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Chernobyl nuclear disaster - 23 May 1986

On a summer evening in 1945, Mr Winston Churchill stood watching the general election results coming in over the ticker, and he realised, to his bitter astonishment, that he had been buried in a Labour landslide.

He was then in his 71st year, and his doctor, who had seen him through a long series of ailments and was standing by, said, "Perhaps, after all, it’s a blessing in disguise." Churchill growled back, "If so the disguise is consummate."

It may be that in the long run, the same may come to be said about a far grimmer catastrophe, which, at the moment, it would be almost blasphemous to see as a blessing. I mean the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine. I think it’s now possible to look back to the way the accident was first reported, lavishly and alarmingly in all the countries of the west, and, as it then seemed, scantily and deceptively by the Soviet Union.

And, say, not with certainty but with more fairness, how many people were hurt and how severely what was done about them and the prospects for the population that was most directly affected by the spewing clouds of radioactivity. You will remember that the few tight-lipped words from Moscow television reported an accident that had killed two people, and wounded 47, many more having been released from the hospitals.The situation was under control.

These very cryptic short sentences, delivered as if that's all there was to say, instantly provoked the west first into guessing then into proclaiming that the truth was at once more complex and much more horrendous. Nuclear scientists and power officials were brought into the networks to explain that the Soviet power station was old-fashioned was not as safely protected as ours, and used graphite which can heat to uncontainable temperatures.

Then the Swedes reported the drift of a radioactive cloud and reported very high levels of radiation in soils and in the atmosphere. If the far-away Swedes could measure dangerous effects, why did Moscow think it could possibly keep the real dimensions of the accident secret? How about our satellites which are just as effective as theirs?

I remembered, suddenly, a scene in the White House 24 years before, when, in response to a deliberately casual question from President Kennedy about intelligence reports that there had been a remarkable build-up of offensive weapons in Cuba, Mr Gromyka said, nothing to it, just defensive, certainly, non-nuclear weapons.

But Kennedy had already seen photographs taken by American reconnaissance planes which showed, with pinpoint accuracy, missile silos and launching platforms and tactical rockets, and something like 15,000 Russian troops and technicians, even the flower patterns of the various units' insignia. And soon this picture is in blow-up shown to the security council of the United Nations. And the Russians said, "Well we’ll take them out,".

Now those reconnaissance planes had taken the pictures from sixty miles up. How could Mr Gorbachev not know that nearly a quarter of a century later, very good pictures of all the Soviet power stations can be, and no doubt have been, taken by satellites from 22,000 miles up.

Now, our experts, German, British, American, mostly physicists, radiologists, power station inspectors and the like, came in to measure the probably damage and radiation and casualties. The Americans thought as many as 2,000, the most conservative or optimistic testifier was a British MP once in charge of nuclear fire stations, he thought, not less than 200, the Russians said, two, maybe three, dead.

But, as somebody once said, bad news always chases new news. And while the serious press of the western countries spread pages of briefing about the structure, the techniques, the hazards, of different types of power stations, the tabloids went to town, no wonder Mr Gorbachev heard about them and talked about a mountain of lies.

In those instances, he was right, mountains he might have said, of hysterical conjecture. One London tabloid had the cover headline, "Nuclear nightmare is here, more than 2,000 dead, thousands more doomed". The New York Post, a paper started in the late 18th Century by Benjamin Franklin, remained a good serious evening paper until about seven, eight years ago when it was bought by an Australian publisher, since when it has tumbled precipitously into the scary and scarying pit of what used to be called yellow journalism. Bam on the front page, "Mass grave, 15,000 reported buried, in nuke disposal site".

Reported is the safety loophole. Reported by whom? Never mind. But, day after day, night after night, the good press in the west and the television networks brought in every conceivable expert private or public, from many countries and they all found these Soviet accounts sparse and then conflicting. The reactor was under control at least, four or five separate times.

And then the Russians loosened up, and let out more and more until – nearly three weeks after the accident when the news and the rumours of radioactive contamination were flooding all of Europe – Mr Gorbachev finally decided to acknowledge that the accident had been a disaster, that what he called the sinister forces of nuclear energy had got out of control, but, he announced, that the worst was over.

However, his deputy could not be cheerful about the continuing dangers of radiation and a leading Russian nuclear physicist confirmed that the whole Chernobyl station would adopt the western protective device of a concrete container and that the burnt-out reactor's radioactive wastes, will not vanish for hundreds of years.

By the time Mr Gorbachev spoke we all knew that Moscow had put out an SOS to a team of American doctors who were specialists in bone marrow transplants, and to an Israeli physicist. What they found and what they did are, so far, the most accurate and sobering account of what happens to people and what will go on happening when a nuclear power station goes up in smoke.

In a way, and because of the frightening range of medical problems they faced, their report is rather more chilling than the hysterical bluster of the tabloids. Let’s begin by noticing that every newspaper and television station by now has been casually dropping the phrase "bone marrow transplant" as if it were a procedure as routine as taking out an appendix.

It is, in fact, very new. The prescription sounds fairly simple, suck out the marrow of the patient and replace it by injecting the marrow of a donor. But the vetting of the patients and the donor is complex, the procedure is intricate and the possible after-effects in the patient's system are various and dire.

Marrow is a pulpy substance that fills the cavities between bones. And it’s a manufacture of blood cells, just what you need to save a victim of radiation, which at once begins to destroy our best natural protector against infection, namely white blood cells the – you might say – Red Cross rescue teams, always at the ready to rush off and fight infection.

The transplant operation, when done to save people already doomed by the blood disease, has a mortality rate of 50% – one in two survive. Presumably, the people close to the power station who would have been irradiated were healthy enough at the time, and the educated guess among bone marrow surgeons is that the survival rate could be, with much luck, about three in four.

But living on depends on many factors. First, the blood of the donor must be compatible and a close relative is best. They take out the failing marrow in a syringe and then insert into the patient’s bloodstream the marrow of the donor. But when the operation is over, then the problems can begin.

Either the patient rejects the new tissue or, worse, and just about always fatal, the transplanted marrow whose white blood cells are mature, rejects the patient.

Well, first Dr Robert Gale and his team had to pick out the treatable cases, and let the hopeless ones go. They found some desperately irradiated patients too deficient in white blood cells who had to be given liver cells from aborted foetuses. The blood deficiencies of radiation victims are so various as to present very difficult alternatives to the surgeon. Some people were so radioactive as to be an actual hazard to the doctors and the nurses.

Dr Gale looked over the now 299 victims in the hospital. He picked out between 60 and 70 who might possibly gainfrom a bone marrow transplant. With the help of rare drugs and special machines, flown in from Switzerland, France and the United States, and with four Soviet doctors in attendance, the American surgical team worked round the clock and performed 19 operations. Dr Gail went back to California to sleep for a few days, and then returned.

I have gone into this procedure just to show the mobilising of extraordinary medical skill required to try and save the lives of a mere 19 victims of radiation. Undoubtedly some will die, many other people will die fairly soon, apart from the possible contamination of a whole continent by a future accident and the quite likely doom of millions of people including thousands of doctors, isn’t it cataclysmically obvious that no such expertise and care can be on hand, for a really massive accident, say for the one nuclear missile that managed to penetrate Mr Reagan’s 99% effective Star Wars system, or the equivalent system the Russians have been working on?

Finally, Dr Gale, who is a dedicated scientist and no alarmist, has concluded that there maybe as many as 100,000 people – the ones evacuated from around Chernobyl – who will have to be monitored for radiation for the rest of their lives. It is, I believe, this tedious conglomeration of facts and lethal consequences which the nuclear experts and the doctors must get through to the politicians.

If Mr Gorbachev and Mr Reagan could sit down for a month, or a week, together and simply listen to the grizzly story of Chernobyl, in all in its environmental and medical details, that might, as I said at the beginning, turn the experience of a minor catastrophe into a blessing.


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