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This is the original essay from which the edited version, published in the March 15, 1993 issue
of The Nation, was taken. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Chernobyl and the Collapse of Soviet Society

By Jay M. Gould
March 15, 1993

Chernobyl: Insight from the Inside, by Vladimir M. Chernousenko,
Springer Verlag, Berlin New York, 1991
Memoirs, by Andrei Sakharov,
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1990
The Petkau Effect: Nuclear Radiation, People and Trees, by Ralph Graeub,
Four Wall Eight Windows, New York, 1992

          A heartbreaking report on the hidden dimensions of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 was published in Germany in 1991, written by the Ukrainian nuclear physicist chosen to "liquidate the consequences" of the accident. The book may never be published in the Ukraine or Russia and the author, Vladimir Chernousenko, now dying of radiation poisoning along with thousands of others involved in the emergency cleanup, has been dismissed from his post in the Ukrainian Academy of Science for telling the truth.
          Along with comparable revelations in Sakharov's recently published Memoirs, the treatment of Chernousenko suggests that the former Soviet Union, by casting out its greatest scientists, suffered from the same terminal disease that ultimately destroyed the Hitler regime.
          Both Sakharov and Chernousenko were punished for revealing a secret kept from the public from the earliest years of the Nuclear Age, having to do with the lethal effects on the immune system of ingesting manmade nuclear fission products.Richard Rhodes, in his classic history of the making of the atom bomb [1], relates that as far back as 1943 Enrico Fermi approached Robert Oppenheimer with the suggestion that if they could not develop the bomb in time, the same purpose would be served by dumping strontium-90 which he was generating at his pilot reactor at the University of Chicago over the German land-mass. Oppenheimer then discussed the proposal with Edward Teller who agreed that their animal studies would indicate that radioactive strontium would enter into the food chain and be deposited "dangerously and irretrievably in bone" and kill perhaps 500,000 persons. The plan was discarded because they could not be sure the desired deaths would occur quickly enough. After the bomb was developed, the military did not want an atomic explosion associated with the possibility of biological damage so the animal studies remained classified until 1969.
          The publication in English of Andrei Sakharov's Memoirs informs us that he too came to the conclusion that the nuclear bomb was primarily a biological weapon, although this fact has been studiously passed over by all the highly laudatory reviews it has received. As the developer of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Sakharov was the most eminent and authoritative nuclear scientist to reveal these secrets, which lie at the very heart of the origins of the Cold War.
          In Chapter 14 Sakharov writes that after the success of his 1955 Soviet H-Bomb test, he "worried more and more about the biological effects of nuclear tests. . . . The long-term biological consequences (particularly atmospheric testing, in which radioactive fallout is dispersed throughout the hemisphere) can be predicted and the total number of casualties calculated with some accuracy."
          Considering only such fission products as radioactive carbon, strontium and cesium, he calculated that genetic damage, plus the immediate and delayed damage to immune systems would accelerate the deaths of between 500,000 to one million persons for every 50 megatons of nuclear explosive power. An important consideration was what he termed "nonthreshold effects", by which every radioactive particle released had a statistical probability of doing damage to either the DNA of a cell or to the immune system, by low-level internal radiation from ingesting such particles. He also predicted that radiation would accelerate the mutation of microorganisms, leading to the inference that persons with damaged immune systems would in time succumb more easily to these new strains.
          He states (page 201):
" I posited that cancer and damage to the body's immune system (resulting in premature death) may also be due to nonthreshold effects. . . . I also suggested that a global increase in mutations of bacteria and viruses (irrespective of the cause of the mutations) might have been an important factor in the spread of such diseases as diphtheria in the 19th century, or the influenza epidemic, and that low-level radiation might further increase the rate of mutations."
          Sakharov was permitted to publish this article in 1958 [2] because of Khruschev's interest in a bomb test moratorium. He tells of his consternation and outrage when in 1961, without warning, he was told that Khruschev, after a fruitless meeting with President Kennedy in Vienna in 1961, had decided to detonate several H-Bombs, which were later rated by the National Resources Defense Council as equivalent to 402 megatons of explosive power, equal to 25,000 Hiroshima bombs [3]. When he finally had a chance to express his opposition to these tests that he estimated would cause perhaps 8 million premature deaths, he relates in Chapter 15 how he was publicly humiliated by Khruschev as politically "naive". He thereafter lost all authority as a member of the Soviet nuclear establishment.
          Chernousenko's revelations on the enormous health effects of the Chernobyl accident offer the greatest possible validation of Sakharov's ominous predictions. He begins by demolishing many Chernobyl myths offered by the Soviet authorities and eagerly accepted by the international nuclear establishment. The accident was not the result of operator error, but resulted from major errors of design affecting 15 other Soviet reactors. In contrast to the widely accepted belief that only 31 persons died from exposure to high radiation levels in the effort to contain the emissions, Chernousenko asserts that between 7,000 and 10,000 volunteers have already died from such high intensity exposure.
          But his most serious charge is that the accident released the lethal contents of 80 percent of the reactor core rather than the 3 percent figure announced to the world. This means that the true extent of the potential damage had been understated by orders of magnitude!
          Chernousenko estimates that the radioactivity released was equivalent to more than one curie for every person on earth, i.e. more than one trillion picocuries per capita, to use the unit in which radioactivity concentrations in milk and water are customarily measured.
          Trying to evaluate what may be the greatest single accident in human history, Chernousenko likens the historical impact of the accident to Pompeii. The radiation released was roughly equivalent to the explosion of one thousand Hiroshima bombs. At Hiroshima 140,000 persons were instantly vaporized by the heat and blast from a single bomb of 15 Kilotons of explosive power. There were no such victims at Chernobyl but the numbers exposed to high radiation levels and whose lives will thereby be cut short are only a tiny fraction of the many millions now ill from having ingested food, milk and water contaminated by the accident and widely distributed throughout the Soviet Union.
          Chernousenko offers the first set of figures available on the great wave of morbidity that has seized the Soviet population after 1986. At first mainly concentrated in the three Soviet Republics of Byelorussia, the Ukraine and Russia, where the bulk of the emissions settled on more than 100,000 square kilometers, the refusal of the Soviet authorities to recognize the true extent of the contamination of farmland has since spread radiation illness to all the former Soviet republics.
          He asserts that in Byelorussia, which was hardest hit, there is hardly a child today not suffering from some immune deficiency disease, either cardiovascular, lymphoid or oncological, and in the three biggest provinces of the Ukraine a medical investigation of the public health, conducted in 1989, indicated that the health of every second resident was damaged.
          Chernousenko states that the proportion of the Soviet population whose immune resistance has been affected by contaminated food and water from radioactive areas continues to increase. In the most contaminated provinces, the incidence of immune deficiency diseases has doubled or tripled since 1985 and is now spreading to all other areas consuming contaminated food. A proper reponse to the accident would have required a complete and immediate evacuation of the areas too contaminated for continued human habitation. A similar evacuation did take place in wartime, but the Soviet authorities ignored the basic truth that Sakharov had first enunciated about the biochemical mechanism by which ingested radiation destroys the immune response.
          Chernousenko makes it clear that it was Chernobyl's massive secondary insult to human immune systems that sickened Soviet society in the most literal sense. The effects of the Chernobyl accident were also apparent in the small but statistically significant excess mortality reported at the time in the US and Western Germany[4] [5], but in the Soviet Union there was also a profound plunge in labor productivity as morbidity rates climbed. Thus it was mortal illness rather than the sudden discovery of the virtues of the free market that dissolved the Soviet state.
          To fully understand why the Soviet authorities and indeed those of all nuclear nations had so fatally ignored Sakharov's warnings, one must review the way in which the use of nuclear weapons became the bedrock of national defense policies that could not permit the free flow of the scientific evidence of its dangers to world health.
          For example, Sakharov's 1958 paper can now be seen to have offered the first explanation of the greatest epidemiological mystery of our times. Mortality rates in the U.S. and in the advanced western European countries flattened out during the years of atmospheric bomb tests, after a half century of steady peacetime annual improvement, and only resumed a moderate rate of improvement after the Partial Test Ban was signed in 1963. In the 1980s, with the continued routine and accidental emissions from military and civilian reactors, mortality rates are again on the rise in the major nuclear nations. In the US, for example the mortality rate dropped at the average annual rate of 2 percent each year for the first half century, and then rose from 9.2 deaths per 1000 persons in 1954 to 9.6 in 1963, a period in which the NRDC estimated that the US and USSR released into the biosphere fission products equivalent to 40,000 Hiroshima bombs.[3]
          From 1979 to 1988, the US mortality rate has again risen by 7 percent, reversing the decline registered in the 1970s. So rapid is the current deterioration that by the year 2000, mortality rates may rise to the levels reached in the early 1970's, if this trend continues.
          According to the United Nations Annual Demographic Yearbooks, in the US, UK and France mortality rates for the most productive component of the labor force -- those between the ages of 25 to 44, has been deteriorating since 1983 for the first time since World War II.[6] In the U.S. this anomalous trend for American males in this age group was acknowledged by the Atlanta Center for Disease Control in a recent article in the American Journal of Public Health and attributed to AIDS, although the article admitted that in states with high AIDS mortality rates, there are "associated" abnormal increases in septicemia, pneumonia, pulmonary tuberculosis, diseases of the central nervous system, heart and blood disorders, drug abuse and "other immune defects".[7]
          Persons in this age group were born between 1945 and 1965 and were therefore most heavily exposed in utero to the low-level bomb test radiation that most worried both Sakharov and Linus Pauling too, who expressed similar concerns in No More War, also published in 1958, for which he earned his second Nobel Prize in 1962.[8]
          The Sakharov thesis has been confirmed by a report by the Canadian pediatrician, R.K.Whyte, published in the British Medical Journal in February, 1992, attributing some 320 thousand excess neonatal deaths (babies dying within the first day and first month) since 1950 in the US and UK to bomb test radiation.[9]
          Further confirmation is available from a review of US data showing the rise since 1945 of the percentage of live births that survived birth in the bomb test years but weighing less than 5.5 lbs. For example, when the US first transferred bomb testing from the Pacific to the Nevada Test Site in 1951, the percentage of low birthweight infants in Nevada that year rose by 70 percent![10]
          It now seems clear then that the atmospheric bomb tests caused sufficient harm to developing hormonal and immune systems to justify Sakharov's fear of future immune deficiency epidemics. Radiation physicists Sternglass and Scheer have observed that the AIDS epidemic first emerged in the wetlands of Africa in the early 1980s, which 20 years earlier had registered the highest Strontium-90 levels in human bone in the world after recieving heavy fallout from the atmospheric bomb tests. Thus they cite fallout as a cofactor in the impairment of immune response that could emerge later when young adults encounter the new mutated strains of sexually transmitted viruses.[11]
          A recent issue of Science delineates the enormous public health crisis set off by the increasing resistance to antibiotics of those mutating microorganisms responsible for AIDS, tuberculosis, shigellosis, salmonella, toxic shock syndrome, Lyme disease and many other old and newly emerging infections.[12]
          Immune deficiency problems of the kind anticipated by Sakharov can also be seen in the epidemic rise, since 1950, of cancer and septicemia mortality among older persons. Mortality from septicemia, or blood poisoning, the quintessential immune deficiency disease of old people, had been almost too rare to be recorded in 1950. Since then it has risen fifteenfold, and can be considered to be the Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome rate of old people.
          The Petkau Effect also explains what happened to the many millions of persons in the former Soviet Union forced to continually ingest food and water contaminated by Chernobyl; they do not necessarily get sicker and sicker, for most of the damage is done by the initial exposure when the dose reponse rises most rapidly. Sakharov envisioned that the statistical probability of any one person ingesting fallout radiation was so small that no one premature death could be attributed to fallout with complete certainty. But continual exposure to radioactive food and water as in the Ukraine and Byelorussia raises, by a large factor, the probability that any one person will be adversely affected.
          Graeub also shows that industrial wastes ionized by radiation becomes far more harmful to humans and plant life, so that we can make the inference that even before Chernobyl public health in the Soviet Union was poor. For example, the Soviets stopped publishing mortality statistics acceptable to the United Nations after their civilian power reactors started to come on line in the early 1970s. But for every premature death there may be many excess numbers of illnesses, which are difficult to define and record. But as mortality rates begin to rise, the corresponding morbidity rates would probably exhibit a "multiplier" effect that would help explain why medical costs in the major nuclear nations (including the US as well as the former Soviet Union) will increase explosively as labor productivity declines, a relationship generally ignored by economists.
          The three books reviewed here thus offer a key insight to the baffling mystery of why Soviet society collapsed so quickly after 1986, with a suddenness that completely upset the world's geo-political balance, leaving even the CIA bereft of its raison d'etre. It is the sad fate of the Soviet people to have made great sacrifices in stemming the German Fascist tide in World War 2, and comparable sacrifices in warning us now of the dangers of future Chernobyls of our own. The US and the UK have already experienced similar nuclear disasters in 1957 (Windscale in England), in 1970 (a meltdown at the Savannah River Nuclear Weapons plant, first revealed by Sen. Glenn in 1988) and in 1979 (Three Mile Island).[13] Chernousenko's book should prepare us for the nuclear horrors that may come with another such catastrophe, if we do not heed Sakharov's warning and put an end to all forms of nuclear emissions released into the environment.


  1. R.Rhodes, The Making of the Atom Bomb, A. Knopf, 1986, p.511

  2. A.Sakharov, "Radioactive Carbon from Nuclear Explosions and Nontreshold Biological Effects" Soviet Journal of Atomic Energy, July, 1958, vol.4 #6.

  3. R.S.Norris, T.Cochran, W.Arkin, "Known U.S. Nuclear Tests", Washington, D.C., Natural Resources Defense Council, 1988. Cf. also the NRDC Nuclear Weapons Handbook, Vol IV, Harper & Row, New York, 1989 p.373

  4. J.M. Gould, E.J.Sternglass, "Low-level radiation and mortality", Am. Chem Soc., Chemtech, Jan. 1989, Washington, DC.

  5. J.Scheer, G.Luning et al, "Early infant mortality in West Germany before and after Chernobyl", The Lancet, Nov. 4, 1989, p.1081-1083.

  6. The secular decline in the percentage of total deaths accounted for by those aged 25 to 44 has served as a significant indicator of the general well being of the most productive component of the population and labor force. For example in the U.S. this percentage had declined fairly steadily, from 11.3 in 1940 to 5.4 in 1983, but then rose to 6.6 in 1989, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. The corresponding percentage in France, according to the 1990 United Nations Demographic Yearbook, rose from 4.26 in 1983 to 4.71 in 1987, and in the United Kingdom, from 2.42 in 1983 to 2.61 in 1988. No comparable data were available from the Soviet Union.

  7. J.W.Buehler, O.J.Devine, R.Berkelman & F.M.Chenarley, "Impact of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic on Mortality Trends in Young Men, U.S.", Am. J. Public Health, Sept. 1990, vol.80, #9.

  8. L.Pauling, No More War, Dodd Mead, New York, 1958.

  9. R.K.Whyte, "First-Day Neonatal Mortality Since 1935: A Rexamination of the Cross Hypothesis", Br. Med. J. vol.304, Feb. 8 1992. pp.343-346.

  10. Vital Statistics of the United States, 1950 and 1951, Natality section, US Public Health Service, Washington, D.C. In 1951 the percentage of live births weighing under 2500 grams (5.5 lbs) in Nevada was 17 as opposed to 10 in 1950.

  11. E.J.Sternglass, J.Scheer, "Radiation exposure of bone marrow cells to strontium-90 during early development as a possible cofactor in the etiology of AIDS," Philadelphia, PA. Am. Assn. Advancement of Science, Annual Meeting, May 29, 1986.

  12. M. Cohen, "Epidemiology of Drug Resistance: Implications for A Post-Anti Microbial Era,", B.R.Bloom, C.J.Murray, "Tuberculosis: Commentary on a Reemergent Killer", H.C.Neu, "The Crisis in Antibiotic Resistance", R.M.Krause, "The Origin of Plagues: Old and New", Science, vol.257, Aug. 21, 1992.

  13. Cf. J.M.Gould, B.A.Goldman, Deadly Deceit: Low-Level Radiation High Level Cover-Up, Four Wall Eight Windows, New York, 1991, Chapters 2, 4 and 5.

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