Unfortunately, says Brown, the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian states have no public tally of Chernobyl-related fatalities to update the account. The Ukrainian state pays compensation to 35,000 people whose spouses died from Chernobyl-related health problems, a figure that while including the deaths of people old enough to marry, excludes the mortality of young people, infants or those who did not have records to qualify for compensation.

Neither does the figure include Russia or Belarus, and it was the latter where 70 percent of Chernobyl fallout landed. A scientist at the Kyiv All-Union Center for Radiation Medicine put the number of deaths at 150,000 in Ukraine alone. An official at the Chernobyl plant gave the same estimate.

That range of 35,000 to 150,000 – not 54 – is the minimum, writes Brown, who teaches environmental and nuclear history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States. Bur even when she checked the websites of United Nations agencies she found a range of 31 to 54 fatalities. In 2005 the UN Chernobyl Forum predicted from 2000 to 9000 future deaths from Chernobyl radiation. Greenpeace said in response that 200,000 had already died and there would be 93,000 fatal cancers in the future.

Brown’s book offers a determined uncovering of the hidden story behind the explosion of Chernobyl No. 4 nuclear reactor near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic on April 26, 1986. Her aim is to give a clearer grasp of the medical and environmental effects of the disaster, plus a look at the wider nuclear picture past and present.

Her focus is on all the victims the Kremlin did not want the world to know about: "Moscow leaders’ strategy was to admit only what could not be denied." Brown often follows the descriptions she gives of a victim’s decline with a sentence such as: "His death is not included in the official count of 54 Chernobyl fatalities."

The radioactive effects spread far beyond the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation, a 30-kilometre radius set up around the plant and depopulated in the weeks after the accident. On April 27 army officers escorted 44,500 residents from the atomic city of Pripyat. In the next two weeks they resettled 75,000 more people from the zone. Chernobyl-issued xenon isotopes were discovered in the town of Cherepovets, 1000 kilometres away.

What is life like, Brown asks, when ecosystems and organisms, among them humans, mingle with technological waste and become inseparable? She made journeys around and into the Chernobyl Zone. She worked in 27 archives in the former USSR, Europe and the United States. Over four years and with two research assistants Brown delved into remote provincial records of former Soviet republics and found reports of widespread health problems in villages, especially among children, caused by exposure to the fallout.

She tracked down the people who worked in a factory that shifted huge volumes of radioactive wool. She traced a load of poisoned meat that travelled around the old USSR for four years in a freezer wagon, with no one prepared to accept it, before it was buried in a concrete trench.

Bureaucrats divided areas into "clean" and "unclean" sections. In controlled areas people got clean food provided. Villagers in one village not considered highly contaminated complained their food exceeded the permissible norm two or three times over.

However, they had to eat all that they grew, almost all the children had enlarged thyroids, many had enlarged livers and some had heart problems. Fourteen people had been diagnosed with cancer in just two months.

Brown interviewed scientists, doctors and civilians, and visited factories, institutes, forests and bogs in contaminated territories. She followed foresters, biologists and residents around the Chernobyl Zone. Everywhere, she concluded, Chernobyl had caused a public health disaster in the contaminated lands, though some spots were hotter than others.

In 1989 Soviet leaders lifted the media blackout, and people learned of their true exposure. Angrily they demanded aid to relocate. Panicking over rising costs, leaders in Moscow called on UN agencies for help, two of which provided assessments that backed up Soviet assertions that doses were too low to cause health problems.

Brown comes to the conclusion that international agencies made an orchestrated effort to minimise the disaster because leaders of the big nuclear powers had already exposed millions of people to dangerous radioactive isotopes during the Cold War, by producing and testing nuclear weapons.

For example, foreign observers had "nodded their heads encouragingly" at an international conference in Kyiv in 1988 when Soviet officials dished out half-truths and bald-faced lies about low levels of radioactivity measured in children’s thyroids, about safe pregnant women, and that no milk, water or food was contaminated above permissible levels. Science had saved the day.

Some archives, though, such as the records of Soviet nuclear weapons development, remain off-limits to researchers. As Brown comments, that is the nature of state power. It can make the past go away, if it so deems.

But what has the world learned? Brown contends that after the Fukushima incident of 2011 in Japan, scientists speculated and stonewalled as if they did not recognise they were reproducing the playbook of Soviet officials 25 years before them. Why, after Chernobyl, do societies carry on much as they did before Chernobyl, she asks?

From 1945 to 1998, the world endured four decades of reckless bomb production, Brown says. Leaders took little care or responsibility for damage caused by the detonation of the equivalent of 29,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs. Designers exploded bombs named after presidents, scientists, wives, uncles and native tribes who suffered fallout.

Testing in Nevada delivered radioactive iodine-affected milk across the US continent. Australians and Pacific Islanders had fallout from French, British and American bombs that blasted Pacific Islands. Indian and Pakistani tests affected each other. Chinese and Soviet bomb designers together polluted the Eurasian interior.

"The tremendous quantity of radioactive fallout swirled in the atmosphere and came down in rain and snow," Brown writes. "The more precipitation in a place, the more the radioactivity cascaded to earth. The period of nuclear testing qualifies as the most unhinged, suicidal chapter in human history. In the name of ‘peace’ and ‘deterrence’, military leaders waged global nuclear war."


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