This article originally appeared in the May 24, 1986, issue of The Nation.
Both radioactive and political fallout from the Chernobyl reactor disaster have now soaked deep into the American grass roots. The first radiation was detected at ground level on the West Coast on May 6, eleven days after the meltdown apparently began. Readings were “way, way below” any levels that would indicate danger, said a confident Lee M. Thomas, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and head of the Federal task force monitoring the radiation. Indeed, rainwater in Richland, Washington, showed a reading of 500 picocuries per liter of iodine 131, while Federal guidelines call for concern only at a level of 15,000. The official White House line was that despite the irresponsibility of the Russians, there was “no danger to the United States.”
A reactor core the size of the one at the Chernobyl unit contains as much as 1,000 times the radiation released at Hiroshima. Forty years later, it remains unclear how many people in Hiroshima were killed by radiation alone, but the number was in the tens of thousands, extending into a third generation. Thus if even a small amount of the radiation from Chernobyl was released into the surrounding populated areas, we can expect thousands to die from it ultimately. In downwind Europe—particularly in Poland and parts of West Germany, where readings in the days right after the accident were extremely high—the damage will be horrifying.
Most serious will be the harm done to fetuses now in utero, infants and small children; the prime culprit will be iodine 131. Iodine is naturally ingested by the thyroid gland; radioactive iodine emits particles that damage or destroy that gland. I-131 can cross the placenta of pregnant women and travel directly to the thyroids of their fetuses, causing severe problems, including brain damage and respiratory difficulty at birth. This devastating process almost certainly caused the inordinate number of infant deaths in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area after the Three Mile Island accident [see Ernest Sternglass, “The First Casualty at T.M.I.,” The Nation, February 28, 1981, and “The Lethal Path of T.M.I. Fallout,” March 7, 1981], and may have been responsible for the abnormally high infant death rate in the United States following atmospheric nuclear testing in Nevada from 1951 to 1963.
Radiation expert Ernest J. Sternglass warns that damage is possible even at the level of 500 picocuries. “Ever since the early 1960s they have been arbitrarily raising limits on ‘acceptable dose,’ ” he told me. “Those 500 picocuries could destroy the thyroid of developing fetus or small infant…[and that] does not take into account the other fallout elements, such strontium, plutonium and so on.”
One generally accepted protective measure is oral ingestion of potassium iodide. By satiating the thyroid’s natural need for iodine, the chemical prevents the absorption of the radioactive iodine, which then passes through the body. In some areas the sale of potassium iodide is limited to prescriptions; some substitutes may actually be dangerous, so caution is required. Washing fruit and vegetables, drinking bottled water and keeping children and pregnant women indoors when contaminated rain is falling may also help.
A few of the deadly isotopes carried by the cloud are cobalt 60, strontium 90, xenon 133, cesium 137 and plutonium 239, all of which can cause cancer, leukemia and other lethal diseases over a period of days, weeks or years. The wide range of other heavy metals in the Chernobyl fallout indicates that pieces of the reactor structure itself may have disintegrated and been blown out into the atmosphere. If so, the fallout cloud will carry an even more terrifying burden of death.
A listing of the specific damage done by each element would take pages and would do little good. Research by Alice Stewart and others at Hiroshima has confirmed that exposure to radiation can break down the body’s immune system, causing many victims to die of noncancerous diseases, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, before the cancers have time to form. Elsewhere, Steinglass and others have attributed a variety of ailments—from crib death to AIDS—to the effects of bomb fallout and other human-made pollutants. There is much debate in the scientific community about what radiation does to the human body, but as the 1980 Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, “It can be concluded that there is no ‘safe’ level of radiation exposure, and no dose set so low that the risk is zero.”
Despite the burden of evidence to the contrary, White House press secretary Larry Speakes rushed to tell reporters soon after news of the meltdown spread that “we understand there is no danger to the United States.”
Speakes’s ill-founded assurance conformed to the government’s longstanding practice of glossing over the dangers of radiation. During the era of atmospheric testing, U.S. officials issued similar assurances. But thousands of citizens living in areas of Nevada, Utah and northern Arizona close to the test site contracted cancers, leukemia and other radiation- related diseases, and a number of them have brought suit against the Federal government. In some cases tens of thousands of farm animals, particularly sheep, died after especially “dirty” tests, and those losses also prompted multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
In March 1979, Metropolitan Edison, the owner of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, tried in every possible way to cover up the extent of T.M.I.'s radiation releases—so much so that seven years later Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor, Richard Thornburgh, would compare their behavior to that of MikhaiI Gorbachev during the Chernobyl crisis.
At the time of the T.M.I. near-meltdown, however, Thornburgh’s Secretary of Health, Gordon MacLeod, warned that pregnant women and small children should be immediately evacuated from the reactor area, and that potassium iodide should be distributed to area residents. But Thornburgh was unwilling to “create a panic” by ordering an immediate evacuation. It was not until two days after the accident that he did so, and by then it was too late to avoid the worst of the health hazards.
MacLeod was later fired for being an "alarmist.” Since his departure the state’s Department of Health has scoffed at studies by Sternglass and others indicating that the infant death rate in the Harrisburg area had tripled in the months after the accident. More recent research by Jane Lee has shown that the cancer rate in certain areas downwind of the site is five times what would have been expected if the accident had not occurred. Such studies have also been given short shrift by state authorities.
An example of the Reagan Administration’s schizoid response to Chernobyl could be found in its statements that such a catastrophe could not happen in the United States, with its technologically superior nuclear facilities—that the accident was caused by Soviet backwardness. If that is true, why has the Administration not canceled its proposed sales of reactors to Third World countries including China, which has expressed interest in as many as eight reactors?
While lecturing the Russians about their international responsibilities and criticizing their failure to disclose all the details of the accident, the Reaganites said nothing of the role the United Nations and other world bodies might play in such situations. That is not surprising, since the Administration favors a nationalistic, rather than a multilateral, approach. In fairness, it should be added that the organization’s International Atomic Energy Agency as now constituted is incapable of giving the Russians or anyone else much help. “We are purely advisory,” chanted the I.A.E.A.’s James Daglish. “All we can do is advise.” According to Robert Pollard of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “The main disadvantage of the I.A.E.A. is that it creates the appearance of some sort of protection, and that’s largely undeserved.”
Despite the Administration’s attempts to play down the dangers of nuclear power, Chernobyl has cast a cloud over the already troubled U.S. reactor industry. Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a vehement proponent of nuclear energy, rushed to the industry’s defense, saying: “Drawing parallels with our reactors and the Soviet reactors is a thin and wretched distortion. That kind of unfortunate and pernicious dealing isn’t going to fly to any thoughtful observer of the commercial nuclear power scene.”
Urgent questions have nonetheless been raised about the 101 commercial reactors currently licensed in the United States and the remaining 29 under construction. One commercial reactor, Fort St. Vrain, in Platteville, Colorado, is very similar to the one at Chernobyl. Eight American weapons-production and research reactors—one at Hanford, Washington, which has a graphite-moderated core like Chernobyl’s; four near Aiken, South Carolina; two near Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and one near Idaho Falls, Idaho—operate without airtight containment domes.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted shortly after the Chernobyl accident showed that 65 percent of the American public opposed building new nuclear plants, with only 27 percent in favor—the highest opposition since the T.M.I. accident. An ABC News poll showed that roughly 40 percent of the populace was “somewhat” or “very worried” about the local health effects of the Chernobyl cloud. Some 60 percent were “not worried at all.” If, as the sample suggests, two-fifths of all Americans are troubled, official attempts to minimize the potential dangers have not been successful. “Chernobyl will likely make safety the overriding issue [in nuclear power] again,” The Wall Street Journal concluded on May 1. L. David Freeman, head of the Lower Colorado River Authority, told CBS News: “The Three Mile Island accident resulted in the fact that no sane capitalist will invest in these nuclear reactors with the design that we have, and now we find that no communist will invest in them either—and that doesn’t leave very many other people.”
The political fallout from Chernobyl also poses a threat to the Reagan Administration’s strategic investment in a limited nuclear war–fighting capability. If a fallout cloud from a reactor meltdown near Kiev can threaten public health in this country within two weeks, what would be the effect of the fallout from nuclear weapons detonated in the Soviet Union? In a limited nuclear exchange, the radiation casualties would be far higher than previously imagined, and even in a “successful” first strike they could be so massive as to eliminate any advantage for the aggressor.
The strategic problems spill over to Reagan’s Star Wars system. Its claimed high-tech capability to zap missiles in space depends on the huge reactors that power the laser weaponry. Some of those reactors would be stationed on earth but some—or so the fantasy has it—would be in orbit. The potential ramifications of a meltdown in the outer atmosphere are staggering.
The immediate fallout damage will be to the Administration’s single-minded campaign for nuclear power. Indeed, Chernobyl may have dealt the industry a lethal blow, and it will certainly give the arguments of antinuclear activists added weight. The Soviet government’s admission that there was a thirty-six-hour delay in evacuating people from the area—this in a rural area—should convince those Long Islanders who are still on the fence about the Shoreham plant that evacuation from that heavily populated area would be impossible [see Karl Grossman, “Staging Lilco’s Nuclear Follies," The Nation, February 22].
That argument holds for Seabrook, New Hampshire, where the first mass antireactor protest began a decade ago. Seabrook Unit 1 has been slated to open as early as this fall, but Chernobyl has given the Clamshell Alliance and its supporters renewed hope of stopping it. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who must approve evacuation plans for the towns in his state within a ten-mile radius of Seabrook, now says Chernobyl has made him rethink the problem.
Resistance is also building at the Perry plant, forty miles east of Cleveland, which until last January had seemed set for an uneventful opening. Then an earthquake occurred only ten miles away, energizing the local opposition.
The long-range impact of Chernobyl on the nuclear industry remains to be seen, but its effect on the disarmament process in the short run can be only negative. By hushing up the accident, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev undermined his carefully cultivated image as a peacemaker. Both he and the Reaganites seem to be ignoring the most important lesson of Chernobyl: the planet is too small for the use of nuclear fission, either for war or for energy.