’m teaching in a program in science, technology and society. At MIT we train future scientists and future engineers so it’s a wonderful place to think about science and to talk with students about not just creating beautiful machines, but also thinking about how they will be used in the worst and the best of all possible situations. It’s an exceptional opportunity.
Robin Lindley: Are you continuing your research on Russia and on nuclear issues?
Professor Kate Brown: No. I thought I'd move on from that. I feel like I’d just start repeating myself. Now I'm interested in what I call “plant people.” Now that Western scientists have validated the notion that plants have distributed intelligence and communicate with one another and across species. I thought to myself, peasants have known that for hundreds of years. So I am going back in time and looking at people who had these insights. I want to know what else have they have known that we have missed.
Robin Lindley: I’d like to conclude by asking you how you decided on the title of your book about the aftermath of Chernobyl: Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future?
Professor Kate Brown: I found in the archives all kinds of [post Chernobyl disaster] manuals for how to live on a radioactive landscape. There was a manual for doctors who treated exposed patients, another manual for the meat packing industry, and one on how to deal with high and low levels of radioactive farm crops, and manuals for the dairy industry, for the leather industry, and for the wool industry, and manuals for farmers who were going to live here.
The manuals were to reassure citizens, and said we've checked the radiation in your population point and everything's fine. No need to worry. There are just a few things you need to keep in mind. Take all your topsoil and remove it and bury it somewhere far from your village. Don't eat any berries or mushrooms. In fact, it’s better not to enter the forest at all. They go on and on like that. Clearly everything was not fine.
That's where I got the idea of the manual. I decided to call it Manual for Survival because I considered the people who lived there to be survival experts. This place had suffered through the revolution, the Russian civil war, the First World War, the Second World War, and famine, and purges. They'd seen it all. And then, they tried to make it better by building a nuclear power plant to bring cheap energy to the villages. And then it blew up.
So they'd seen all the calamities the twentieth century had to offer. And I thought, as we talk about coming threats because of the ecological crisis, that it might be good to know something about how to survive a severe ecological crisis. And so that's what I was looking for: the everyday heroes.
I did find lots and lots of people who resisted the bosses who told them to fudge the numbers or to overlook troubling facts or not report radioactivity in the water or the land. And these people stood up to power and said, No, I'm not going to do that. I don't care what you do to me, but I'm going to do what's right. And I found that extremely inspiring.
Nobody got shot and they weren't throwing people in jail for resistance. Some people got docked in pay and other people faced more demands on the job or were demoted. But they continued. So it was possible to be courageous and they actually did a great deal of good. I was purposely looking for that story.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful responses Professor Brown and congratulations on your new book and your new position at MIT. I wish you the best.
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