Review of "Manual for Survival" by Kate Brown

Article (PDF Available)inJournal of Radiological Protection · March 2019with 3,191 Reads
DOI: 10.1088/1361-6498/ab17f2
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My review, based on nearly thirty years of research on Chernobyl and dozens of visits to the contaminated areas of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, argues that "Manual for Survival" ignores the thousands of scientific studies on Chernobyl which are available in the international scientific literature. In doing so, it presents a biased and misleading account of the health and environmental effects of the accident. I believe that this book only perpetuates the many myths about the accident effects and has very little basis in sound science.
Accepted for publication in: Journal of Radiological Protection
Review of “Manual for Survival” by Kate Brown
Jim Smith
School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Portsmouth, Burnaby Building, Burnaby
Road, Portsmouth, PO1 3QL. Email:
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 3.
Dosimetry and Dose Reconstruction
The treatment of radiation dose and dose estimation is unquestionably biased in this book. The
author wishes to make the argument that the physicists have got it wrong about radiation doses
after Chernobyl. She begins with a description of an interview with Lynn Anspaugh, an
internationally respected radiation expert who, amongst other things, co-led the 2006 IAEA
“Environmental” Chernobyl Forum report 4. In my brief experience of contact with him during the
preparation of the report, I found him to be hugely knowledgeable about the many aspects of
radiation and dose reconstruction after Chernobyl. Kate Brown apparently didn’t come to the same
conclusion. From her telephone interview, she takes one piece of information that early-on,
Anspaugh (presumably estimating total Global contamination from Chernobyl) took just two data
points to estimate fallout in the whole of Romania. She then uses this piece of information to
attempt to discredit the entire field of radiation protection dosimetry!! I guess, as a good scientist,
Anspaugh realised that in an initial estimate of impacts of Chernobyl (there have been many much
better estimates since including the Russia/Belarus/Ukraine/EU Atlas 5 and many more), that the
fallout in Romania wasn’t going to make too much difference and he made the best estimate he
What is astonishing (literally, jaw-droppingly astonishing) is that Brown fails to mention, in the
section of the book dealing with dosimetry, all the measurements conducted in the years after the
accident both in the former Soviet countries and abroad. I believe Brown that in Soviet times,
information on these was (unforgivably) kept secret, but it is there and now you don’t have to dig
around in Soviet archives to find it: reports and results (but sadly not all the original data) have been
in the international scientific literature for more than 20 years. For example, in his paper for the
1996 Minsk conference 6, Mikhail Balonov reported “one million measurements of 134Cs and 137Cs in
the body”.
Those seeking to criticise the consensus on Chernobyl often accuse scientists of only focusing on one
isotope radiocaesium. It’s true that there are far more measurements and studies on caesium than
on other isotopes, because it is relatively long-lived and can be reasonably cheaply and easily
measured by gamma spectrometry and whole body counting. But that doesn’t mean that other
isotopes were ignored: the scientific literature contains many papers on many other isotopes,
including 131I, 90Sr and transuranium elements which Brown could have referred to, but chose not to.
Balonov’s short paper alone 6 mentions hundreds of 90Sr measurements, discusses the change in
isotopes contributing to dose over time since the accident and presents dosimetry models which
include the key isotopes needed for long term prediction. There are many others presenting dose
reconstruction models. Brown makes much of the “cocktail” of radionuclides residents were
exposed to, in particular 90Sr: this has also been covered in the scientific literature. Balonov 6 states
“…due to the low content of 90Sr in the Chernobyl release and [low] fallout outside the 30-Km Zone
its contribution to the internal effective dose does not exceed 5-10%, according to intake calculation
and direct measurements of 90Sr in human bones (autopsy samples). Similar contribution from the
inhalation of 238Pu, 239Pu, 240Pu and 241Am originated from 241Pu will not exceed 1% even for outdoor
workers”. There is a wealth of other information on all aspects of dosimetry in the scientific
literature amounting to hundreds, likely thousands of articles. Again, Brown doesn’t have to believe
Balonov and all the other scientists, but to omit this evidence is shocking.
Having dismissed “the physicists” method of dose estimation and reconstruction, Brown goes on to
argue that “the physicians” had a much better method which was ignored. She cites work by
Vorobiev (I haven’t seen this Russian language work but will try to get hold of a copy) which claims a
biodosimetry method based on analysis of chromosome damage which is much more accurate that
whole body counting and dose reconstruction. This method seems to give much higher accumulated
doses than “the physicists” methods.
Is it true that biodosimetry methods are better than physical measurements and models ? As far as I
know, the radiation protection community only uses biodosimetry to reconstruct doses after high
exposures which couldn’t be evaluated using physical methods. Even the most recent attempts
(using much more sophisticated technology than was available in 1986) to develop a unique
radiation biomarker for low dose exposure have failed. I checked this with Geraldine Thomas,
Professor of Molecular Pathology at Imperial College and she confirmed (pers. comm) that
biodosimetry only works well for high doses. That is not to say that such attempts are not valuable,
just that there is very little support for Brown’s claim that biodosimetric methods in the former
Soviet Union were better than direct measurement of gamma-emitters and dose reconstruction for
other nuclides.
Effects on wildlife
This section is so biased and misleading that I hardly know where to start. Brown has chosen to
believe the evidence of Anders P. Møller and Tim Mousseau that there are major effects of radiation
on organisms at Chernobyl at dose rates much lower than expected, and that wildlife is severely
damaged in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ). In other parts of the book, Brown is careful to
question the veracity of her sources. But surprisingly she fails to mention what surely she must
know: Anders P. Møller is a highly controversial scientist (in radioecology and in his previous field of
evolutionary biology): an article in Nature reports that he was once found guilty of manipulating
data by the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (Nature Vol. 427, p 381, 2004). This doesn’t
automatically mean he and Mousseau are wrong about the extent of Chernobyl effects, but there is
plenty of evidence that they are, e.g. 7-11. Brown dismisses the evidence of my colleagues (including
Belarussian scientists) and me by calling me a physicist and implying that I have never been to
Chernobyl. Interestingly, in the apparently meticulously constructed list of footnotes, she cites our
paper (showing abundant mammal populations in the CEZ) wrongly as “Smith et al…” rather than
“Deryabina et al..” as it should be since Tatiana Deryabina was first author. Is it an error (we all make
them)? Or is she trying to hide the fact that Belarussian scientists were a key part of the study so
that she can argue (wrongly) that it was done by someone with no knowledge of the CEZ ?
The omissions in this section are shocking. Brown has not talked to and does not mention the one
person in the world who is most closely associated with wildlife at Chernobyl: Sergey Gaschak.
Sergey (much to his frustration at times) is the person who journalists always seem to go to to find
out about wildlife in the CEZ. Brown may not agree with Gaschak’s opinion (formed from 30 years in
the Zone and an intimate knowledge of the zone’s habitats and wildlife) that wildlife is not
significantly affected by radiation at Chernobyl, but she should at least report it. Gaschak initially
worked with Møller and Mousseau but refused to continue: he didn’t trust their reporting of data,
particularly on the influence of habitat on bird distribution 12. Brown does not discuss the work of
Ron Chesser and Robert Baker at Texas Tech University who spent many years studying small
mammals in the Red Forest hot spot. They found that small mammal abundance was similar in the
Red Forest to control areas 13 and that genetic effects were subtle. Chesser and Baker’s thoughts on
their long experience of radioecological research at Chernobyl are essential reading for an
understanding of this issue. Again, you don’t need to dig in Soviet archives: their article, ignored by
Brown, is in American Scientist 14.
Health effects and Chronic Radiation Sickness
My faith in Brown as an accurate reporter of radiation health effects was a bit shaken when I was
interviewed by her. Despite having already written Plutopia (Oxford University Press, 2013), her
fascinating, but scientifically flawed, account of the U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons programmes,
she very clearly did not know that non-radiation related cancer was very common across the world.
There are a myriad of health statistics on this, but you don’t need to look that far: Cancer Research
UK, for example, state on their website (and advertising) the projection that half of UK citizens will
get cancer at some point in our lives. I was further shocked to read in this Chernobyl book (p 25)
Brown’s bald statement that radiation is the only known cause of myeloid leukemia, in the context
clearly implying (wrongly) that there are no other causes. Brown did not consider or cite any of the
public health statistics on myeloid leukemia incidence in countries worldwide. Nor does she cite the
Hiroshima and Nagasaki Life Span Study (LSS) report 15 which clearly presents evidence that radiation
is a cause of myeloid leukemia (very significant at high doses), but is very far from being the only
cause, particularly at low dose rates. Nor does she cite her own statement on page 168 that
“radiation damage is hard to isolate and detect because it causes no new, stand-alone illnesses”.
The most controversial claim in this book is that very low dose radiation causes Chronic Radiation
Sickness. Chronic Radiation Sickness is real, having first been seen (but recognised late) at very high
dose rates in radium dial painters a century ago. It was seen in highly-exposed workers at the Mayak
Plutonium Production Plant where it was first diagnosed and treated by Angelina Guskova. In the
first part of Manual for Survival, Guskova is rightly described as a scientific hero (“No-one in the
world had treated more patients with radiation illness than Gus’kova” p 13; “Working on hundreds
of patients .. over three decades, Gus’kova developed a compendium of knowledge on radiation
medicine that had no equivalent in the world” p 15). As detailed in Manual for Survival, Gus’kova’s
work treating the early victims of Chernobyl (the 134 people suffering from Acute Radiation
Syndrome) saved and extended many lives. Brown contrasts Gus’kova’s deep understanding of
radiation sickness with the relative inexperience of the American doctor, Robert Gale, who flew in to
help treat the victims. Brown argues, powerfully, that Gale thought he knew better than the Soviet
scientist and ignored her expertise.
Sadly, the American doctor wasn’t the only person to ignore Angelina Gus’kova’s expertise: Brown
herself does so. Gus’kova not only treated sufferers of Acute Radiation Sickness, but also checked
evacuees and took part in the study of the “liquidators”, the hundreds of thousands of people who
worked on the Chernobyl clean-up operation in 1986 and 87 and who received some of the highest
radiation doses. In a 2012 article, Gus’kova 16 stated that “In contrast to the first group [the 134 ARS
victims], this second group of individuals working within the 30-km zone, just as the population
exposed to radiation [my emphasis], did not exhibit any manifestations of radiation sickness.
So, the world-leading expert in chronic radiation sickness has stated that she did not believe that
either the huge liquidator group, or the population exposed to chronic, relatively low dose rate
radiation suffered from radiation sickness. Kate Brown would doubtless argue that Gus’kova’s high
status in Soviet and Russian atomic science made her ignore evidence to the contrary. Whether you
believe Gus’kova or not (I do), for Brown to exclude this key evidence from a history book about the
health effects of Chernobyl is an omission of monumental proportions.
Manual for Survival argues that Western scientists knew less about the health effects of radiation
than their Soviet (and post-Soviet) counterparts. Evidence of apparent damage to health of adults,
children and newborns in the contaminated regions is cited from archival material in Ukraine and
Belarus. Brown claims that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki LSS (on which the system of radiation
protection is largely, but far from wholly, based) missed many early effects of radiation since it only
started in 1950, five years after the bombs were dropped. This is partly, but not wholly, true: effects
of fetal exposure could be, and were, studied 17. Effects on children due to pre-conception exposure
of their parents was studied and no effects were found 18 allowing an upper limit on risk of inter-
generational mutation damage to be estimated.
Discounting the LSS evidence allows Brown to argue that radiation is much worse than UN
organisations and the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) believe (though
note that these organisations consulted and had as members key former Soviet scientists, including
the radiation sickness expert Angelina Gus’kova). Astonishingly, however, Manual for Survival
ignores almost all the other international scientific evidence on this issue. Hundreds of footnotes
detail Soviet and former-Soviet sources, but there are barely any citations from the many
epidemiological studies (not just the LSS) and thousands of radiobiological studies in the
international scientific literature (see, for just one example, the Oxford Restatement on this issue 19).
The few international sources which are cited are those (some of them highly controversial) which
agree with Brown’s various contradictory and confusing hypotheses.
What of the public health statistics apparently showing huge increases in birth defects, cancers and a
wide range of other illnesses in the populations of the contaminated territories ? Though Brown has
apparently uncovered new archival evidence (which should be evaluated, if they have not already
been), I am highly skeptical. I suspect (but don’t know) that much of this evidence is similar to that
presented in the controversial Yablokov report 2 claiming nearly a million deaths from Chernobyl. I’m
not an epidemiologist, but I have tried to take a look at these claims.
Firstly, I looked again at the 2006 WHO Chernobyl Forum Report 20. The 48 international experts
(including experts from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia) evaluated a wealth of data on health effects of
Chernobyl. The report (strangely, hardly mentioned in Manual for Survival) covers a wide spectrum
of health outcomes including cancer and non-cancer effects in adults and children as well as adverse
pregnancy outcomes. It comes to a very different conclusion to Manual for Survival. Have the
international experts ignored or missed key evidence? I think it very unlikely, but what to me is
missing from the WHO report is a clear explanation, in lay-persons terms, of why this evidence is not
I’ve taken a look at some (but of course not all) of this evidence and it seems obvious to me why
much of it wasn’t included. Health effects studies after Chernobyl suffered from two major
problems: changes and errors in reporting before and after the accident, and a difficulty in
disentangling radiation health effects from the ongoing public health crisis during and after the
collapse of the Soviet Union. Both of these effects are real: they are mentioned in Manual for
Survival but are discounted when claims of huge radiation health effects are being made.
Problems in health reporting. I’m currently working in the Narodichi district of Ukraine on a small
project trying to make the lives of people in affected areas a little bit better by bringing abandoned
agricultural land back into use, where it can be done safely. As part of the project, we spoke to
Anatoly Prysyazhnyuk, a cancer-doctor and epidemiologist. Anatoly was born in Narodichi to a family
of local doctors and is an Honoured Citizen of Narodichi, but was working in Kiev at the time of the
accident. He told us that, in 1987, he was contacted by the head of the local hospital. The hospital
chief was very worried that cancer registrations had increased significantly since the accident.
Anatoly went back to his home town to investigate. He found that, indeed, cancer registrations had
gone up, but that this was due to reporting changes, not to radiation. Changes in reporting of health
This research hasn't been cited in any other publications.
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