W. W. Norton & Co., 2019. $27.95, 432 pages.
Say you finish reading Kate Brown’s Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future late at night. You fall asleep and dream of living in a nuclear wasteland. The landscape looks normal except for little idiosyncrasies like red forests and full-grown pines stunted like bonsai trees. You know everything you touch, eat, drink, or breathe in is charged with radioactive isotopes. They careen around inside everyone’s body like a “madman in a library,” altering chromosomes and mutating the genetics of unborn children and grandchildren. Everyday activities like drinking milk, eating berries, and nuzzling a child expose you to enough radiation to make your corpse toxic waste. You wake in the morning uneasy because you realize, in fact, your blood, bones, and organs might harbor as much radiation as a Chernobyl first-responder’s, given all the nuclear accidents, weapons testing, and slow leaks that have taken and still take place in the world. This is not a dream. We “live in a new, post-nuclear reality.”
Over the course of four years, Brown interviewed farmers, world leaders, scientists, and activists and visited independent and governmental archives around the world, where she was often the first person to inspect documents related to the Chernobyl explosion (some of which still carried the radiation signature from contaminated areas). This was all in an effort to answer a series of problematic questions troubling her about the official reports — fifty-four deaths and two thousand to nine thousand future cancer deaths — of casualties from the disaster on April 26, 1986. Brown was also bothered by Greenpeace’s estimate that 200,000 people had died and that 93,000 would succumb to radiation-induced cancers, and she questioned the absence of the comprehensive, “large-scale, long-term epidemiological study” that the world’s scientists had been promised for decades.
The book’s title plays on the ineffective Soviet manuals published to inform people how to survive in the “Zone of Alienation,” the area within thirty kilometers of Chernobyl. The subtitle, however, A Chernobyl Guide to the Future, suggests not just an account of the Chernobyl meltdown, where a poorly designed and “accident-riddled” RBMK nuclear reactor went critical and exploded after a routine experiment. It describes a world where swirling radioactive isotopes have half-lives measured in centuries. Chernobyl was a spike on the historical graph, a warning of other spikes to come and an indicator we live, to varying degrees, with radiation. In fact, Muscovites tested as a control group against those in the Chernobyl fallout plume were found to have “ingested or inhaled levels of radiation as high as Chernobyl cleanup workers.”
In her research, Brown met affected children and adults who looked ten to twenty years older than their age, run ragged with disease; many had garrote scars from thyroid surgeries. She talked with officials who claimed that correlation doesn’t equal causation and who suggested that the rise in cancers, birth defects, miscarriages, and a raft of other diseases and maladies in the contaminated region was the result of stress and “radiophobia.” But Brown is relentless, holding everyone accountable with her astonishingly thorough scrutiny.
She reveals the nightmare of governmental negligence and incompetence, Cold War rivalries between the Soviets and the West, and cover-ups and suppression of knowledge by secret police and international agencies. The denial was so profound that the Soviets refused to stop the 1986 harvest and thus exported radioactive goods, like the 317 tons of beef trapped on a ghost train no one would unload. The train traveled station to station from Ukraine to Georgia to the Caucuses and back— for three years. It sat parked in a small town with a fence around it for another year. When the refrigeration units failed, electricians and railroad workers walked off the job rather than get close to the train. The KGB took over, supervising the disposal of the hot carcasses into concrete trenches in southern Belarus, where they remain buried to this day. Yet the nuclear powers insist atomic power is clean and safe.
Brown introduces us to a new vocabulary of Chernobyl’s aftermath: liquidators, positive void coefficient, Zaslon, the Red Forest, post-human landscape, high transfer coefficient, radiophobia, Sovok, the babushkas of Chernobyl, the Lozyska effect, and a modern twist on the word sarcophagus. This new language, combined with propulsive scenes, immerses the reader in the horrific and still-unfolding events and ongoing carnage among victims. As she narrates, she also catalogs scientific evidence about the effects of radioactive isotopes on the environment and the human body and “certain birth defects, such as microcephaly, conjoined twins, and neural tube disorders [occurring] six times more frequently than the European norm.”
The bright spot in the story is the dogged determination of the activists, citizen scientists, and doctors who never gave up in the face of state and international pressure, who worked for years to alleviate human suffering and to tell their story to a world that had forgotten them. In her revelatory masterpiece, Brown gives these people a voice — their own — backed with evidence that validates their personal testimonies to warn us that the nightmare isn’t over. You can bet your bone marrow on it.