Chernobyl dominates any discussion of atomic energy and disasters for good reasons. It represents the ultimate nightmare of nuclear power gone wrong. Scholars spend pages analyzing the disaster and its ecological, medical, social, and even ethical concerns. It has sparked debates about the necessity and dangers of nuclear power and whether such programs should be completely shut down. Close scrutiny is applied to the events leading up to the catastrophic incident in a noble attempt to pinpoint what exactly “went wrong” and how it can be avoided again. There is an unceasing drive to learn from one of humanity’s greatest mistakes. One of the slightly less sensational yet crucial topics surrounds the social responses to the disaster. The slow and incomplete dissemination of knowledge regarding Chernobyl and its health hazards to the affected public greatly shaped their responses and lives.
Before the Chernobyl incident, attitudes towards the safety and benefits of nuclear power were generally favorable. The specific reactor in question, Number 4 Unit, was part of a larger building complex, housing three other reactors. All four were known as RBMK-1000 (Russian Graphite Moderated Channel Tube) type reactors, meaning that they were “graphite-moderated, water-cooled and uranium-fuelled” in order to generate millions of watts of energy (Haynes 1). The nuclear power station could produce an enormous amount of energy for a relatively cheap cost. At the same time, many people generally believed that nuclear power was a safe and affordable option. Vitali Skiyerov, the Ukrainian power minister before the Chernobyl accident, ironically emphasized in an interview that “the odds of a [nuclear power plant] meltdown are one in 10,000 years. The plants have safe and reliable controls that are protected from any breakdown…[and] are ecologically much cleaner than any thermal plants” (quoted in Hawkes 7). Workers and experts had faith in the safety precautions of the plant. They, and consequently most of the populace, could scarcely envision the catastrophe that would shake the world and sound the death knell for the future of nuclear power.
The events that would cumulate in the Chernobyl accident started on Friday April 25, 1986 and carried into the 26th. Ironically enough, the incidence started as an experiment designed to test and improve the safety of the reactor. These kinds of tests were not uncommon, but the handling by the works at the fourth unit that infamous night did not adequately follow the safety protocols and procedures. The workers decided to test the resilience of the backup turbines in the event of a loss of electrical power, and thus began to reduce reactor power at 1:00 AM on the 25th (Marples 12). Over the next 24 hours, a series of violations and errors in safety procedures snowballed into a truly nightmarish calamity when excessive steam pressure in Unit 4 caused the reactor to burst. The exact procession of events that led to the explosion is hard to capture, considering the fast-paced and chaotic nature of the incident. A report given by the International Atomic Energy Agency just months after Chernobyl cites three main contributing factors: the disabling of automatic trips that would have halted the testing when it was taken too far, the decision to continue testing after operations fell below acceptable power levels, and the overconfidence of workers who allowed testing to continue despite overall dangerous conditions (29). There were many points during the procedure when the workers should have and failed to stop the proceedings. The three outlined factors worked together to culminate in the explosion of Unit 4, inciting a fire and releasing large amounts of radioactive material into the environment.
Initial reactions from some spectators were of confusion, born from a lack of understanding. One witness who was being driven to the nearby city of Pripyat when the reactor blew recalled:
We were driving along at night, the town was empty, asleep, and I was sitting next to the driver. I saw two flashes to the side of Pripyat; at first we didn’t realize that they came from the nuclear power station… We thought they were shooting stars. Since there were buildings all around, we could not see the nuclear power station. Just flashes. Like lightning, perhaps, a little bigger than lightning. We didn’t hear any thunder. The motor was running. After at the block they told us that it had really boomed. (Bilokin, quoted in Shcherbak 40)
It would not be until Bilokin, a doctor of an emergency medical unit, arrived in the city that the extent of the accident was made clear. The enormous tragedy of Chernobyl, although looming large and oppressive in historical memory, provided little spectacle. The explosion was so unremarkable to outsiders that it was even mistaken for a natural phenomenon as whimsical as a shooting star. Impressions from the inhabitants in Pripyat were no less befuddled. One wife of an emergency response firefighter when woken by the noise of the explosion was simply told to “go back to sleep” and that he would be back soon (Ignatenko, quoted in Alexievich 5). The husband had believed that the fire was simply ordinary in nature and posed no other dangers. His seemingly unconcerned attitude, however, belied his tragic end. Vasily Ignatenko rapidly developed acute radiation syndrome after responding to the fire and would be one of the first victims of Chernobyl.
Confusion still reigned when the ruins were exposed by the sun for all to see. One evacuee remembered how the fire looked in the daylight:
I can still see the bright-crimson glow, it was like the reactor was glowing. This wasn’t any ordinary fire… [Everyone] stood in the black dust, talking, breathing, wondering at it. People came from all around on their cars and their bikes to have a look. We didn’t know that death could be so beautiful…We didn’t understand that the “peaceful atom” could kill, that man is helpless before the laws of physics. (Vygovuskaya, quoted in Alexievich 152)
Vygovuskaya, like most of Pripyat’s inhabitants, stood in shock, unable to comprehend how such supposedly safe energy could betray them in the worst of ways. They had no knowledge of gamma radiation and its effects on the human body. Even though she could not fully understand the horrific consequences, Vygovuskaya at least realized that something momentous had occurred. She and some other observers knew they were staring at death. Other witnesses understood enough about the dangers of nuclear energy to react with appropriate horror at the incident and its implications. Valentin Borisevich, for example, had been the head of a Laboratory for an Institute of Nuclear Energy in Belarussia when their instruments detected a mass amount of radiation spewing from the reactor (Alexievich 177). Although Soviet bureaucracy barred him from outright telling his wife of the radiation, he still managed to coach her through some basic safety procedures. Borisevich, like other experts and academics, recognized that a large portion of the population had been suddenly and irrevocably exposed to a huge dose of radiation.
Lack of accurate information initially extended to personnel working to contain the disaster as well. The first responders, known colloquially as the Liquidators, thrust themselves into the fiery maw of the reactor to combat the flames without fully comprehending the dangerous world they had just entered. They simply reacted to their duties as firemen. Lead by Lieutenant Volodymyr Pravyk, they “attack[ed] the fire from all sides… [they] did not know yet the extent of the damage caused by the explosions or the danger from radioactivity coming out of the exposed reactor” (Haynes 12). This dearth of information caused many to put themselves in the direct line of danger when they began to fight the fire. For example, many went to the roof, right in the path of billowing clouds of radioactive material. Unsurprisingly, many died soon afterwards. Those who died as a result of saving “Pripyat, Chernobyl, Kiev, all of us” were forever immortalized as martyrs and heroes for their actions in the Chernobyl fire station (Shcherbak 35). The high amount of radiation in the area, however, soon became apparent to the Liquidators. One fireman recalled how even after reading the dosimeter, “we stayed, although we knew the radiation level was very high…not even the dosimeter operator could say exactly how high – the needle on his instrument had gone off the end of the scale” (quoted in Haynes 13). They willingly sacrificed their lives and health for the greater good. With the help of the Liquidators and other first responders, the fire was kept from spreading, curbing an already enormous disaster from further escalating.
People were anxious to return to a sense of normality directly after the Unit 4 explosion, even if it put them in danger. The locals did not know about the gravity of the situation, the radioactive contamination they were being exposed to, only that there had been a fire. As a result, people milled around their daily lives: “people were out walking, there were children everywhere… people were going to the beach, to their dachas, [and] fishing” (Kovalevska, quoted in Shcherbak 56). Few took precautions against the radioactive threat, because they simply did not understand it existed. The naiveté reached almost comic proportions, had the implications not been so terrifying. The accident occurred around the same time as the widely celebrated and cherished outdoor May Day festivities in the region. One observer remembered how eager people were to participate in the celebrations and simply forget about the looming threat of Chernobyl:
[The May Day parades] were not cancelled, it was very strange. People knew a little about the accident but, you know, when danger is not seen, it is not felt. It was very unreal for people to understand that they had already been contaminated. When I met my pupil in the street, she was walking with her baby in the pram. I told her, “Go away, stay at home.” She said, “Why should I? What’s the problem? The weather is so nice.” They could not understand, they didn’t believe; it was like a silent death. I remember I was shocked when we walked past our Parade stand, with all the leaders and the army, to see they were dressed in white radiation suits! We were there with bare arms and legs! (Svetlana, quoted in Roche 46)
Even when warned about radiation, some people chose willful ignorance as it allowed for a momentary, if not superficial, return to normal life. For added irony, those in higher positions of power were informed about how to safely handle contamination. While the rest of the population was left exposed to radiation, the leaders and the army were decked out in full radiation gear. They were informed and protected against the threat and still did not help the parade goers.
The Soviet government initially encouraged censorship about Chernobyl and its projected effects. It was a way to create “a superficial state of ‘normalcy’ inside the zone” and to “save rubles” by delaying a costly evacuation (Haynes 100). The May Day celebrations were a perfect opportunity to maintain the image of business as usual. One Soviet Party official when asked about the availability of medical masks to provide some protection replied, “Oh, we got plenty! We have enough to last until the year 2000. We just don’t give them out, otherwise there’d be a panic. Everyone would run off, they’d leave” (quoted in Alexievich 212). Keeping everyone oblivious and complacent was more important than their health. Silence reigned from officials. It was not until news about the incident and the rising levels of radiation from foreign sources that official medical services abandoned their vow of silence. However, even then, there hardly was a straight answer. One Minister of Health advised people to “shut your windows and wipe your shoes carefully with a damp rag before entering a house” along with other minor precautions against radioactivity (quoted in Yaroshinskaya 17). There was little overt discussion about the effects of radiation and general reluctance to talk about the disaster. Only small tips were given to placate people’s anxieties.
The Soviet government finally started evacuating the regions around Chernobyl about three days after the accident, but even then, it was a messy affair. The actual areas evacuated were in a region with a thirty kilometer radius around the plant known colloquially as “the zone”. This zone was further split into three categories: a special zone right around the plant where no human activity would be permitted, a middle zone where re-entry might be allowed in the future, and the outermost zone where general population and agricultural activities would eventually return and continue (INSAG-1 55). Unsurprisingly, moving such a large mass of people permanently from their homes proved a very difficult task for a variety of reasons. There was no evacuation scheme for such a large disaster, which resulted in mass confusion. Fear also spiked in response to the intimidating manner in which the evacuation was carried out. Militias simply appeared one morning, systematically rooting through the villages in the exclusion zone, carrying out buses full of people (Roche 51). There was little explanation offered to the inhabitants. Since rapid evacuation was necessary, the workers lied to the people. Civilians were told that “it would be for three days”, framing permanent evacuation as a short trip (Kovalevska, quoted in Shcherbak 64). Some authorities even encouraged this misunderstanding. Locals reported hearing over the radio to “take warm clothes with [them], [they’ll] be living in the forest. In tents. People were even glad—a camping trip!” (Ignatenko, quoted in Alexievich 8). The emphasis on quick mobility meant that most items were left behind, probably for the best. Any clothing, furniture, books, keepsakes, and other objects had all been irrevocably contaminated. It was easier to deceive the population into willingly abandoning these precious memories rather than dealing with the emotional fallout.
Confusion followed the evacuees like the cloud of radioactive material they unknowingly followed. One of the greatest ironies about the evacuation was the procession had followed one of the plumes of radioactive material billowing from the steaming reactor. On the 30th of April, winds shifted the plume of radioactive material south towards Kiev, where many of the evacuated people were heading, yet there were no adequate responses from officials to the changes (Haynes 64). As a whole, the people were given little information about the situation. When some data about the plume did leak, “a wave of tension swept the city in the wake of fresh rumors about an imminent evacuation of Kiev’s children… and the city Soviet executive committee remained silent” (Haynes 65). The news even caused some families to preemptively leave out of fear of potential health risks if they stayed. Silence from authorities only deepened the fear and panic many citizens felt. The forced ignorance bred unnecessary confusion and anxiety.
The sudden displacement and forced resettlement psychologically traumatized the evacuees, especially older generations. They had a hard time adjusting to their new reality. Some even refused to leave their homes, despite knowing about the dangers. One older man, when asked why he would willingly stay in “the world’s most radioactive environment,” started crying before responding, “This earth is sacred, the earth of my ancestors; this earth is my soul; take me from the earth and you take my soul” (quoted in Roche 62). The land and the homes built there were of great traditional importance to some families. It was where generations had lived and they could not comprehend leaving all that history behind. This was a general trend among the older population in the surrounding regions of Chernobyl. They were much harder to convince to leave and were more likely to return after the initial evacuation. One reporter visiting the zone noticed that older former residents had returned, but “the authorities had decided to leave them in peace because of their age. The trauma of evacuation had proved to be too much to suffer for many of the old people… [they] had returned to hide in their former homes, to die with dignity on the land of their forefathers” (Roche 73). Both those who returned and the authorities understood that the older people had little time left. Whether through old age or radiation contamination, they would die soon, and were thus allowed to peacefully live out the rest of their days.
Ignorance about the displaced populations caused outsiders to treat them with increasing fear and paranoia. This was perhaps most evident with the children of survivors. One journalist when visiting Ukraine noted how one elementary-aged student decided to learn karate because “some kids in Kiev beat him up for being radioactive” (Cheney 134). The misinformation outsiders had regarding the evacuees and the accident led to paranoia and bullying. Adults faced less overt discrimination that was no less problematic. Survivors had trouble finding employment, housing, babysitters, and engaging in other sorts of interactions because of their past (Marples 140). They even had difficulty returning to any sense of normal life. One frustrated man, for example, remembered how whenever he tried to date a woman, he would get turned down with the excuse, “You’re a Chernobylite now. I’d be scared to have your kids” (Alexievich 46). Outsiders refused to mingle with the evacuees. The survivors were essentially cut off from all facets of society.
The extreme alienation of the Chernobyl survivors created a new population of outcasts. This phenomenon is not isolated to the Chernobyl accident. A similar pattern emerged with Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. Both groups “experienced discrimination… Nobody wanted to marry them, employ them or be friends with them, for fear of contamination and because of ignorance. Many of them committed suicide, as they were unable to cope with the isolation and rejection” (Roche 91). Their survivor status, their connection to the radioactive zone, caused them to be stigmatized, hated, and isolated. They were alienated from their host communities and forced to band together:
We’re often silent. We don’t yell and we don’t complain… We’re afraid to talk about it. We don’t know how. It’s not an ordinary experience, and the questions it raises are not ordinary. The world has been split in two: there’s us, the Chernobylites, and then there’s you, the others. Have you noticed? No one here points out that they’re Russian or Belarussian or Ukrainian. We all call ourselves Chernobylites. “We’re from Chernobyl.” “I’m Chernobylite.” As if this is a separate people. A new nation. (quoted in Alexievich 122).
The new alienated people were dubbed “Chernobylites”, a group without borders or tied to any nation. The only detail that bound them together was their shared trauma. Their lives revolved around the event, starkly cutting it between life before and after Chernobyl. It was how they were defined. Yet, there was a general silence among this new population. One interviewer explained, “We don’t talk about it with each other, it’s a conversation we have when someone comes here: foreigners, journalists, relatives who don’t live here” (Alexievich 121). The Chernobylites understood the horrors they had gone through, and saw no need to revisit old pains. Only outsiders were privy to any explanation.
The liquidators and other first responders to the initial reactor accident likewise faced a rocky fate. Initially, some of their efforts were highly publicized and they were rightfully hailed as heroes by the public. Many newspapers published tributes describing the successes of people like the aforementioned Pravyk, celebrations were held by local towns, and even a museum was built in their honor (Marples 150). However, these accolades were mainly given to the most visible of these workers and could be seen as insincere. A lot of the people involved in arduous and dangerous work of cleanup, burying radioactive soil, assisting evacuation efforts, and other tasks were scarcely noticed. The cleanup crews in particular “were often without protective clothing and shower facilities” despite working in arguably the most dangerous and radioactive zone (Marples 180). Others were barely given any compensation for their sacrifices. For example, there were a number of builders tasked with erecting extra houses, schools, nurseries, etc. for evacuees that were in radioactive lands very close to the thirty kilometer zone around Chernobyl. Radiation was known to cause ill health in these workers, yet they were paid a mere thirty roubles, known by locals as a “coffin allowance”, for their troubles (Yaroshinskaya 23). Many were even barred from complaining about the health risks and complications. One worker when asked about his wellbeing simply responded, “it is a sin to complain about one’s health” (quoted in Marples 171). Unsurprisingly, such areas, including Rudnia-Ososhnya were later evacuated for high levels of radiation and unsafe living conditions, while the workers were not given any compensation.
Other more high-profile liquidators who survived felt that they were completely forgotten by the Soviet state. Many interviewers and reporters recorded their ironic fate, the “terrible sense of abandonment, isolation, and despair among these men” despite the card given to them identifying them as national heroes (Roche 31). The government did not monitor the health of the majority after dangerously high levels of radiation exposure. Those whose information was recorded likely received falsified data. One doctor admitted to seeing “authorities tamper with the Geiger counter readings to ensure that the levels appeared reasonable… these altered levels became known among the workers as ‘administrative doses’” (Roche 32). The tampered data gave the liquidators false information about their wellbeing and ensured that the Soviet government would not have to intervene on their behalf. As a frustrated liquidator vented, “Even when I was leaving they didn’t tell me how much [radiation] I got… They’re still hiding [the information], or they’ve destroyed them because they were so classified” (Alexievich 48). This obfuscation of data left the liquidators alone to their suffering without so much as an official explanation. They felt as if they had received little to no outside help for their heroics.
All those affected by Chernobyl in general, both liquidators and civilians, felt as if they had survived an invisible war. Some compared living with the accident to living with the repercussions of war.
Now [the survivors] are dying… I consider them heroes, not victims, of a war which supposedly never happened. They call it an accident, a catastrophe. But it was a war. The Chernobyl monuments look like war monuments… But no one talks of this. It’s not accepted. (Sobolev, quoted in Alexievich 135)
Like those affected by war, the Chernobylites experienced a gratuitous amount of tragedy, displacement, and trauma. Even the treatment of the event in public memory was handled in a fashion eerily similar to war, with accolades given and monuments built to honor the heroes. However, the tragedy differed significantly from wars in that “the people affected by Chernobyl [did] not have the obvious signs of tragedy… the damage caused by radiation [was] invisible except in the eyes of the people” (Roche 22). The damage of Chernobyl manifested more as odd forms of sickness and psychological distress in the survivors, rather than any noticeable scars of war. Because of such small but significant reasons, some commentators pushed the comparison even further. They argued that the disaster was worse than war, that it was somehow bigger. “Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There’s nowhere to hide. Not underground, not underwater, not in the air” (quoted in Alexievich 75). Unlike war, the Chernobyl disaster was ongoing fight against a literally inhuman enemy. The battle against radiation exposure would not end anytime soon. The casualties would continue to pile up and these physical effects would pass through generations. The people could not escape radiation - an omnipresent, invisible enemy.
From the unhelpfulness and silence of the authorities sprang rumors about the accident and safety precautions against radiation sickness. The civilians, initially abandoned by experts and government workers, felt the need to devise their own explanations, even if only to calm themselves. Many turned to alcohol for the solution to their problems with radiation anxiety. One journalist noted how prevalent the belief was:
During the emergency and clean-up, vodka was dispensed, supposedly to ward off the ill effects of radiation, though it makes more sense to me that it was used to bolster confidence and mollify fear. The morgue director says there is some basis to the vodka-as-vaccine theory, in that alcohol robs the body of the oxygen that is ionized by radiation. But he’s sure the alcohol does far more damage than the ionization it might avoid. At any rate, many of the liquidators still drink a lot in the vain hope that it might cure some of what ails them or because they fear they might die at any time. Many of them are on pension so, being home and unoccupied, they tend to drink. Since alcoholism is a well-known cause of heart disease, it could account for at least some of the increase in “instant deaths”. (Cheney 106)
Alcohol, specifically vodka, became a coping mechanism for the psychological trauma the survivors had endured. Some were given the drinks under false pretense. They were told it would somehow guard them from radiation if not completely cure them or alleviate symptoms. Others welcomed the placebo, fully knowing that alcohol would only help them mentally, not physically. Either way, alcoholism shot up after the tragedy. The almost superstitious belief devised by the people filled the gap left by insufficient and vague warnings given out by the authorities. It gave them a sense of control over their problems.
Anxieties were further fed by ominous official warnings, especially in regards to what civilians could safely consume. The Ukrainian Minister of Health, A. Romanyenko, issued a statement on May 6 telling the people of Kiev to avoid leafy greens and milk, but did not explain why (Yaroshinskaya 17). This led to panic among the populace. They feared contaminated food and but did not know how to detect it. One Kievan woman wrote:
We ourselves don’t know anything, that is, about how long we have left to live, what’s happening to us and how to go on. We have no information about what happened… The worst thing is the lack of information… Our main problem is food. I don’t buy any greens although the shops are full of them. We haven’t been drinking milk since the beginning of May. I seldom buy cheese. I eat vermicelli and old potatoes which are now running out. But what now? My gums hurt all the time, they bleed and my teeth are loose. (quoted in Haynes 83)
Forced ignorance about what was safe for consumption led to a very sudden change in local diet. Suspicion and fear caused people to avoid certain food groups altogether, especially if the products came from areas near Chernobyl. As a result, the people suffered from general malnutrition and poor health. The ill health only intensified the initial fears of the dangers of radioactivity in a circular effect. Lack of adequate information or explanation led to uncertainty and avoidance, which caused negative reactions and in turn deepened anxieties. The people were robbed of peace of mind.
Much of the psychological distress Chernobyl survivors experienced stemmed from a general lack of knowledge. The International Atomic Energy Agency has noted a significant increase in “anxiety, depression, fatalistic attitudes and psychosomatic disorders” among populations affected by the accident (Ten Years After Chernobyl 13). Much of this grief came from radiophobia. The reaction was not without any basis of truth. There were a number of complications associated with radiation exposure after Chernobyl that included sicknesses such acute radiation syndrome and various cancers. People were simply afraid of becoming the next victim of tragic conditions that seemed so far beyond their hands to control. This fear of radiation, however, was more complicated than it may first appear. It resulted from a combination of paranoia and ignorance rather than just pure fear. People began to wrongly attribute almost any ailment to radiation, and their change in behavior due to the psychological distress might have even contributed to their physical problems. In short, hysteria bloomed. The above story with the woman subjecting herself to poor health and nutrition as a result of radiophobia provides one such example. The so-called treatment to radiophobia, then, would be stronger “training and education on radiation effects” (Ten Years After Chernobyl 19). A general understanding among the populations affected by the accident would assuage panic and promote a more rational approach to recovery.
The actual health effects experienced by victims were caused by damage from radiation exposure. A basic understanding of the three divisions is necessary to understand how the effects play out on the human body. The three possible types of radiation include alpha, beta, and gamma rays. The first two kinds refer to the subatomic particles, protons and electrons respectively, ejected during a process such as nuclear fission. Gamma radiation, however, is more “akin to a burst of pure energy” that has highly penetrative qualities (Hawkes 19). While the alpha and beta particles may be blocked relatively easily by barriers such as clothing or brick, gamma radiation effortlessly passes through the human body. Because of this ease of penetration, gamma radiation is considered the most dangerous of the three, even if the other two may also cause severe health issues when sufficiently exposed. Radiation does not cause any immediate visible damage, but instead “attacks the individual cells of the body”, altering them at a subatomic level (Hawkes 21). The process, known as ionization, strips away elections and creates new forms of molecules in the body. These effects build up over time and may cause a profound change in chemical and biological functioning. In the worst cases, the changes result in death. People are exposed to small amounts of natural background radiation from sources such as the sun every day. However, such amounts rarely if ever cause any significant health issues. Problems occur when a human is exposed to a large concentration of radiation, such as the nuclear fallout after the incident at Chernobyl.
The worst sufferers of radiation, by far, were those who interacted the most with the Chernobyl reactor after it exploded. Such a high dose of radioactive material, if it did not immediately kill the victim, manifested itself in the form of acute radiation syndrome. This sickness occurred after high exposure to radiation, which in turn caused cellular degradation and often death. Common symptoms included nausea, vomiting, high fever, bleeding, and infections, which presented themselves within a twenty-four hour period. The more severe the case, the earlier the onset, with the symptoms of a lethal dose of radiation manifesting as early as a few minutes after exposure (Diagnosis and Treatment of Radiation Injuries 16). Severe cases had no possible treatment. Doctors could only isolate the patient and alleviate pain. Only the workers on site experienced such complications. A total of 134 liquidators were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome immediately after the Chernobyl accident and 28 of that number died within the first three months (Ten Years After Chernobyl 9). They experienced the brunt of the disaster and the worst possible health problems as a result.
One of the most significant health issues to the general public came from Iodine 131 contamination, which resulted in a number of complications with the thyroid gland. The thyroids of those exposed absorbed and accumulated this particle, which is known to exude gamma radiation and result in cancer. It was either inhaled in the dust expelled from the reactor or ingested through contaminated milk. This danger was why the Ukrainian Minister of Health Anatolii Romanenko had warned people to avoid milk, even if had not fully explained to the people why they should follow such advice (Haynes 65). According to one specialist, the effects of Iodine 131 were worsened by the health of the people around the zone before the disaster had even struck. Dr. Demidchik argued that “because the native diet was already seriously lacking in natural iodine, the people’s thyroid glands absorbed the radioactive iodine ‘like sponges’, because the body was unable to determine the difference between radioactive and natural iodine” (quoted in Roche 86). Such conditions favored iodine absorption in the thyroid gland, quickening the harmful effects of the radioactive isotope that could eventually lead to thyroid cancer. One of the ways authorities combated the effects was by issuing iodine tablets to the population so that the body received healthy and stable iodine rather than the unhealthy and unstable Iodine 131.
The exact number of those affected by thyroid problems readily attributed to Chernobyl, however, remained hard to detect. Estimates varied greatly. One doctor, the Director of the Thyroid Tumor Clinic in Minsk, believed that up to 40,000 children would experience thyroid complications over a projected 15-20 year period after the accident (Roche 86). A 1991 study by the International Chernobyl Project, however, complicated such numbers. The project concluded that their “data did not show a marked increase… in thyroid tumors since the accident,” but still accepted the possibility of “a slight increase of these disorders” and emphasized the likelihood of a later development of increased numbers due to latent periods (International Chernobyl Project Brochure 12). A number of outside factors might have explained such findings. Some cases of cancer, as a naturally occurring health problem, might have been falsely linked to Chernobyl. Radiophobia would have played an integral part in this sort of obfuscation. The health effects of radiation may also be passed down through children. In one remarkable case, a woman living close to the reactor was saved from radiation when her unborn child, like “a lightning rod”, absorbed the ill effects (Ignatenko, quoted in Alexievich 22). The infant died shortly after delivery as a result, while the mother lived. Although Ignatenko’s fate provided an extreme example, it demonstrated how many of the children of survivors experienced worse complications than their parents. The cancers, then, may be described as having a latent period, where the full effects might not manifest until they work through a number of generations. So while the International Chernobyl Project saw little increase in thyroid cancers, later studies found higher rates. A 1996 report in Belarus, for example, found a sharp 24-fold increase in thyroid gland cancer rates (Roche 87). The children of the new generation had inherited the effects of radioactivity.
Radiation affected the children of survivors more than the adults. Their youth made them susceptible to greater problems and complications, as they had weaker immune systems. Unborn children faced an even worse future. The delay in evacuation meant that many pregnant women and their unborn children were exposed to very high doses of radiation (Marples 44). As a result, a shockingly large amount of children were born with problems attributed to the Chernobyl disaster. Doctors monitoring the health effects noticed “the appearance of a whole range of cancers, neo-natal deaths, low weight births, and short pregnancies” as well as an increase in congenital birth deformities, childhood cancer and leukemia in areas such as Belorussia (Roche 90). The frightening escalation of birth problems created an environment of fear. Parents felt helpless in the face of the intangible enemy of radiation and the relatively incurable effects it wrought on their children. These concerns caused some parents to turn to more extreme solutions. Many pregnant women decided to have “abortions rather than risk continuing their pregnancy” (Marples 43). The uncertainty of their child’s fate and the high stakes in complications meant that abortion seemed like a safer option to the women. They wanted to save their children from a painful and short life.
The surviving children of Chernobyl faced a number of problems that were foreign to their parents. Some radioactive elements effected children more strongly than adults. Strontium, for example, is “highly radioactive and has disastrous effects on bone marrow and bone growth in children during their growing period” (Roche 89). The same effects are not as prevalent in fully formed adults and thus remained a problem solely for children. Many youths also experienced psychological trauma. Like they adults, they were kept ignorant of the situation. However, the children arguably knew less than the adults, who already understood very little thanks to the reticence of authorities to adequately supply the population with accurate information. What little information the children were given failed to assuage any fears and only fed anxieties. One journalist recalled while visiting a primary school in Ukraine that:
The first lesson for all little children every day was one to ensure that they would not forget their radioactive environment and would always observe the restrictions in their lives. The teacher went through a list of questions such as ‘What is radiation? Where is the radiation? Why is it dangerous? What is strontium, plutonium, uranium, cesium?’ A child in the middle of the class responded, ‘It’s in the trees and in the grass.’ A boy at the back said, ‘It’s in the streams and rivers.’ … The teachers told us how the children’s lives were restricted by a series of bands. They couldn’t walk in the forests, swim in the streams or pick wild flowers and berries. Their lives revolved around radiation. (Roche 72)
The children understood that radiation was very dangerous to them, but they did not know why. No one explained the details to them, which forced them into ignorance about their plight. As a result, their lives were severely restricted by these misunderstood fears. Since they only knew radiation as an omnipotent and invisible enemy, they refrained from any normal youthful activities. For example, they could not go outside for fear of exposure and would not experience a safe and happy childhood. This carefree part of their life was robbed from them, which would likely cause the children to experience psychological complications stemming from this stunted childhood as they grew up. The children also bore the brunt of the psychological impact of the disaster along with their heightened susceptibility to the health hazards of Chernobyl.
Chernobyl created an international response, especially from incredibly concerned doctors. Some come from as far away as the United States. Dr. Armand Hammer and Dr. Robert Gale were two of the first foreigners to land in Prypiat to observe and treat the effects of such large doses of radiation. The latter especially spent a long time with the people affected by the disaster in attempts to alleviate their suffering with bone marrow transplants. The practice was relatively new at the time and very risky, and Dr. Gale was one of the leading experts. He worked on only nineteen of the thirty-five most critically ill patients who would likely not live much longer, and only four of those he treated survived (Hawkes 201). Chernobyl had exposed the limits of modern medicine in the face of nuclear disaster. Despite the failure, Dr. Gale continued his research and advocating for the Chernobyl survivors and the renunciation of nuclear energy. Although Dr. Gale’s colleague left much earlier, Dr. Hammer was also greatly impacted by what he saw in the zone. He decisively exclaimed after touring the abandoned reactor and towns at a safe distance that “I would like every human being to visit here, to see what I have seen. Then no one would talk about nuclear weapons. Then everyone would know that that is suicide for the whole world, and everyone would understand that we have a duty to destroy nuclear weapons” (quoted in Shcherbak 117). The horrifying impact of Chernobyl had turned many people like Dr. Hammer and Dr. Gale away from the promises of nuclear energy.
The amount of knowledge disseminated amongst the populace affected by the Chernobyl disaster greatly shaped their reactions to and their lives after the accident. The people failed to understand the severity of the issue immediately after the unit exploded. Soviet officials purposely censored information in order to keep people from panicking or fleeing the area, resulting in a delayed evacuation and increased exposure to health risks. This forced ignorance bred rumors about the evacuees, who were met with social ostracization and discrimination. Uncertainty regarding correct safety precautions fed anxieties about radiation and health. Health issues, especially cancers, continued to manifest long after the initial disaster. Many children caught the brunt of such complications and suffered equally if not more than the adults. Such horrible outcomes effectively destroyed the future for nuclear energy in many countries and supplied a cautionary tale to future generations.
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