2012/01/22

Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment - Disturbing parallels between Chernobyl and Fukushima

Book Review
Yaroshinskaya, Alla, A. (2011) Chernobyl: Crime without Punishment. Transaction Publishers.

The Chernobyl catastrophe was largely forgotten and dismissed by the world as soon as the smoldering mess was contained in the famous sarcophagus, but those who have paid attention to the issue since then have been aware of the strangely divergent views of the human toll of the disaster. One view claims that a million people have died, and millions more have had their health ruined, while the other side says there was only a small increase in cancer deaths and “generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail.”[1]
If anyone still doubts the more pessimistic view, they need only read the recently published Chernobyl: Crime Without Punishment to lay the question to rest. This is a translation of a book written by Ukrainian journalist, politician and winner of the 1992 Right Livelihood Award, Alla A. Yaroshinskaya. In this powerful condemnation of injustices suffered by Chernobyl victims for the past quarter century, the author provides volumes of evidence about their suffering – and it is the only kind of evidence we should really need; that is, the stories of the victims and witnesses that reveal the health effects of the world's worst radiological catastrophe. Scientists can debate among themselves whether small amounts of radiation stimulate genetic repair, or make positive changes to chromosome telomeres, but anyone who chooses to “remember his humanity, and forget the rest,” (to quote the famous line on this topic pronounced by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell) will be convinced by the corroborating evidence given by millions of victims. Doubting these accounts has started to sound a little like someone who would say that something nasty is rumored to have occurred in Germany in the 1940s, but more research is needed. Ms. Yaroshinskaya’s writing demonstrates that it is time to get over the senseless false controversy about the effects of nuclear accidents and look squarely in the eyes of people affected.
This is an important book that should be translated quickly into Japanese so that Japan might be able to reverse the harm that has been done by successive government failures to deal with the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns. This book also clears up some of the misunderstandings about the Soviet handling of the situation.
This year, many critics of the Japanese government have pointed to the evacuation of Pripyat in 1986 as a model of effective government response. They ask why a dying communist dictatorship did so much better than an advanced and wealthy democracy. This view would amuse Ms. Yaroshinskaya. The truth is that the Soviet disaster was a much larger contamination – all of it fell on land; whereas in Fukushima, 70-80% of it fell on the ocean. The evacuation of Pripyat came too late, and in Kiev (only 100 kms. away) the regular May Day parade was held a few days after the explosion in a cloud of heavy radiation, as if in an x-ray machine, as the author puts it. While high party officials waved to the crowds, their loved ones had been spirited away to safer locations. One scientist quoted in the book estimated that 15,000 dying victims were turned away from Kiev hospitals in the days after the explosion, never to be officially recognized as radiation victims.
After the establishment of the permanent exclusion zone, it became obvious that large parts of Ukraine, Belarus and southern Russia were of questionable fitness for habitation, but the people on these lands were ignored and essentially left to their own devices. There would be no further evacuations. The city of Gomel, Belarus (population 480,000 – my nominee for a sister city relationship with Fukushima City) and the surrounding region are still dotted with zones of the highest contamination levels, and some scientists believe the gene pool of the population has been permanently damaged.
Ms. Yaroshinskaya presents the victims' case in their own voices, and what emerges are stories that resemble the experiences of rape victims. First there is an assault on the body (by radiation) then there are the insults and humiliation experienced in the pursuit of justice. A typical letter is this one:

"I am not yet 32 years old, but I find myself in a hospital bed several times a year. And all of my four children (under 12) are also ill most of the time (they feel weak and listless, they have joint pains in arms and legs, their hemoglobin is below normal, they have enlarged thyroid and lymph nodes, headaches, stomach pains, constant colds). And it is the same in every family. 
We want to live. We want our kids to live and grow up healthy, and have a future. But through heartlessness, callousness and cruelty of those on whom our lives and the lives of our children depend, we are condemned to the worst possible fate, and we are only too well aware of that.... We have had to eat, drink and breathe radiation for years, waiting for our last day."
- Valentina Nikolaevna Okhremchuk, mother of four little boys, and all the mothers of Olevshchina.

One letter like this would prove nothing. Hundreds of them signed by thousands of petitioners sharing the same experiences nails the case shut.
As a victim herself who was living in an area of heavy fallout, the author pursued the story as a journalist immediately after the disaster. She made unauthorized and clandestine trips to the villages where people were living on contaminated soil, and there she collected their stories. At a time when photocopiers were scarce, and accessible only with official approval, she spread the word via hand-typed copies through a network of sympathetic supporters – a way of evading the censorship of the era known as samizdat. When the glasnost period arrived, she was elected to the The Congress of People’s Deputies, the first democratically elected body that was created during Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness, reform) period. During her work as a journalist and a politician, she collected the letters that her readers and constituents sent to her. They begged for justice and relief from living in a radioactive environment.
These letters are heart-wrenching testimony to the contemptuous neglect that victims suffered at the hands of their governments, as well as the scientists and doctors who defended the official view that claims of declining health were caused by radiophobia and social factors.
In the aftermath of the disaster, residents in contaminated zones were quickly relocated, and there were hasty decisions made about where to rebuild. Money flowed to construction projects, new villages sprang up, and only then they discovered that this land too was almost as contaminated as the towns that had been evacuated. This was in the days before one could buy a cheap, hand-held Geiger counter. Even qualified scientists needed government permission to take measurements, so these villagers were at the mercy of a government that wished they didn’t exist.
The one saving grace of the Fukushima disaster is that it happened in the age of the Internet when citizens could share information. Some Japanese legislators made vain calls to make it illegal for citizens to measure radiation, but nothing came of it.
One subgroup of relocated citizens was the staff of the Chernobyl power plant itself. Incredibly, two other reactors on the site remained in operation until the year 2000, and staff commuted to the plant every day to work in the radioactive environment. The former company town of Pripyat was evacuated and a new town was built in Slavutich, but it too was on contaminated land and not fit for normal life. Outdoor recreation was not possible, and workers felt sick and demoralized.
By late 80s, the Soviet Union was unraveling, money for relocation had been exhausted, and no one in official positions wanted to admit to past mistakes and fix them. In addition, promises of “clean” food supplies were broken. During periods of shortages and inflation, the allowances given for buying this clean food became a joke. There was no clean food to buy, and if there had been, it would have been unaffordable. The food allowance became known as a pittance of “coffin money.”
Another category of victim was made up of the 800,000 liquidators who battled the reactor fire and built the structure that sealed off the danger from the environment. Chernobyl is regarded now as a war, and the liquidators are rightly referred to as veterans of an epic struggle against a new kind of enemy. They are undoubtedly responsible for saving all of the Eurasian landmass from becoming uninhabitable. These young men and women answered the call to save their country without hesitation (as if they had a choice anyway!), and one would think that the just reward would have been guaranteed hero status, disability pension, and health care with special provisions for the effects of radiation that they would suffer. Such benefits were promised, but in reality the Chernobyl veterans were forgotten. A population of this size, exposed to high levels of radiation, could have provided valuable knowledge about the effects of nuclear accidents, but the veterans were ignored by official studies inside and outside of the former Soviet Union.
The common understanding of radiation effects predicted that the Chernobyl liquidators would get cancer at some time decades later, but instead the most common observation was generalized premature aging. Men who went into battle in the prime of their youth were dying ten years later from heart attacks and strokes. They suffered from immune and digestive disorders – generally, a decline in every aspect of biological function. Since these disorders could be classified as health conditions normally found in the general population, the official stance was that they were not related to radiation exposure. Complaints were dismissed as radiophobia, and declines in health were linked to the social upheaval and economic decline of the times. One victim quoted in the book snarled sarcastically that yes, he was getting radiophobia. He was afraid to turn on the radio and listen to the nonsense spouted from official media sources.
The truth is something that is known by people who have a theory of human nature that says all people want dignity, health and the chance to contribute to society. These victims and veterans, like all people, did not want to live life as moochers. They wanted to work with the same vigor they put into working the land, or (in the case of the liquidators) into resolving the crisis at the reactor. Rather than having a fear of radiation, they waved it off with bravado until it was too late to save their health.
As protest movements gathered strength in the 90s, governments were forced to listen to complaints of victims and veterans, but still they gained little. At one time, a cynical move was made to monetize the meager benefits that these groups received. Instead of guaranteeing them free transportation, free medical exams and various other benefits, the value of these benefits would be pegged to a monetary value and paid out on a regular schedule. In a time of high inflation and rapid economic change, the ruse was obvious. Without a guaranteed index that defined benefits, the monetizaton scheme was just a way to get beneficiaries off the government ledgers.
Ms. Yaroshinskaya concludes that the victims in the villages and the Chernobyl veterans were totally marginalized and abandoned by successive governments. I haven’t read such refreshing bluntness in a journalist since Hunter Thompson wrote about Richard Nixon. She condemns the villains, and has a willingness to name names and describe them with the vitriol they deserve. She points out the essential fact that what little the victims managed to gain was won only when the movement grew strong enough to turn into solidarity strikes all over Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. One has to wonder if Japan, the apparently prosperous, developed democracy, would be capable of mounting a solidarity strike to support the families in Fukushima who want to evacuate.
As I write this after having watched Japan in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe, Ms. Yaroshinskaya's book reads like a manual of how a society reacts to a large-scale nuclear accident. So much is unfolding in Japan exactly as it did in the Soviet Union. I have the feeling that she has described a situation that will play out wherever there is a nuclear accident next time, so readers can learn from this and know what to expect if it strikes close to home.
With four hundred nuclear reactors still in service on the planet, most of them nearing the end of their lifespans, and few countries following Germany’s sensible lead to shut down nuclear power, it’s a safe bet to say that somewhere in the next decades there will be one or more major accidents. What’s it going to take to make people understand we can’t manage this technology? Chernobyl and Fukushima (as well as numerous lesser accidents at military and experimental reactors) should have been enough, but it seems like an accident will have to happen near a place that counts for global power holders: Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, London, Paris. If it happens somewhere else, well, it just seems like it’s happening to people who don’t matter. Note to Japan, content to have bought into enriched uranium technology and General Electric reactor design: In case you haven’t figured it out, you still don’t matter in this sense.
Readers can read the list below of parallels between the Soviet and Japanese responses to their nuclear disasters, then they will know what’s in store if the same scene plays out close to home.

1.     In the initial days there is lying, misinformation, and a deliberate attempt to avoid causing a panic.
2.     Data on fallout, wind direction and so on is gathered but kept secret. Government claims to have experienced breakdowns and chaotic conditions that made data collection impossible.
3.     Reports go out that potassium iodide has been given to the population at risk, but in fact most people who need it don’t get it.
4.     The tolerance level for radiation is increased.
5.     Leadership is surprisingly ignorant about the science and the pre-existing state of the nation’s reactors. Government seems impotent, incompetent, paralyzed and unable to direct resources to the problem.
6.     Evacuation is delayed, then months later residents are pressured to return to contaminated land. Officials go into deep denial about the extent of the damage and pour resources into hopeless efforts at decontamination and remediation.
7.     National wealth is invested in restoring communities in contaminated areas, then when the mistake is realized, governments cannot acknowledge it or repair the damage.
8.     The solution to pollution is dilution. Radioactive debris and food are diluted and spread far and wide to all corners of the country.
9.     There is no large-sum settlement fee offered to those who want to resettle far away. 9-11 widows got million-dollar settlements to restart their lives, but there is no such luck in this case. Instead, various cynical schemes like vouchers and monthly allotments are given in such a way as to tie impoverished people to the land that the government wants to declare “remediated.”
10. Funds donated by individuals are misappropriated and used in ways that would outrage the donors. The funds raised by the first public charity ever allowed in the USSR were redirected away from victims then put toward funding visits by foreign scientists who were ushered through the disaster zones by officially appointed obfuscators. In Fukushima, funds from the German Red Cross are being used to build a kindergarten in one of the highly contaminated towns just outside the exclusion zone.
11. Reactor designers, electrical utility management and regulators will all escape liability and prosecution. In the case of Chernobyl, station staff were scapegoated and sent to jail, but no one else was prosecuted for the ultimate causes of the accident or the failure afterwards to protect citizens.
12. Scientific and medical opinion is controlled through state support to such an extent that the official conclusions become unassailable. The disaster is declared to have had overall minimal effects on public health, and this becomes the consensus view accepted throughout the world, including by United Nations agencies. Numerous Japanese “experts” on Chernobyl visited the area repeatedly, but their interpretations of the catastrophe were shaped by the state-sponsored scientific and medical community that filtered their interpretations. When disaster struck Fukushima, these misinformed experts repeated the insulting nonsense about radiophobia, and they were put in charge of managing the public health crisis and leading the government public relations campaign.
13. In the absence of efficient measures to protect the public and compensate all losses, citizens are left to fight among themselves over their rights. Mothers claim the right to compensated evacuation, while farmers, bankers and businesses demand that everyone should stay, buy the local food and support the local economy. Husbands and wives split up over disputes about the risks. The old want to stay, the young want to leave. Senior citizens complain that their grandchildren don’t want to visit anymore. The pressure to keep children on the land - the most vulnerable people to radiation - is particularly cruel, but essential for those who want to revive the area. They know that without children communities will decline. 
14. There is a deep, widespread denial of the nuclear disaster’s ability to destroy the environment and the social fabric, and society is helped along in this delusion by the global nuclear industry and the United Nations. (Japanese media actually covered this in a 1993 report condemning the IAEA adoption of of the official Soviet lie.)
15. Yet to come for Fukushima? The market talks and people vote with their feet. Despite efforts to restore the area, it is going to have an image problem for a long, long time. Economic decline may be inevitable, and money spent on restoration may be better spent on something else.
16. Yet to come for Japan? Just as Chernobyl was a major cause of the collapse of the Soviet system, perhaps the collapse of the Japanese industrial / government / bureaucratic system is in store.

Chernobyl: Crime Without Punishment is an essential, powerful wake-up call to the human race to pull out of its state of denial over global nuclear hazards. Chernobyl was supposed to have been “the final warning,” but we’ll have to say this now about Fukushima. One line that stuck with me after putting the book down was a Russian proverb that Ms. Yaroshinskaya uses to comment on the neglect of Chernobyl victims: Deception can take you wherever you want to go, but it can’t bring you back. It applies equally to self-deception. Keep that in mind if you think the nuclear waste scattered over the planet - some of it “safely” contained in temporary storage, some of it in the soil and water, some in your bones - is an issue we can safely ignore once again.


[1] This endnote can be best appreciated after reading this review to the end, or the book in question. In 2008, the United Nations report on the Chernobyl disaster confirmed the findings of its own 2000 report. It reads as a most convoluted and strained attempt to deny contrary reports that Chernobyl had serious health consequences for millions of people living in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. At one point the authors acknowledge studies showing that liquidators suffered increased rates of cardiovascular and neurological diseases, but they dismiss such findings simply because they contradict previous research. By such logic, Einstein was wrong because he contradicted Newton. The report concludes with a kiss-off that would leave Chernobyl victims, and anyone with a shred of sympathy for them, utterly disgusted:

“The vast majority of the population were exposed to low levels of radiation comparable, at most, to few times the annual natural background radiation levels and need not live in fear of serious health consequences [As usual with UN reports, the complaints of internal radiation damage are completely ignored]. This is true for the populations of the three countries most affected by the Chernobyl accident, Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine… Lives have been disrupted by the Chernobyl accident, but from the radiological point of view, generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail.”

Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation
United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation
UNSCEAR 2008 Report to the General Assembly, Volume II, Scientific Annexes C, D and E

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