Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future
(2019) is a nonfiction book by American author Kate Brown. A professor of science, technology, and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown uses her expertise to expose the true consequences of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine. Following a decade of research, Brown concludes that scientists and bureaucrats, both from within the Soviet Union and elsewhere, sought to cover up stunning increases in cancers, birth defects, and child mortality caused by radiation associated with the Chernobyl disaster. For Manual for Survival
, Brown received a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination for General Nonfiction.
Just after midnight on April 26, 1986, a deadly combination of flawed design, administrative negligence, and human operator error caused the core of one of the four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl plant to explode. The blaze, which at one point was almost as hot as the surface of the sun, was so powerful that it tore open the 2,000-ton lid to the reactor chamber, causing seven tons of highly radioactive material to enter the atmosphere. It was months before the fire finally cooled enough to build a massive containment facility around the wrecked reactor, finally halting the release of radiation. In Moscow, a secret radiation hospital was established to treat more than 200 plant workers and firefighters who were at the scene in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. At least 30 of these patients died horribly gruesome deaths as a result of acute radiation syndrome.
In the first four months after the explosion, hospitals in Moscow alone treated 15,000 people with symptoms associated with radiation poisoning. Another 40,000 were treated in the Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus. Half of those admitted to hospitals in Belarus were children. And while residents were evacuated from the so-called Zone of Alienation spanning over 1,000 square miles around the Chernobyl blast site, around 600,000 emergency workers worked on cleanup efforts within the zone over the coming months and years. Thirty-one thousand of these workers camped out close enough to the wrecked reactor to absorb 1,000 times the acceptable levels of radiation within just one week.
According to a 2006 United Nations report, 54 people died as a result of the Chernobyl explosion. However, Brown is deeply skeptical of this figure. Although it is difficult for her to establish her own more accurate death toll, she observed a number of troubling trends surrounding how Soviet officials collected and compiled data related to the effects of the explosions. While poring through archival documents, Brown noticed that reports filed by scientists on the ground were heavily massaged and altered as they made their way up the Soviet bureaucracy. Deeply embarrassed by the disaster and anxious about projecting weakness to both their own citizens and the rest of the world at a critical moment during the Cold War, Soviet ministers did everything they could to downplay the extent to which the regions around the blast site were contaminated.
Brown also uncovered a number of troubling outbreaks of radiation sickness that until now have gone largely unreported. For example, 298 wool workers at a factory 50 miles from Chernobyl experienced such severe symptoms that they were given the same "liquidator status" reserved for the emergency workers operating within the Zone of Alienation. While liquidators exterminated upwards of 20,000 livestock and pets left behind in the Zone, they were instructed to preserve parts of animals considered usable, including wool from sheep. The outbreak at the factory was caused by working with heavily irradiated sheep's wool from exterminated sheep in the Zone of Alienation.
The agricultural effects of the accident manifested across Belarus and Ukraine. A year after the explosion, one-third of all milk and one-third of all meat in Belarus was deemed too contaminated to eat. These contamination ratios only became worse over the year that followed. In some areas of Ukraine, even those that sat outside the contamination zone, up to 90 percent of the milk was found to be contaminated.
To study the effects of the explosion on nearby wildlife, Brown ventured into the Zone of Alienation herself. She found the bee population decimated, leading to a dramatic reduction in flowers, fruit trees, and shrubs. She also points out that fruit sellers regularly picked blueberries from the Zone of Alienation for export to the European Union, mixing them with "clean" blueberries so the batches would pass radiation tests.
The challenge of calculating an accurate death toll is made evident by the fact that any number of factors aside from radiation can contribute to a person developing cancer. Ukraine currently pays state benefits to 35,000 widows and widowers whose spouses seemed to have died because of Chernobyl-related radiation illness. Multiple scientists interviewed by the author believed the death toll to be closer to 150,000 in Ukraine alone.According to The Irish Times
, "This thrilling, frightening book tells the truth about the Chernobyl disaster and shows its dreadful impact cannot be contained within an artificial border."