A manual for survival -- Kate Brown

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"A Manual For Survival" is a book by Kate Brown which claims to tell the true facts about the Chernobyl nuclear accident which, Brown claims, were covered up by the Soviet authorities.

A review: "Soviet data, long dismissed by the West, document the Chernobyl disaster’s devastating legacy" by Elena Aronova in Science magazine on 6 March 2019 summarises the book's thesis.

Jim Smith review

One of the scientists consulted by Kate Brown was Professor Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth. Smith has written a review of the book:

Review of “A Manual for Survival” by Kate Brown

Jim Smith

School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Portsmouth, Burnaby Building, Burnaby Road, Portsmouth, PO1 3QL.

Manual for Survival is an interesting, but deeply flawed and clearly biased history of the health and environmental impacts of Chernobyl, the worst technological disaster in human history. It would be all too easy to dismiss it for its multiple (and I think often deliberate) omissions, inconsistencies and errors. But it is important that we in the radiation protection community take it seriously and respond in detail to its claims - of major low-dose radiation effects we have missed - with clear evidence and explanation of why we think it is wrong in a way which non-specialists can clearly understand. With the notable exception of Mikhail Balonov’s response 1 to the Yablokov 2 Chernobyl report I think it is something we have failed to do with previous claims of major low-dose radiation effects after Chernobyl.

I was interviewed by Kate Brown for this book at a meeting in Florida on radiation effects on wildlife at Chernobyl. For about an hour and a half I was subjected to what felt to me like an aggressive cross-examination on a huge range of subjects relating to radiation, including the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb survivor studies, cancer, wildlife effects, contamination of food and dose reconstruction. I answered all her questions and where I had doubts later followed up with information and evidence. I emerged from the interview feeling mentally exhausted (really!) but nevertheless happy, even a little elated. Despite my reservations about her scientific knowledge, here, I felt, was a serious and unbiased historian determined to get to the truth about the hugely complex and controversial issue of the health and environmental consequences of Chernobyl.

I was wrong.

On getting the review copy of this book I couldn’t help but turn first to the pages dealing with my interview (I guess most people would do the same). I was shocked and disappointed to find that the information and opinions I had given on radiation effects on wildlife at Chernobyl had been dismissed. According to Brown, I was a physicist (used almost as a term of abuse in the context) who didn’t feel it necessary to go to Chernobyl to draw my pre-formed conclusions about the accident effects. Brown did not report what I had told her – I first studied Chernobyl fallout in the English Lake District in 1990 and first did fieldwork in the Chernobyl affected areas of Ukraine and Belarus in 1994. I clearly remember being quite worried about what were – to me at that time – largely unknown risks of radiation at Chernobyl. I have stopped counting the number of times I have visited the Chernobyl contaminated areas since, but I guess it is around 40. I am happy to be argued with, but it is poor and biased scholarship to dismiss my evidence (and that of my Belarussian colleagues who worked in the Exclusion Zone for many years) based on what seems to me to be clear and deliberate misinformation.

This, I think, is just one symptom of a deeply flawed and biased approach to the complex information on Chernobyl, but I’ll try to give this book as fair a review as I can. You can judge whether I have achieved that, but will certainly be more in-depth than the rather superficial and misleading review provided by Nature.

For Smith's detailed criticism of Brown's book please see the full text of his review.

Smith concludes:

The Laws of Physics are not set in stone, and physicists make mistakes too, but I don’t think we’re going to start re-writing the textbooks yet. I’m not expecting Brown to understand all the physics of radiation protection, but I do expect her to consider the huge amount of available scientific knowledge and opinions.

What can we learn from this book ?

In this review I’ve necessarily focussed primarily on the (many) flaws and omissions in the book. Manual for Survival is a polemic, not a history book and much less a science book. Brown is rightly angry at the Soviet (and some Western) cover-ups, the haphazard and often inefficient relocations. After Chernobyl, people got bigger doses than they needed, particularly the unforgivably large thyroid doses due to failure to prevent ingestion of 131I in the first weeks after the accident. She is also angry that the people living in the Chernobyl contaminated areas have seemingly been forgotten by the international community. International scientific and humanitarian efforts (with many notable exceptions) have been piecemeal, often with little and inconsistent funding, and have very often failed (partly due to the complexities of working in the post-Soviet countries). I would contrast the inconsistent funding for economic redevelopment in the Chernobyl contaminated areas with the about $US 1.5 billion committed to the New Safe Confinement and reactor decommissioning project.

I’m angry that too often, both in the affected countries and abroad, myths about radiation have been spread: I think these do real damage to people’s lives and have undoubtedly hampered recovery from the disaster. Manual for Survival perpetuates many of those myths, but I think we should learn from it. I’m also angry at myself, and my scientific field for not having worked harder to counter those myths. Kate Brown has a journalist’s skill in capturing the individual tragedies of many people’s lives in the Chernobyl contaminated lands and she puts this to good use in describing her many visits to these areas. The problem is real, but I think the diagnosis offered in Manual for Survival is very wrong and damaging. People in the Chernobyl affected areas need more jobs, more economic development, better healthcare and better nutrition. Current radiation should be the least of their concerns, though I understand why many (not all) still worry.

Kate Brown response

Brown has responded to Smith's review in a letter to the editor of the Journal of Radiological Protection (with the unfortunately ambiguous title "Journal of Radiological Protection Response to James Smith's review of Manual for Survival"; it is Brown's response, not the JRP's).