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Killing us softly with fallout

County View

County View
John Healy

If you are one of the growing number who suspect that the rising incidence of cancer can be traced to the nuclear contamination of the atmosphere, a newly published book will bear out your suspicions. And if you are a person who happens to like blueberries for breakfast, then it’s a book you had better avoid (we’ll come back to that presently). And if you are a reader who enjoys a gripping thriller, it’s the sort of book which, once you have finished, you might regret ever starting.
‘Manual for Survival’, written by American nuclear historian Kate Brown, tells the horrific story of the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, and shows that its dreadful impact – despite the subsequent propaganda and spin – cannot be contained within an artificial border drawn on a map.
It was just after midnight on April 28, 1986, that workers conducting a routine test at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine realised that something had gone horribly wrong. The core of one of the plant’s four reactors exploded, blowing off its giant concrete lid, and emitting a massive stream of radiation miles into the air.
It took several days for the Soviets to even admit there had been an accident; several weeks for a small army of workers to accept certain death as the price of the clean up; and several months to convince the world that the devastation had been confined to a specified ‘exclusion zone’.
But, as Professor Brown proves, the insistence on confinement was far from the reality. The radiation that spewed from the damaged reactor did not just fall to earth in a neat circle. The fallout was carried by the winds, across national boundaries, descending with the rain on land and crops and livestock and humans thousands of miles away. Here in Ireland, the Chernobyl fallout was detected, most notably in the border and midland counties, the direct result of heavy rains. (And for those who doubt it could travel so far, remember the Sahara sandstorm, when we all woke one morning to find our cars lightly covered with yellow dust? A freak of nature, we were told, sand carried on the wind all the way from Africa!)
Kate Brown visited a wool factory in Chernihiv, a town 80 kms from Chernobyl, and thus supposedly outside the danger area. The task of the 200 women who worked there was to wash and sort wool, but when batches of ‘raging hot’ wool began to arrive from sick animals slaughtered in Chernobyl, picking up the bales was like ‘embracing an X-ray machine while it was turned on’. Large numbers fell ill with nosebleeds and throat problems, many more died of leukaemia.
Reluctant to destroy the deadly wool, the authorities stocked it in in the factory grounds, hoping the radioactivity would fade. It didn’t, and eventually the bales were buried in deep pits, where they will take 2,000 years to lose their toxicity.
And then there are the blueberries. Ukraine is the biggest exporter of blueberries to the EU, all harvested in the region of Polesia, 200 miles west of Chernobyl, but – if the truth were known – not nearly far enough to escape the contamination of radioactive fallout. Hundreds of locals make a good living picking the blueberries, which under EU rules must be tested on site for their level of radioactivity. Those found too ‘hot’ are simply mixed with cleaner berries, so that the punnets can lawfully be sold in the EU. Bizarrely, Polesian berries are marketed in Europe as organic. Their radioactivity does not affect that designation.
A truckload of such fruit was once halted at the US/Canada border, as its load emitted such a level of radiation that border security guards feared that its interior concealed a ‘dirty bomb’.
Maybe the Cassandras who warn us that we are poisoning ourselves to radiation death should be listened to, after all.