Column: Chernobyl Revisited

On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffered a catastrophic failure. During an unscheduled and allegedly unauthorized safety drill, one of the nuclear reactors overheated and exploded. A fire in the containment building was extinguished with water, but this worsened the situation by increasing the dispersion of radiation. Masses of radioactive material escaped the number 4 containment building and were discharged into the air. The Soviet operators of the plant were instructed by their Russian overlords to keep quiet about the nature and severity of the incident.  No evacuation was ordered, and unprotected clean-up crews were sent into the damaged facility, unaware that radiation levels in and about the facility were lethal. The prevailing winds were uncooperative and sent radioactive dust north, spreading the contamination over the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Poland and Sweden. When Sweden started registering worrisome levels of radioactive dust falling on its cities and towns, the extent of the disaster at Chernobyl could no longer be concealed, and the Soviets initiated an evacuation nine days after the population around Chernobyl had been inhaling and otherwise consuming radioactivity.

When Hiroshima and Nagasaki were struck with atomic bombs at the end of World War II, our knowledge of the longterm effects of radioactive material on large populations of people was necessarily limited. The complications and lingering effects of those two detonations made the military and the public in general somewhat wary of nuclear weapons. These bombs could not be targeted on strictly military targets. The collateral damage to strictly civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was appalling. There could be no military justification for incinerating school children and the elderly. That some would be killed in any conflict was acceptable to most Americans: This was the price nations would pay for attacking the United States. That tens of thousands would die in an instant by a bomb that was targeting manufacturing facilities was a bit more disturbing.

The military was considerably more comfortable exposing people to radiation than was the general public. Soldiers and sailors were sent into highly contaminated areas immediately after the detonation of nuclear weapons to collect samples of damaged materials or sacrificed animals.  Years later those enlisted men would discover that they were themselves the objects of study after developing lymphomas, leukemias, and a variety of rare cancers spawned by their exposure to radiation. No one was held responsible for unnecessarily dooming these men. The military viewed these uninformed men as twentieth century “cannon fodder.” That information on radiation exposure could be collected without killing hundreds of enlisted men was overlooked by a military and a government intoxicated with the prospect of making ever bigger bombs.

After the Chernobyl plant explosion, the world was reminded of the lethality of radiation. Those immediately dispatched in a failed effort to clean up the radioactive debris quickly succumbed to radiation sickness. Their blood counts were decimated, and their immune systems failed. Their intestinal linings were destroyed, and other rapidly regenerating organs died. They developed intractable vomiting and diarrhea before their agony was relieved by slipping into coma. Once again the most common delayed effects of lower doses of radiation exposure were lymphomas, leukemias, and a variety of cancers. Some of the radioactive material targeted children.  Radioactive iodine collected in the thyroid glands of developing children caused lethal thyroid cancers. Other materials, like radioactive cesium, collected in developing muscles and soft tissues.

As it became increasingly obvious that individuals trying to stop the ejection of radioactive material from the containment vessel faced certain death, those working at the site were praised for their sacrifice. Unfortunately, those millions downwind from the crippled plant did not have an opportunity to opt out of exposure. State-controlled media downplayed the carnage suffered because of the plant malfunction. The President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, felt compelled to assure his citizens that the government loved the children dying from radiation poisoning and mourned their loss.

Most people familiar with the Chernobyl disaster will recall that it occurred in the Soviet Union.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the crippled nuclear reactor was no longer a Soviet problem or even a Russian problem. Chernobyl and its reactors are located in the northern Ukraine, just south of its border with Belarus. As Russian forces rushed into the Ukraine from Belarus on February 24, 2022, the international consensus was that one of its initial targets would be Kyiv, the capitol of the Ukraine. What that consensus did not anticipate was that Russian forces would target Chernobyl and take control of that contaminated sector within hours of the invasion.

Vladimir Putin, the self-appointed Tsar of Russia, obviously wants to replace the democratic government of the Ukraine with a Russian-controlled puppet, similar to the arrangement already in place in several former Soviet bloc countries. Why his army would target Chernobyl is puzzling and worrisome.

This town has no apparent strategic value, unless one considers the environmental cost of disabling or removing the concrete sarcophagus covering nuclear reactor 4. When Saddam Hussein faced off against the U.S. Army in 1991, he opted to unleash an environmental disaster by blowing up and thereby igniting hundreds of oil wells in Kuwait and dumping millions of gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf. Hussein’s efforts to frustrate the American advances against him failed, but his environmental countermeasures permanently damaged much of the Persian Gulf coastline.

One must wonder if Tsar Vladimir is considering a radioactive countermeasure if NATO or the U.S. tries to frustrate his dream of a resurgent Russian Empire. The threat of unleashing the radioactive debris still sitting at Chernobyl will unavoidably affect any decision made by NATO in response to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. Some military leaders may still be willing to sacrifice soldiers and sailors to radiation-induced deaths, but even the most callous military men and women will not risk a radioactive assault on their nations. Russian forces have unflinchingly followed the Kremlin’s directive to invade the Ukraine and destroy any democratic institutions in place there. Whether they will follow orders to overtly or covertly release the radioactive monster locked under steel and cement at Chernobyl may soon be apparent.  If Vladimir the Terrible pursues that option, we may all soon be glowing in the dark.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.