Kate Brown’s painstaking investigation into the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath might be the most plausible conspiracy theory you’ll ever read. Manual For Survival argues that presidents, military chiefs, government mandarins and official scientists have all failed to face a basic truth for decades: nuclear radiation is really poisonous. That ought to be obvious to anyone, but, rather than deal with the facts, those in charge have buried their heads in the sand and refused to take any responsibility...The author speculates that radiation poisoning, not only from Chernobyl but from numerous other nuclear leaks and many hundreds of atomic explosions, may be responsible for the rising incidence of cancers and auto-immune diseases. ‘Few people on earth have escaped those exposures,’ she concludes. This book doesn’t have all the answers. It does, however, ask the right questions.
One wonders about Brown’s suggestions of conspiracies. She writes darkly that “the medical section of the U.S. Army report on physical damage in Hiroshima is missing in the U.S. National Archives.” Given that so much data is now available online, isn’t it possible this is due to incompetence or sloppiness? Are Unscear’s sometimes flawed publications cover-ups, or do they indicate the difficulties of incorporating changing data of varying degrees of reliability into the best available models? Brown endorses the work of antinuclear activists like Ernest Sternglass, many of whose claims that radiation causes everything from high infant mortality and crime rates to low SAT scores have been discredited. Brown is credulous of sources that share her opinions, skeptical of those that don’t. This gives the book the flavor of a polemic. Not all accusers of the scientific infrastructure are holy. Their claims need to be evaluated with the same diligence that scientists do theirs.
The book contains such appalling revelations that it feels like a thriller, although this wanes in the latter sections when Brown talks of science and data gathering. This produces a book which feels like origami in reverse: we start with an incredible, intricate creation which then flattens itself out. Yet it remains the most brilliant and essential book on Chernobyl since that of Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich.
Brown, who teaches environmental and nuclear history, wants to examine the present and the science around it. Occasionally, there are a few too many becquerels and curies in her narrative, but on the whole she makes her case comprehensible to the general reader. It is a troubling book, passionately written and deeply researched over 10 years in former Soviet, Ukrainian and Belarusian archives...[T]he book moves from science to thriller and the realm of conspiracy. I need more convincing about a worldwide conspiracy by an elite group of Dr Strangeloves and dodgy scientists. But there is no doubt, despite her occasional descent into cliché, about Brown’s gift for vivid narrative.
Her aim is to make up for the gap in scholarship around the disaster, and to learn from it. Manual for Survival is sometimes polemical, sometimes scientific; it also at times resembles a travel book. The facts she uncovers are devastating – particularly the statistics on infections, cancer, eye disease, anaemia and other conditions – and her writing is full of passion, but perhaps it needs more calculation to get its argument across. It asks a lot of questions, but does not provide enough answers.