Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future
By Kate Brown
WW Norton, 2019
Almost immediately, in the wake of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in August of 1986, the Soviet power-structure indulged in one of its longest-standing and most-practiced political reflexes: it closed ranks and began lying. They covered up the reactor’s troubled history; they obscured the severity of the accident; and they drastically downplayed the death toll. Even once the details began to become known to the international community, that death toll, somewhere between 45 and 55 fatalities, remained stubbornly steady. It can still be found in plenty of current summaries of the Chernobyl disaster.
The true extent of the disaster’s toll in human life is the main focus of MIT history professor Kate Brown’s somberly fascinating new book Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. The book is the latest in a small spate of English-language Chernobyl studies, following Serhii Plokhy’s 2018 Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Disaster and Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, and although Brown recounts the moment-by-moment practical details of the meltdown and subsequent Soviet reactions (including not only the cover-up but the remarkably dystopian measures the government took to help the residents of areas near the plant), her emphasis is on the long-term death-toll from low-dose radiation, a toll that quickly rises beyond the preposterous total of 55 into the tens and even hundreds of thousands.
Brown sifts through archives, conducts extensive interviews, and creates a damning portrait not only of callous Soviet bureaucracy but also of the shocking complicity of international regulatory bodies like the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency in muting the full horror of the disaster’s aftermath. Worst of all on some levels, much of this conspiring seems to have been motivated by a very mundane fear of legal retribution. ““Minimizing both the number of deaths so far and the ongoing health consequences of the Chernobyl disaster,” Brown writes, “provided cover for nuclear powers to dodge lawsuits and uncomfortable investigations in the 1990s when, with the end of the Cold War, the record for four decades of reckless bomb production emerged from top-secret classifications.”
And perhaps the most dangerous after-effect of Chernobyl is therefore not radioactive but political, with a pattern of governmental deceit weaving itself into what should be purely a narrative of safety and public trust. As Brown demonstrates with strictly controlled outrage, this after-effect has very measurable, real-world consequences, because it crops up in subsequent disasters, like the one in Japan eight years ago:
Without a better understanding of Chernobyl’s consequences, humans get stuck in an eternal video loop. The same scene playing over and over. After the Fukushima accident in 2011, scientists told the public they had no certain knowledge of the effects of low-dose exposures of radiation to human beings. They asked citizens for patience, for ten to twenty years, while they studied this new catastrophe, as if it were the first. They cautioned the public against undue anxiety. They speculated and stonewalled as if they did not recognize they were reproducing the playbook of Soviet officials twenty-five years before them. And that leads to the pivotal question: Why, after Chernobyl, do societies carry on much as they did before Chernobyl?
The obvious implications here are terrifying, particularly given the 21st century rise of authoritarian political movements in most of the world’s nuclear powers. After reading her book, Kate Brown’s phrase “a Chernobyl Guide to the Future” takes on many new and increasingly ominous undertones.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.