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I invited the authors in this roundtable to bring their different disciplines to bear on central questions of knowledge stirred by Chernobyl, by drawing from their presentations at the recent meeting of the American Society for Environmental History in Seattle.
The historian Kate Brown reflects on some disturbing dynamics by which international bodies drew conclusions about the science of the disaster’s aftermath.
A cab driver did not know the date, April 26, 1986, even though both his parents worked in the Zone cleaning up radioactive waste and later died of Chernobyl-related cancers.
I asked a young woman who had been exposed in Gomel in the days after the accident and who had suffered from recurring bouts of thyroid cancer what she was going to do for the anniversary. “Nothing at all.” A conference commemorating the accident in Minsk drew only a small crowd.
The long-awaited IAEA Report on Chernobyl health effects concluded that there “were no health disorders that could be attributed to radiation.” The longer, Technical Report, published in 1991, qualified this sunny evaluation, predicting a noticeable spike in thyroid cancers in the future, but none in the present.
The technical report mentions “reports” of childhood thyroid cancer, but found these to be “anecdotal in nature.” Since 1989, however, medical staff in Belarus and Ukraine have noticed sharp increases in what had been very rare occurrences of thyroid cancer in children.
Those controversies have never stopped, even as Chernobyl’s more slowly unfolding impacts, such as thousands of thyroid cancers, have become ever more unmistakable.
Roads not taken might have taught us more—there were no long-term follow up studies done akin to those on the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which might have offered greater conclusiveness.
He had thousands of documents about the accident, he said, and very few researchers had ever been interested enough to take a look.
Only ten years after the accident did the international community accept the findings that indeed the epidemic in childhood thyroid was caused by Chernobyl radiation.
That, however, is the only health effect the IAEA and WHO recognize today.
The 30 Why this disinterest in what is arguably mankind’s largest technological disaster?
The answer to this question is complicated and intricately tied to contemporary politics in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, but some of the responsibility for the failure to see and grasp the complex of medical and social problems that issued from the disaster falls with the international community.
Panicking, Moscow leaders again turned to the IAEA and the World Health Organization for help.