Kate Brown

Kate Brown, author of "Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future."

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The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion may seem far away in time and place to Montanans, but radioactivity from that disaster and from decades of nuclear bomb tests can be traced to every American and we still don’t really know the health consequences.

That was one of the messages from Kate Brown, a science historian from MIT, who spoke to a packed crowd Thursday at the Museum of the Rockies as part of Montana State University’s Science Matters lecture series.

“All humans have radioactivity in their bodies,” Brown said. She is the author of “Manual for Survival” on Chernobyl and “Plutopia,” on disasters and cover-ups at plutonium plants from Russia to Hanford, Washington.

Chernobyl should be seen, not as a one-time accident, Brown argued, but as part of a larger, still ongoing story of global nuclear contamination and Russian, American and the international officials hiding the truth.

After the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine 34 years ago, Soviet officials sent out reassuring messages that only a few dozen people died and that radioactivity was safely contained within a closed exclusion zone, from which 120,000 people were evacuated.

Follow-up reports by United Nations, world health and atomic energy agencies gave similar assurances that radioactive doses were low, there were no health problems and no need to move thousands more people.

Nature, the world was told, is healing itself around Chernobyl.

Brown was skeptical. She spent four years poring through archives, reading local medical reports, talking with farmers and visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone with independent scientists.

Brown collected data showing widespread health consequences in the former Soviet republics — towns where 80% of children were sick, 22% of mothers’ milk had high radioactivity levels, cancer rates were five times higher and there were more cases of thyroid disease, birth defects and infant mortality.

Rather than nature restoring itself in the Chernobyl zone, she found a “cascade of extinction” where pollinators like bees are gone, birds disappeared and pine trees grow with twisted trunks.

She learned that when the first large radioactive clouds headed northeast from the Chernobyl explosion toward Russian cities, Soviet planes were sent out to seed the clouds and make radioactive particles rain out of the sky. That saved millions in the cities, but exposed 200,000 Belarus farmers, who were not informed and lived for 15 years within a radioactive hot zone.While the official number of deaths from Chernobyl has been placed at 33 to 54 people, Brown found 35,000 widows receiving compensation for spouses injured in the disaster. And, off the record, people told her the death toll was more likely 150,000.

Unlike the Hiroshima atomic bombing, a one-time exposure to external radioactivity, we still don’t know the effects of chronic, low-dose radioactive exposure from years of eating and breathing it into our bodies, Brown said. Scientists have called for in-depth, long-term studies, yet it has still not happened, she said.

In 2016 she met blueberry pickers going into the forest 150 kilometers from Chernobyl, selling berries to buyers who purchased two tons a day. The buyers measured the berries for radioactivity and would mix “dirty” berries with cleaner batches to bring down the average, so the berries could be sold in Poland and around the European Union.

Brown said a truck from Canada reportedly brought Ukrainian blueberries into the U.S. It was stopped at the border and found to be radioactive. But since the berries were within the allowed limit, the truck was allowed to bring the shipment to American buyers.

The Chernobyl disaster released 45 million curies of radioactive iodine into the world, Brown said. That pales compared to the 20 billion curies released by nuclear bomb testing by the U.S. and Soviets in the Cold War.

In the decades since World War II, cancer rates for North American children have risen markedly, while male sperm counts have fallen in half, she said. No one can say with certainty whether or not the radioactivity that saturates our environment is a cause.

Brown was asked whether, in an era of global climate change, it would be better to use nuclear power, which carries a small risk of huge disaster, rather than burning carbon, which adds to the certain risks of a warming planet.

That is “a false choice,” Brown argued. Climate solutions are needed immediately and we can put solar panels atop our buildings today, she said, while building and permitting new nuclear plants can take 15 to 20 years and produces energy costing more than solar or wind energy. It’s a false choice being sold to us by corporations, she said, which want to put a meter on energy and make profits. Brown called instead for “democratizing energy.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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