The Men Who Survived Chernobyl's Cleanup

Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company

The New York Times

October 28, 1991, Monday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section A; Page 16; Column 4; Editorial Desk

LENGTH: 687 words

HEADLINE: The Men Who Survived Chernobyl's Cleanup


To the Editor:

Peter Matthiessen's " 'Madman' of Chernobyl" (Op-Ed, Oct. 14) gives too little detail to discover whether there is any basis for even one of Dr. Vladimir Chernousenko's claims about the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Dr. Chernousenko's ailments are not described, nor is his total radiation exposure given. We do not know where he worked and with whom, to obtain some corroboration. In any case, the claims must be considered in the light of what one expects from radiation effects: there is no disease called radiation poisoning; a large acute dose (400 rems and more) can kill within a short time by destroying blood cells, bone marrow and the intestinal lining. But those who survive for a month recover. We personally know many people who suffered huge doses just after the Chernobyl accident and are now well.

Major, then Lieut., Leonid Teliatnikov, who led the firemen on the roof of unit 4, accumulated more than 200 rems, lost his hair, but has now recovered and is back with his family. Yevgeny P. Velikhov, science adviser to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, got more than 70 rems; many others got more than 50 rems. Dr. Chernousenko's name had never been mentioned among these scientists. There can still be delayed effects, and cancer is the principal one. But these cancers are not different from cancers attributable to other causes. There is some indication that heart disease may be caused by radiation, but at a lower rate than cancer.

Unfortunately, the Soviets have not given the world a detailed report on the activities and doses of the clean-up crew, the "liquidators." Only now is Moscow preparing a register of these men. Only half of them, those who came from the civilian sector, are at present registered. For these we have been given average-dose estimates of 25 rems for the first year and 12 rems for the later years. Maybe 1 percent, or 3,000, got more than 100 rems, but spread over a year. No official reports of acute sickness, such as hair loss, have been given, but these people will have a more than 5 percent increase in lifetime cancer probability leading to 150 additional cancer cases. Maybe Dr. Chernousenko is one of these.

In May 1991 one of us, Richard Wilson, went inside the sarcophagus of the damaged reactor, both next to and above the core (an area shown on public television's "Nova" this week), and received about 0.3 rems. Those who made roughly three such visits a week for a year would get 45 rems, but are still well.

The fact that men were sent onto the roof to sweep up the pieces of reactor core is not new. Films have been widely shown in the last five years, including on PBS here. Contrary to the statement that without exception these men are dead, Professor Wilson has talked to one of them. They were in the dangerous area for 90 seconds. Major Teliatnikov was there for 15 minutes, and also a month earlier when the radiation exposure rate was 10 times greater. Yet he is alive and well.

Dr. Chernousenko's claim that 5,000 to 7,000 of the "liquidators" are dead matches Ukrainian statistics we have seen for deaths from all causes. Yet he incorrectly implies they are attributable to radiation. According to these official Soviet statistics, the death rate of 30-year-old Ukrainians is four times the European average, showing the terrible state of health, particularly occupational health, in the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath of catastrophe, reliable information and truth are often major casualties. While one sympathizes with anyone who is ill from any cause, it does no one any service to attribute unidentified ailments to the accident without careful justification. In the troubled situation in the Soviet Union, unprovable statements about "passionate commitment to the truth" become political tools in the conflict between authority and the public and between republics and the central Government.

Cambridge, Mass., Oct. 18, 1991

The writers are, respectively, research associate in physics and Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, Harvard University.

GRAPHIC: Drawing

LOAD-DATE: October 28, 1991

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