Dear Comrades! Chernobyl's mark on the Anthropocene

22 July 2016
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Authors writing about the Anthropocene and the Chernobyl disaster alike tend to slip into millennial scales and metaphysics. Historian Kate Brown suggests getting down to the particulars: the dates, facts and fate of people most directly confronted with the new radioactive reality.

Just before the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in April 2016, journalists from the Associated Press tested milk from a Belarusian dairy farm located near the 30 kilometer Zone of Alienation, which was created in the weeks following the explosion of reactor no. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in April 1986. Lab results showed the milk had ten times more radioactive strontium than permitted by Belarusian law. Farm director Nikolai Chubenok was flabbergasted. “That is impossible,” he said and described how the farm had a lab that tested every sample for traces of the radioactive isotopes known to be in soils of zones contaminated by the accident.

Global reporting on radioactive milk was bad news for regional business and political leaders. In the past few years, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia have been working, yet again, to close the last chapter on the Chernobyl disaster. Russian officials announced in December 2014 that they reduced in half the number of communities in Russia considered contaminated that qualify for subsidies. Belarusian officials have been cooperating with international agencies for a decade to return contaminated land to farm production, and a state run company is constructing Belarus’ first nuclear power plant on its northern border with Lithuania. Ukrainian leaders, meanwhile, are dreaming up plans to transform their section of the Zone into a nuclear industrial park. Officials assert their plans for resuming economic activity on Chernobyl contaminated ground can go forward because the level of radiation has decreased to safe levels. Life, they say, can return to normal. Well, almost normal, until a reporter discovers strontium 90 in milk.

Pripyat, the (now abandoned) city built to serve the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Photo: Keith Adams. Source:Wikimedia

The race to relegate the Chernobyl disaster to history books shows that humans don’t have the patience for the time scale that nuclear accidents require. The period for half of the cesium and strontium fallout to decay elapsed at thirty years. It will take another thirty years to extinguish the remaining half. Americium as it decays over several hundred years issues radioactive iodine, a powerful and harmful, short-lived isotope. Plutonium will continue to pulse with destructive energy for thousands of years.

In the dawning age of the Anthropocene, humans are grappling with new temporal orders presented by a mounting, steadily accruing layer of toxins and carbons produced and released by human activity. One thousand years from now geologists will find substances in the sedimentary layer, among them radioactive isotopes, which they will date starting about 1945. The scientists of the future will be able to track the remnants of plutonium, uranium and other isotopes as they multiplied on the earth’s surface in the decades of nuclear weapons testing followed by decades of furious reactor construction. They will locate hot spots of concentrated activity, but generally the isotopes will embrace the planet like the sweet icing glaze encircling a donut: existing everywhere, holding fast, spiking the flavour of life.

Looking back now, it is easy to see how resistant scientists were in the months after the accident to accepting the fact that Chernobyl was a problem with very long legs. In August 1986, Soviet and international scientist met at the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. The anxious body of experts rushed to tell the public that the accident was under control. Six months later, IAEA consultants issued an assessment asserting that Chernobyl levels of radiation were low and not dangerous.1 In a 1991 report, IAEA scientists repeated the assertion that they detected no health consequences in the contaminated regions and there would likely be no detectable effects in the future. They wrote this report even as the first evidence emerged of a rare and unexpected spike in childhood thyroid cancers. Scientists made these assertions, which turned out to be wrong, based on estimates of cancers and health problems projected from estimates of radiation levels in the environment.

The maintenance of radiation protection standards works by asserting an understanding of bodies and environments as two discreet realities. Monitors measure gamma waves and alpha particles at waist level in a handful of places over vast stretches of field and forest to produce the familiar, splotchy red and orange contamination maps. With these maps it was possible to make statements about the relative safety of contaminated zones surrounding Chernobyl. Radiation monitors measure radioactivity as something out there. As long as it is imagined externally, scientists can maintain an image of bodies as castles on a hill, under siege, perhaps, but readily defended against low levels of radiation. Waist high gamma radiation, however, is not the point when one considers the dangers present today. One of the insights of the Anthropocene is that there is no threshold between an outside “environment” and human bodies. “We have literally merged”, historian Sarah Vogel writes, “with our material environment to become synthetic humans”.2 Microbiologists, in fact, are re-coding what it means to be human. In the past decade, microbiologists have determined that 90 per cent of the cells in what was once considered to be the body are not human cells at all, but bacteria hitching a ride. These cells of parasites outnumber human cells in the body by ten to one.

At the dawn of the nuclear era in the 1940s, American scientists realized the porosity of bodies by having mice and human subjects (themselves included) ingest manmade radioactive isotopes. They determined that a hundred per cent of radioactive cesium collects in the digestive tract. Strontium and plutonium, they found, mimic the behaviour of calcium in human bodies and settles in bones and marrow. Human thyroids readily drink up radioactive iodine. Collecting children’s baby teeth from around the world, they realized that by the end of the first decade of nuclear testing, every person on earth had incorporated radioactive fallout. KGB doctors in Kyiv in the late 1980s came to similar insights. They recorded ten to twelve different radioactive isotopes in the bodies of their patients who had been exposed to Chernobyl radiation. Some of the isotopes drain from the body over time. Plutonium never leaves the body. Archeologists a thousand years from now will be able to trace the contours of the Anthropocene by ashing the bone of twentieth-century earthlings to detect the deposits of radioactive isotopes in them.

Authors writing on the Anthropocene and the Chernobyl accident alike tend to slip into millennial scales and metaphysics. How about getting down to the particulars: the dates, facts and fate of people most directly confronted with the new radioactive reality? How did life change after Chernobyl in the immediate years after the accident? I want to know, I have a feeling we might all soon want to know, what are the arts of human adaptation in a state of severe ecological crisis?

In August 1986, the Ukrainian Ministry of Health issued five thousand copies of a pamphlet addressed to “residents of population points exposed to radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl atomic station”. The pamphlet begins with assurances:

Dear Comrades! Since the accident at the Chernobyl power plant, there has been a detailed analysis of the radioactivity of the food and territory of your population point. The results of the investigation show that living and working in your village will cause no harm to adults or children. The main portion of radioactivity has decayed. The composition of the radioactivity in water, air, forest and shrubs is tens of times lower than the established norms. For this reason, you have no reason to limit your consumption of local agricultural produce.

If villagers persisted in reading beyond the first pages, they found that the pamphlet’s confident tone trails off, like the telling of an unfunny joke:

Children this year, especially, should not eat any berries or mushrooms, nor should they enter the forest beyond the village.
Limit consumption of greens and early berries.
Do not drink local meat and milk.
Be careful to maintain domestic hygiene. Do not carry work clothes into the house. Don’t wear shoes indoors.

Wash down homes regularly.
Don’t burn dry biomass.
Do not use animal manure or ash as fertilizer.
Take the top layer of soil off the garden, add clay. Bury the top soil in specially-prepared graves far removed from the village.
Better to give up the milk cow and keep pigs instead.
Don’t let domestic birds range freely. Try to keep them in cages.3

The pamphlet is actually a survival manual, one that is unique in human history. There had been nuclear accidents before which left people living on territory contaminated with harmful levels of nuclear fallout, but never before Chernobyl had a state been forced to admit to the problem and issue a manual for the new reality.

Despite the manual’s crash course in radiation protection, it didn’t take long for the Ministry of Industrial Agriculture to record the first radioactive food. A fortnight after the accident and a day after state troopers set up radiological control points outside the city of Kyiv, monitors reported the arrival of spring vegetables — sorrel, green onions, spinach — recording readings at levels higher than the permissible dose.4 As historian Toshi Higuchi points out, nuclear regulators world wide deployed temporary emergency doses for exceptional nuclear “incidents” (which could be something as predictable as fallout clouds from nuclear tests spreading beyond the test range to populated areas). In keeping with this international practice, Soviet officials in the wake of the accident raised permissible doses fifty times higher than before the accident. Yet, even at the new elevated norms, thirteen regions in contaminated provinces of Ukraine reported within a few weeks that a third of milk was too hot for consumption.5 By late May, trusted party operatives were going door to door warning farmers against drinking the fresh, rich milk from their family cows.6

In Kyiv, buyers shunned leafy greens and berries in the markets so that soon stores refused to stock them. Three control points around the city monitored food shipped in trucks. As produce registered increasingly hot, Kyiv officials placed orders for vegetables from southern, clean territories of the Ukrainian Republic. They mined warehouses for food stocks grown before the accident. Officials banned the shipment of meat to major Ukrainian cities for six months.7 They shut down open air markets where produce collected radioactive dust and set up radiation labs in shops and indoor markets. Army meteorologists seeded the clouds so that radioactive precipitation would not fall on the city. Five months followed with no rain. Instead, trucks watered the streets.

In the tenth century, Kyivans created their city, high on a palisade, surrounded by walls, to withstand attacks. In this 1986 strike by a new-age invader, city officials used the infrastructure of the modern Soviet city to secure bodies against the environment in which they lived: a network of roads and police forces, an army of scientists equipped with labs, centralized plumbing, a centralized food distribution network, and packaging all helped to reduce the number of radioactive isotopes entering the mouths of city dwellers.

Villagers left outside the city walls, as in the Middle Ages, had to fend for themselves as the soils, plants and animals they relied on for subsistence turned against them in mysterious ways. The Soviet countryside had few of the modern amenities necessary for overcoming this high-tech disaster. Most villages in the poor, northern territories lacked plumbing and central heating. Water came from open wells carried in open buckets. Taking a bath and doing laundry involved a lot of work and so occurred only occasionally. Almost no one had the luxury of a shower, an important fixture for radiation hygiene. Heating came from contaminated peat and wood. Dirt roads generated dust carrying radioactive particles. Some villages were cut off for several months of the year because of flooding and so transports of packaged food could not reach them. Shops carried salt, kerosene, matches and little else. Farmers ate what they produced on their private plots. Everyone worked the fields, including pregnant women and children. There were few hospitals and clinics and the number of medical personnel dropped every year. As more regulations came down from Kyiv stipulating that collective farmers become modern consumers of food, fuel, and medicine while following safety regulations and hygiene norms for workers at nuclear power plants, it became clear this would be a losing battle.

In the years immediately following the disaster, the number of food samples over the permissible norms continued to increase. In several regions, 70 per cent to 100 per cent of milk, meat, and greens sampled did not pass inspection.8 Even territories with relatively low soil counts of radioactivity served up food that was too radioactive to consume. This news should not have been surprising. Scientists had known for decades about the tendency for radioactive isotopes to biomagnify due to the remarkable, life-giving necessity for organisms to drink from soils and water the minerals they require to thrive. Fish swimming in mildly contaminated lakes quickly concentrate ten to a thousand times more radioactive isotopes in their bodies than in the water in which they swim. Plants gather radioactive minerals from soils in roots in higher concentrations than the ground in which they grow. Peaty, swampy soils, which predominate in the territories around the Chernobyl plant, are especially good at transferring radioactive isotopes to the edible parts of the plants, even in soils with low surface contamination. Soviet scientists working in southern Belarus and northern Ukraine had documented this phenomenon decades before in the 1960s.9 What is surprising is that Soviet planners established the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor Park, with a projected ten reactors, in an eco-zone which they knew was extremely conducive to biomagnification.

Finally, in 1989, with measurements of radioactivity in food and soils remaining practically unchanged, the Ministry of Industrial Agriculture conceded that dis-activation work had failed.10 They resolved to resettle a host of villages, but as the Soviet Union crumbled politically and financially, the evacuations ceased. People either had to find the means to move on their own or remain on contaminated territory.

The rest of this history takes a microscope to discern, for as the isotopes disappeared into bodies the record of their activity grows yet more blurred, which is one reason for the controversies over Chernobyl’s health effects. Soviet doctors looked at blood samples for telling changes in white and red blood cells and ran villagers through whole body counters, which only dimly measure gamma rays coming from patients’ bodies. Most rays coming from bodies are blocked by the flesh and water of the body itself. Medicine, meanwhile, has no humane way of measuring alpha and beta particles incorporated inside of living people. Researchers recorded in the Rivne Province that 24 per cent of the population had an estimated dose of one to two rems of radioactive cesium in 1987 and three rems in 1988.11 Some in the strictly controlled zones had doses up to 10 rem. Soviet scientists established in 1989 a safe “lifetime” dose of a half a rem a year over 70 years. The high body counts pointed to a distressing convergence of the new environmental factors with a new biological reality.

Once inside a body, alpha and beta particles, which are too weak to penetrate a sheet of paper, have no trouble piercing cells of organs and tissues to cause DNA breaks, damaged cells, hormone disruptions, and a host of other problems that are so far poorly understood. Unaware of their high internal doses, villagers complained in the late 1980s in letters to officials and emerging perestroika politicians of health problems. They reported chronic illnesses, fertility problems, strange pains, chronic fatigue, and weak, pale children who had trouble paying attention and fainted at their desks. Almost every region where agronomists reported in classified documents radioactive food above permissible levels, doctors wrote classified reports of a sharp decline in the number of people categorized as “healthy”. Until I unearthed these reports, they had existed in post-Soviet archives, buried along with the political and administrative entities that created them. After the collapse of the USSR, international organizations largely took over evaluating the significance of the Chernobyl accident.

A recent World Health Organization assessment counted up cataracts among emergency workers and 11,000 thyroid cancers among children, “a fraction of which” could be attributed Chernobyl. The “main health impact”, the report authors asserted were “pyscho-social” problems caused by the accident and subsequent resettlement which produced stress and an increased likeness for Chernobyl-affected populations to report “multiple unexplained physical symptoms and subjective poor health”.12 The difference between the assessment of Chernobyl’s health impacts by doctors on the ground and international experts arriving later relates to the tendency of classical radiology to focus on environments over bodies. Radiologists consulting for WHO or IAEA generally study environmental levels of radioactivity and run those numbers against projections of radiation damage from established studies, mostly from the Atomic Bomb Survivor Casualty Study, started in Japan five years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With environmental data and atomic bomb epidemiology, they create “individual dose estimates” that then determine how much of reported disease rates are estimated to have been caused by radioactivity. The bomb studies largely focused retroactively on the seconds of exposure from the bomb blast — the half-second of gamma rays passing in and out of bodies. The science of beta and alpha particles lodged temporarily and permanently in organs to cause non-malignant health problems is far less advanced. The first five years after the blast, the health of the survivors was not recorded. Soviet doctors in Ukraine, on the other hand, acquired a great mass of data on just the kind of physiological changes that swept through contaminated communities in the years immediately following exposure.13 Physicists, however, working as radiologists have so far failed to concur with physicians who have studied the effects of radiation within the landscape of internal organs. In other words, starting with external counts of radioactive decay to determine internal effects sustained the pre-Anthropocene anachronism that bodies are distinct from their environments. And that mirage has worked to contain and minimize the assessment of health damage from the Chernobyl accident.

In the persistent, thirty-year rush to disappear the Chernobyl accident, in the failure to fund large-scale, epidemiological studies about multiple health outcomes, international organizations and scientists have lost the opportunity to trace the adaptive and evolutionary features of human bodies living on territory contaminated by radioactive fallout. And that is a regrettable loss to science and to history. Villagers living off the radioactive landscape present a vivid manifestation of the metamorphosing Anthropocene-era human, one that has slowly been changing places with the accident, becoming pico curie by pico curie a part of nuclear reactor no. 4, the reactor that no longer is.

  1. "Agenturnoe soobshchenie 'Garcia'", 3 February 1987, SBU,
  2. Sarah Vogel, "From 'the dose makes the poison' to 'the timing makes the poison': Conceptualizing risk in the synthetic age", Environmental History 13, no. 4 (Oct., 2008): 667
  3. "Pamiatka: dlia zhitelei naselennykh punktov, podvergshikhsia vozdeistviiu vybrosov radioaktivnykh veshchestv pri avarii na Chernobyl'skoi atomnoi stantsii", 25 August 1986, TsDAVO 342/17/4390, 41-51
  4. "Informatsiia o sostoianii ovoshchei v g. Kieva iz khoziaistv Kievskoi oblasti", no earlier than 4 May 1986; and "O sostoianii ovoshchei i prinimaemykh merakh", (sekretno v ognom ekzempliare), no earlier than 5 May 1986, TsDAVO 27/22/7701, 31-2, 21-2.
  5. "Ob ispol'zovanii moloka khoziastvama naseleniia v zone do 60 km," 17 May 1986, TsDAVO 27/22/7701, 258
  6. "Informatsiia opergruppy Gosgroproma", 23 May 1986, TsDAVO 27/22/7703, 26
  7. A. N. Tkachenko v Kachalovskomu, E.V., 10 February 1987, TsDAVO 27/22/7808, 76
  8. "O tselesoobraznosti nal'neishego prozhvaniia naseleniia v otdel'nykh selakh Narodicheskogo raiona Zhitomirskoi oblasti i Polesskogo raiona Kievskoi oblasti", 1 June 1989, TsDAVO 342/17/5089, 76-7
  9. A.N. Marei, R. M. Barkhudarov, N Ia Novikova, Global'nye vypadeniia Cs 137 i chelovek (Atomizdat: Moscow, 1974), 26
  10. "O pereselenii zhiteli riada cel Narodichskgo raiona", 2 February 1989, TsDAVO 342/17/5089, 6; and "O proekte rasporiazheniia Soveta Ministrov SSSR, no 1427/2 to 13.02.89)", dated 22 February 1989, TsDAVO 342/17/5089, 8-9
  11. Rovno/Rivne report in 1988, Baranovskaia, Chornobyl's'ka trahediia, doc 387, p. 499-500; and, across the border in Belarus, "D. Bartolomeevka, Vetkogskogo rain", 1989, NARB 46/14/1261, 132-3.
  12. "1986-2016, Chernobyl at 30", 25 April 2016, World Health Organization, Geneva
  13. For a compilation of this work, see Vassily B. Nesterenko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko, edited by Janette D. Sherman-Nevinger, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, New York Academy of Sciences, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009.

Published 22 July 2016

Original in English
First published in Vikerkaar 6/2016

Contributed by Vikerkaar
© Kate Brown / Vikerkaar Eurozine

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