Kate Brown’s Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (W.W. Norton, 2019), explores the enduring impact of the Chernobyl disaster, linking it to the staggering, underreported problem of nuclear weapons testing worldwide. Combining meticulous research with a deft, engaging narrative, Brown uncovers the truth about the harmful effects of long-term, low-dose radiation exposure that scientists and government officials around the globe have sought to conceal for decades.
Damien Roos [DR]: This is your second book centered on the topic of nuclear energy. Did you set out with a suspicion that the impact of the Chernobyl disaster had been underreported?
Kate Brown [KB]: I did, yes. In some ways, this book is a sequel to this first book I wrote, Plutopia, which is about the first two places in the world to make plutonium. I started working on that book in 2006. I was interested in the birth of the nuclear security state. This was not long after 9/11. I thought, here in these plutonium-making cities are our founding fathers and mothers of the nuclear security state.
These nuclear pioneers agreed to be watched, listened to and medically monitored. And now we all agree to our surveillance, often with joyful collusion. I wanted to know who the first people were to agree to those terms. But as I went around in Siberia and in Eastern Washington, I met people, mostly farmers, who lived outside of these company towns, telling me about their health problems and saying it was because of those reactors over there.
I was very skeptical. I asked the scientists. The scientists replied, “No, absolutely not. These people are just, fill in the blank, they’re hypochondriacs or radiophobic.” But I asked other historians about it. They said all the contradictory studies on health issues are too complicated to get into. I kept trying to track down answers because I thought it was weird that I would hear the same thing across, what, 10,000 miles, among people who barely had a high school education and didn’t speak a common language.
I kept looking and I started to find material while working on Plutopia that worried me. I was able to report a little bit on that. But then I decided, after I published Plutopia, that I hadn’t really gotten the story. I became more and more convinced as I came across troubling medical records inside the Manhattan Project, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Russian Ministry that made nuclear bombs. I thought, “Those are military sites where it’s hard to get public records. I’ll go to Chernobyl. As a civilian site there ought to be more available to researchers.”
So, I went to Kyiv, now with a mission: what were the environmental and medical effects of Chernobyl? I didn’t much care about the accident itself. I felt we knew a lot. We knew who had caused it, what had caused it and why. We knew pretty much how the Soviets had responded in the short term. I thought that story, despite the popularity of the HBO special on it, was old hat.
DR: Early in the book you detail the considerable research that went into writing it. The book’s reference section makes up almost a quarter of the total content. What was it like as a writer trying to wrangle a story with such an ever-broadening scope?
KB: Oh, it was a nightmare. Just a nightmare. When I first got to Kyiv, the first archive I entered, I said to the archivist, “I want some files on Chernobyl health effects.” They said, “They don’t exist.” Then I pestered them and I got these huge volumes. I thought to myself, “I can’t deal with this alone,” and this is highly technical stuff. I started to chart it and map it. Then I wrote a big grant to the Carnegie Foundation. I had already written a grant for the ACLS that was successful, to collaborate with Tim Mousseau, who was an evolutionary biologist working in the Chernobyl Zone.
I figured I just needed help in terms of digging up materials from other places. I thought if I found this much in Kyiv, I’m going to find a lot in Minsk and Moscow. So I hired a research assistant in Ukraine with the Carnegie funds and another one in Belarus. Both of them had PhDs in history. One, Katerina Kryvychanina specialized in Belarusian, specifically the international history there. The other, Olha Martynyuk, focused on Ukraine. They knew the archives up and down. They were super. Without them, I couldn’t have managed the breadth of our search. They helped me track down documents in little, local archives.
I would find people I wanted to interview after I had returned from a research trip. I would give Olha a list of questions and she’d go record interviews. I’d have that JPEG file the very next day, so that was huge. I have the Scrivener program, the software to work out all the data. I kept checking and checking because, as I say in the book, I sure knew the reaction I was going to get reporting the bad news I was finding in the archive. I was nervous. It would’ve been a lot easier to say, “These doctors say this and those doctors say the opposite,” and let it be left at that. We are used to that: a controversy ending in a stalemate.
I could see in the way health physicists do their science that it lends itself to controversy. It’s almost as if this science of estimates, extrapolations and probabilities were designed to produce uncertainties. “These people got cancer, these kids have cancer, but we don’t know for sure what caused it.” I saw how those statements of scientific uncertainty drilled down, undermining the claims of people whose families were riddled with illnesses. Rather than report two sides of a controversy (there are always far more than two sides), I wanted to leave the reader with an informed judgement. As I write in the first person, it’s clear that this is my studied opinion.
DR: The reason this book really resonates is the well-driven point that this issue of long-term, low-dosage radiation exposure is so much bigger than Chernobyl but, in fact, affects pretty much all of humanity through both nuclear energy practices and weapons testing. In all of this research, did you have an “Aha” moment where you made that broader connection?
KB: Yes, I did. At first, I had no idea that I would end up with that larger nuclear history. I, like most people, thought there is civilian power and then there are nuclear bombs. I wrote one book about nuclear bombs. Now I was moving over to civilian power. I had very much separated it in my mind. It’s interesting how research projects lead you places you don’t ever mean to go. I was very late into writing the book, finishing up. I wanted to be done with it. But then I started reading reports from the ‘50s and ‘60s about low-dose radiation and health problems in places where fallout from nuclear bomb testing tended to congregate.
I noticed there were a lot of lawsuits in the ‘90s. I started looking at that literature. I realized how nervous the people at the Department of Energy were about Chernobyl. I went into the deposition records for some of these lawsuits and I saw that the lawyers who were trying to pursue these cases were getting Chernobyl information used in court. Everybody saw Chernobyl as a crucible.
Then I found that in 1987 the US association of health physicists met for their annual professional conference and Department of Energy lawyers were there saying, “Look, the biggest threat to nuclear energy right now,” this is a year after Chernobyl, “is lawsuits. We are going to train you guys to be expert witnesses on behalf of the government.” So, they held breakout sessions and the Department of Justice lawyers came in and said, “This is how you will serve as an objective witness on behalf of the US.”
DR: Wow. So manipulative.
KB: That’s how anxious they were. That’s how much was riding on the Chernobyl verdict. “Why were they so nervous?” I thought. I started to look at more records and realized the story was getting larger and larger. I tracked down cancer rates by country. They are surprisingly not well documented. Cancer rates in the Northern Hemisphere where most of the fallout from atmospheric testing landed went up and up and up from the ‘50s to about 1980. Then they leveled off. What I just realized recently is that among people born after 1952 the cancer rates are still rising. We have baby boomers who don’t tend to die as much from cancer as people in my generation.
I just returned from looking after a friend last week in Seattle who has gastric cancer. She’s in her fifties. Gastric cancer used to be something that guys who worked at DuPont in the chemical factory used to get. It used to be super rare. That cancer specifically is now growing at 6% a year. It’s a new disease category. Unfortunately, it’s also usually a death sentence. It’s a very serious cancer. There were other data points that troubled me. Why has the sperm count for men in the Northern Hemisphere dropped in half since 1945? I started seeing all this other data that specifically concerned the Northern Hemisphere where fallout landed. These rising frequencies of disease and nuclear fallout are just a correlation, but it’s something we should get really serious about.
DR: The book certainly contains its share of villains from the ubiquitous KGB to the complicit United Nations and even opportunistic American doctors. How do you approach interviews with sources who quite obviously have secrets to hide?
KB: I tried to talk to everyone I could who was still alive. It’s funny, one guy seemed like a guy with integrity, a guy who cared. He was a health physicist called in to do a medical study of Chernobyl survivors for the UN in 1990. When talking to him, I figured, “Oh, he must have misremembered.” He was probably just confused. I didn’t think he was trying to lie to me. Then it dawned on me. His failure to report that he confirmed a major jump in pediatric cancers caused a great deal of hardship for thousands of people. That shattered some of my faith in humanity, actually, because I saw that this scientist thought well of himself as a man of integrity, yet his actions belied that view.
Within the course of one’s professional life, the guiding forces can lead him or her to draw conclusions and take actions that are less than honest, quite insensitive or damaging. Sometimes I would just start talking to someone without realizing that. Then I’d always follow up, do more research and then call people back. I had these slow realizations about some of my subjects, about their wrongdoing. I could have not named these professionals, anonymized them in some way, but there’s been all this rhetoric going back and forth between pro and anti-nuclear partisans.
And the term “nuclear lobby” comes up a lot. That term falls in the realm of conspiracy theory as a vague, unnamed force working against the interests of poor innocent people. So, I thought it would be best to name names, which I know got me in trouble. I wanted to say exactly who it was pursuing this strategy. They were by far in the minority of people making judgments on this case, but they were also the most influential.
There were a couple of legal reviews for this book, so I had to make some final phone calls because the lawyer said, “Listen, you talked to everybody, but you mentioned this guy. You didn’t talk to him.” So, I did have to make a few calls at the end where I knew somebody fell in the role of perpetrator. I called them up and quoted them back to themselves, things they had said that were in the archives. They said what I expected them to say, which is, “I have no memory of that,” and then I inserted that comment in my book.
DR: When doing your field research, what sort of steps did you take to ensure your own safety? We see you a lot of times in treacherous areas.
KB: I didn’t imbibe anything. Nor did I think that vodka would clean my system of radioactivity. Obviously, it was far too late to take prophylactic iodine. I brought old clothes with me that I left in the zone after I went, especially shoes. I tried to wash up a lot when I was there. There’s nothing you can do against the gamma rays. I was worried about a particle of plutonium going down my lungs. I’m still worried about plutonium in my lungs. I don’t recommend that people just go start wandering around in the Chernobyl zone without a good reason. A stag party, for instance, isn’t a very good reason to go there.
DR: One of the interesting takeaways is learning that the Chernobyl plant served not only as a source for civilian energy, but also was, as you put it, scaled up for military purposes as well. As far as you could tell, was plutonium from Chernobyl being actively developed for nuclear weapons?
KB: As far as I can tell, no. They would have to shift over the production and make some changes on the operational and engineering level to get that ready for the production of plutonium. This was one of the reasons they liked that reactor and they only put that kind of RBMK reactor inside the Soviet Union. In East Europe and other places around the world, they built plenty of reactors, but those were always light water reactors. The kind of reactors that were used to power subs.
No, I don’t think they were using it for military purposes, but they were really anxious about Ronald Reagan’s nuclear defense program Star Wars. That reactor was one of the earlier RBMKs. So it did have the potential to switch over from plutonium and nobody would ever know. At least, nobody outside of the CIA and the Department of Defense, who were watching. That’s what they liked about it. If we could get into the archives in Moscow to look at that period, we would find out more about an “Operation Shield”, which Soviet leaders referred to cryptically in one post-accident meeting.
DR: It’s hard to read about the crisis and not make a comparison to climate change. Both are slowly developing global threats that are really only visible through the effects of their creeping violence. How optimistic are you that we’ll be able to make the wholesale changes needed to prevent our imminent demise?
KB: Well, I don’t know. We know what we’re supposed to do. We know how to change the situation. It’s not like we’re sitting here trying to discover penicillin for a pandemic. As a species, we respond better when we’re in emergency mode than when we’re in slow-destruction mode.
The scale of the climate change problem is so large it’s paralyzing. But I do take heart. I was talking to an MIT climate change scientist a couple of months ago. I asked her, “What are we going to do?” She said, “Greta Thunberg.” I thought, “A 16-year-old child is supposed to save the world?”
Her point, I think, was that we know climate change is real and we know what to do. Scientists like her have done that work. Now it’s about political will, and that can turn on a dime. In the 1950s, the officials were all saying atmospheric nuclear testing is fine. There’s just no problem. Then scientists like Sakharov started quietly making noise inside the atomic energy world in Russia, and some US scientists started to make noise too.
But it was the millions of people who showed up in Central Park, in London, Berlin, all around the world saying, “We want to end this crazy nuclear testing.” It was the people who had more sense than the policy makers, the scientists and the military leaders. I think what this means is when people start to go to the street and demand change then it’s going to happen, and it could happen quite quickly.
DR: Do you plan on delving deeper into the issues surrounding the effects of nuclear power in society for your next work?
KB: No. I don’t want to start repeating myself. I’m hoping that other scholars, especially younger scholars, will get involved because there’s lots to do. What I’m interested in now is what I call plant people. We have this real resurgence of interest in botany, something we haven’t seen in western culture since the 18th century. The wild success of Richard Powers’ novel Overstory is one manifestation of this interest.
Western scientists have now verified that plants have intelligence, that they can communicate with each other and across species. That they have a memory. All these things amount to what some researchers call plant consciousness. I read this material and thought to myself, “The peasants have been saying that trees can communicate in Eastern Europe for centuries.” I want to go back in time, find these historic plant people, see how this has moved forward in time and find out what else they also knew. Western science has finally validated what many Indigenous groups, especially those who have animistic beliefs, have been saying for centuries. How does that transfer of ideas finally get verified by Western science? That’s what I’m interested in.
Kate Brown is a historian of environmental and nuclear energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is also the author of Dispatches from Dystopia (2015), Plutopia (2013) and A Biography of No Place (2004).
Damien Roos is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at The New School.