5. The Hidden Tragedy of Chernobyl Has Worldwide Implications

Source: THE NATION, Date: 3/15/93, Title: "Chernobyl-The Hidden Tragedy," Author: Jay M. Gould

SYNOPSIS: A devastating book on the far-reaching dimensions of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, written by Vladimir Chernousenko, a Ukrainian nuclear physicist involved in the emergency cleanup, has not received the media attention it deserves. Chernousenko, fired from his post at the Ukrainian Academy of Science for telling the truth about the catastrophic effects of the disaster, is, himself, now dying of radiation poisoning. His book, Chernobyl: Insight From the Inside, may never be published in Ukraine or Russia.

Chernousenko explodes many of the Chernobyl myths propagated by the Soviet authorities and eagerly accepted by the international nuclear establishment.

He points out that the accident was not the result of operator error but was caused by major flaws of design present in 15 other Soviet reactors that are still in operation.

In contrast to the widely accepted belief that only 31 people died from exposure to radiation in the effort to contain the emissions, Chernousenko asserts that between 7,000 and 10,000 volunteers were killed.

But according to author Jay M. Gould, the most serious charge made by Chernousenko is that the accident released the lethal contents of 80 percent of the reactor core rather than the three percent figure announced to the world. "Chernousenko estimates that the radioactivity released was equivalent to more than one curie for every person on earth, i.e. more than 1 trillion picocuries per capita, to use the unit in which radioactive concentrations in milk and water are customarily measured. The radiation released was roughly equivalent to the explosion of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs."

While the fallout was concentrated mainly in the three Soviet republics of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, the reluctance of the Soviet authorities to recognize the true extent of the contamination of farmland resulted in the shipment of contaminated food and grain to all the former Soviet republics, thus spreading radiation illness.

Chernousenko reported that public health surveys in which he participated revealed that there is hardly a child in Belarus, which was hardest hit, who is not suffering from some immune deficiency disease, either cardiovascular, lymphoid or oncological. Most of these children are unable to attend a full day in school.

A 1989 public health survey reported that every second adult in the three biggest provinces of Ukraine was ill.

In Ukraine and Belarus, the incidence of the immune deficiency diseases has doubled or tripled since 1985 and is now spreading to all other areas that have been consuming radioactive food. This disturbing statistic was confirmed by the World Health Organization in a letter published in Nature magazine. The letter reported the incidence of thyroid cancer cases among children in Belarus rose from two in 1986 to 55 in 1991; similar extraordinary increases in children's thyroid cancer were reported in Gdansk, Poland.

A study by Gould, a former member of the EPA's Science Advisory Board, and Dr. Ernest Sternglass, published by the American Chemical Society in January 1989, charged that the effects of the Chernobyl accident were even apparent in the small but statistically significant excess mortality in the U.S. in May 1986. The disturbing results, which were not widely publicized, have yet to be challenged.

SSU Censored Researcher: Courteney Lunt

COMMENTS: The author, Jay M. Gould, co-author of Deadly Deceit: Low-Level Radiation, High-Level Cover-up, says that despite the overwhelming significance of the issue, it has received no exposure at all. He adds that this lack of exposure benefits "the international atomic energy industry and its two trillion dollar investment in this universally unpopular, expensive and dangerous way of boiling water." In November, Gould updated the current health conditions with data provided by Dr. Chernousenko in late October. "As of 1993, some 15,000 of the 30,000 young conscripts who were unnecessarily exposed to incredibly high radiation levels in order to permit the other three Chernobyl reactors to continue operations ... have died since 1986. Because 100,000 square kilometers of prod-uctive land has become permanently uninhabitable, contaminated food from these areas has been widely shipped to other areas of the former Soviet Union and consumed by an estimated 65 million persons, with varying degrees of consequent damage to their immune response." Gould also noted that while Chernousenko received five commend-ations from Mikhail Gorbachev for heroism, his final report on the true radiation levels was never published.

 

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

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"CHERNOBYL - THE HIDDEN TRAGEDY" by Jay M. Gould; The Nation, 3/15/93

A heartbreaking report on the hidden dimensions of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, written by the Ukrainian nuclear physicist chosen to "liquidate the consequences" of the accident, was published last year in Germany. The book, Chernobyl: Insight From the Inside (Springer-Verlag, Berlin/New York), may never be published in Ukraine or Russia, and the author, Vladimir Chernousenko, now dying of radiation poisoning along with thousands of others involved in the emergency cleanup, was dismissed from his post at the Ukrainian Academy of Science for telling the truth about the accident's catastrophic effect on Soviet society.

Chernousenko's treatment was reminiscent of that accorded to the Soviet Union's greatest scientist, Andrei Sakharov, who was also punished for revealing the lethal effects on the immune system of ingesting food or water containing man-made nuclear fission products.

In his 1990 Memoirs Sakharov writes that he came to the conclusion that the nuclear bomb was primarily a biological weapon. After the success of his 1955 H-bomb test, he worried more and more about the biological effects of nuclear tests....The long-term biological consequences (particularly atmospheric testing, in which radioactive fallout is dispersed throughout the hemisphere) can be predicted and the total number of casualties calculated with some accuracy.

Considering only such fission products as radioactive carbon, strontium and cesium, he calculated that genetic damage, plus the immediate and delayed damage to immune systems, would accelerate the deaths of between 500,000 and I million people worldwide for every fifty megatons of nuclear explosive power. An important consideration was what he termed "non-threshold effects," by which he meant that every radioactive particle released had a statistical probability of doing damage to either the DNA of a cell or to the immune system, by low-level internal radiation from ingesting such particles. He also predicted that radiation would accelerate the mutation of microorganisms, leading to the inference that persons with damaged immune systems would in time succumb more easily to these new strains of infectious diseases.

Chernousenko's revelations about the health effects of the Chernobyl accident validate Sakharov's ominous predictions. He begins by demolishing many Chernobyl myths propagated by the Soviet authorities and eagerly accepted by the international nuclear establishment. The accident, he says, was not the result of operator error but was caused by major flaws of design present in fifteen other Soviet reactors that are still in operation. In contrast to the widely accepted belief that only thirty-one people died from exposure to radiation in the effort to contain the emissions, Chernousenko asserts that between 7,000 and 10,000 volunteers were killed.

But his most serious charge is that the accident released the lethal contents of 80 percent of the reactor core rather than the 3 percent figure announced to the world. Chernousenko estimates that the radioactivity released was equivalent to more than one curie for every person on earth, i.e., more than I trillion picocuries per capita, to use the unit in which radioactivity concentrations in milk and water are customarily measured. The radiation released was roughly equivalent to the explosion of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs.

Chernousenko offers the first set of figures available on the great wave of morbidity that swept through the Soviet population after Chernobyl. The fallout was concentrated mainly in the three Soviet republics of Belarus (formerly Byelorussia), Ukraine and Russia, where the bulk of the emissions settled on more than 100,000 square kilometers. But the reluctance of the Soviet authorities to recognize the true extent of the contamination of farmland resulted in the shipment of contaminated food and grain to all the former Soviet republics, thus spreading radiation illness.

Public health surveys in which Chernousenko participated revealed that in Belarus, which was hardest hit, there is hardly a child who is not suffering from some immune deficiency disease, either cardiovascular, Iymphoid or oncological; most of these children are unable to attend a full day in school. A 1989 public health survey indicated that in the three biggest provinces of Ukraine every second adult was ill. In Ukraine and Belarus, the incidence of immune deficiency diseases has doubled or tripled since 1985 and is now spreading to all other areas that have been consuming radioactive food. Confirmation of this finding came in a letter endorsed by World Health Organization officials that was published in the September 3, 1992, issue of Nature. The letter revealed that the incidence of thyroid cancer cases among children in Belarus rose from two in 1986 to fifty-five in 1991. Similar extraordinary increases in children's thyroid cancer were reported in Gdansk, Poland, using the same World Health Organization criteria.

Chernousenko suggests that Chernobyl's massive secondary insult to human immune systems literally sickened Soviet society. Effects of the Chernobyl accident were even apparent in the small but statistically significant excess mortality in the United States in May 1986 that was noted by myself and Dr. Ernest Sternglass and published by the American Chemical Society in January 1989. Our findings have never been challenged. Similar observations on excess infant mortality immediately after the arrival of Chernobyl radiation in southern Germany were made by Professor Jens Scheer of the University of Bremen and published in the November 4,1989, Lancet.

Sakharov's thesis received other confirmations in a report by a Canadian pediatrician, Dr. R.K. Whyte, published in the February 8, 1992, British Medical Journal, attributing some 320,000 excess neonatal deaths (babies dying within the first month) since 1950 in the United States and Britain to fallout from nuclear bomb testing. Low birthweight is the largest single cause of neonatal mortality, and a review of data on the percentage of live births in New York State of babies weighing less than 5.5 pounds reveals a rise from about 6 percent in 1945 to a peak of 8 percent in 1966, when the buildup of strontium-90 in the bones of New York adults reached an all-time high. When the United States first transferred bomb testing from the Pacific to the Nevada Test Site in 1951, the percentage of low birthweight infants in Nevada that year rose by 70 percent!

It now seems clear that the atmospheric bomb tests caused sufficient harm to developing hormonal and immune systems to justify Sakharov's fear of future immune deficiency epidemics. Radiation physicists Sternglass and Scheer point out that the AIDS epidemic first emerged during the early 1980s in the high rainfall areas of Africa that twenty years earlier registered the highest levels in the world of strontium-90 in human bone after receiving heavy fallout from the atmospheric bomb tests. They conclude that fallout is a factor in the impairment of immune response that can show up when young adults encounter the newly mutated strains of sexually transmitted viruses.

In the 1980s, concomitant with the continued routine and accidental emissions from military and civilian reactors, mortality rates were on the rise in some major nuclear nations, reversing the declines registered in the 1970s. Data on civilian reactor emissions of radioactive iodine and strontium, published each year by the Brookhaven National Laboratory, indicate that from 1970 to 1987 some 370 trillion picocuries of these deadly fission products were released into the atmosphere, enough to expose Americans to a cumulated total of 1.6 million picocuries per capita. While the nuclear establishment will claim that not enough of these dangerous fission products would be ingested by any one individual to produce adverse health effects, Sternglass and I calculated that there is a significant degree of correlation between the varying degrees of geographic exposure to such fission products and mortality from cancer and other immune deficiency diseases.

Another example relates to the anomalous recent increases in the mortality rates of young people. According to the United Nations Annual Demographic Yearbooks, in the United States, Britain and France mortality rates for the most productive component of the labor force-those between the ages of 25 and 44-have been increasing since 1983 for the first time since World War 11. This surprising trend for American males was acknowledged by the Atlanta Centers for Disease Control in an article by J.W. Buehler et al. in the September 1990 American Journal of Public Health. The increase was attributed to AIDS, although the article admitted that in states with high AIDS mortality rates there are "associated" abnormal increases in septicemia (blood poisoning), pneumonia, tuberculosis, diseases of the central nervous system, heart and blood disorders, and "other immune defects."

People in this age group were born between 1945 and 1965, and were therefore most heavily exposed in utero to the low-level bomb-test radiation. In an aging population, in which deaths of old people make up an increasing share of total deaths, the proportion of deaths among younger age groups should decline over time. In the United States this percentage had declined fairly steadily, from 11.3 in 1940 to 5.4 in 1983, but it then abruptly rose to 6.6 in 1989, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

The corresponding percentage in France, according to the United Nations Demographic Yearbook, rose from 4.26 in 1983 to 4.71 in 1987, and in Britain from 2.42 in 1983 to 2.61 in 1988. No comparable data were available from the former Soviet Union.

In the United States, we can assume that in addition to the surviving number of baby boomers born with low birthweight, there may be an equivalent number whose radiation-induced damage took other forms, so that a significant number of baby boomers, perhaps one-third, now make up a disproportionate segment of the swelling ranks of those who are mentally ill, permanently unemployed, homeless, in prison, on drugs or ill with AIDS and other immune deficiency diseases, such as chronic fatigue, toxic shock, tuberculosis, etc. The removal from the U.S. Iabor force of such a large part of the most productive age group may be one of the most neglected factors in explaining why our productivity is lagging so far behind that of the Japanese and Germans, whose baby-boom generations display no mortality deterioration since 1983.

Immune deficiency problems of the kind anticipated by Sakharov can also be seen in the epidemic rise, since 1950, of cancer and septicemia mortality among the aged. Mortality from septicemia, the quintessential immune deficiency disease of old people, was extremely rare in 1950. Since then it has risen fifteen-fold.

The biochemical link between low-level internal radiation and immune deficiency anticipated by Sakharov was discovered in 1971 by Abram Petkau, a biophysicist working for the Canadian Atomic Energy Commission. That year he performed an unplanned experiment on an animal membrane that completely overturned conventional ideas on the biological damage produced by extremely low levels of radiation. In the March 1972 issue of Health Physics, under the innocuous title "Effect of Na-22 on a Phospholipid Membrane," he described how he found that cells that had withstood radiation doses as large as tens of thousands of rads without breaking ruptured at less than one rad when subjected to low-intensity, protracted radiation from mildly radioactive sodium salts.

Petkau and his followers have theorized that ingested radionuclides promote the formation of oxygen free-radicals, which, in a chain reaction, can quickly destroy the membranes of cells, such as those of the immune system. At higher intensities of radiation, the free-radical concentrations increase and quench each other. As a result, per unit of radiation absorbed in tissue, the process is perversely more efficient at lower rather than higher doses or intensities. The has been confirmed by recent findings of Dr. Alice Stewart, the world-renowned British epidemiologist, that low-level radiation raised the cancer risk for workers at the Hanford, Washington, nuclear weapons plant more rapidly than high doses.

Thus the so-called Petkau Effect explains why man-made fission products introduced into a pristine biosphere in the earliest years of the nuclear age did so much damage that remained unrecognized at the time. The Petkau Effect also explains what happened to the many millions of people in the former Soviet Union forced to ingest food and water contaminated by Chernobyl fallout; most of the damage is done by the initial exposure, when the dose response rises most rapidly.

Chernousenko suggests that in the case of Chernobyl, for every death there were a large number of premature illnesses. Such widespread illness could not be concealed despite all efforts by Soviet authorities to do so, and it contributed to the consequent despair that helped unravel the social fabric of Soviet society after the accident. It may help explain the mystery of why the Soviet Union collapsed so quickly after 1986, with a suddenness that completely upset the geopolitical balance. Chernousenko's book should prepare us for the nuclear horrors that will come with another such catastrophe, but if we really wish to heed the warnings of both Sakharov and Chernousenko, we must put an end to all forms of nuclear emissions released into the environment.

Jay M. Gould, a member of the E.P.A.'s Science Advisory Board during the Carter Administration, is co-author of Deadly Deceit: Low-Level Radiation, High-Level Cover-Up (Four Walls Eight Windows).