Cover image for Manual for survival : a Chernobyl guide to the future / Kate Brown.
Manual for survival : a Chernobyl guide to the future / Kate Brown.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Physical Description:
420 pages ; maps ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
621.4835 BRO Book Adult General Collection

On Order



Dear Comrades! Since the accident at the Chernobyl power plant, there has been a detailed analysis of the radioactivity of the food and territory of your population point. The results show that living and working in your village will cause no harm to adults or children.So began a pamphlet issued by the Ukrainian Ministry of Health--which, despite its optimistic beginnings, went on to warn its readers against consuming local milk, berries, or mushrooms, or going into the surrounding forest. This was only one of many misleading bureaucratic manuals that, with apparent good intentions, seriously underestimated the far-reaching consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe.After 1991, international organizations from the Red Cross to Greenpeace sought to help the victims, yet found themselves stymied by post-Soviet political circumstances they did not understand. International diplomats and scientists allied to the nuclear industry evaded or denied the fact of a wide-scale public health disaster caused by radiation exposure. Efforts to spin the story about Chernobyl were largely successful; the official death toll ranges between thirty-one and fifty-four people. In reality, radiation exposure from the disaster caused between 35,000 and 150,000 deaths in Ukraine alone.No major international study tallied the damage, leaving Japanese leaders to repeat many of the same mistakes after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Drawing on a decade of archival research and on-the-ground interviews in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, Kate Brown unveils the full breadth of the devastation and the whitewash that followed. Her findings make clear the irreversible impact of man-made radioactivity on every living thing; and hauntingly, they force us to confront the untold legacy of decades of weapons-testing and other nuclear incidents, and the fact that we are emerging into a future for which the survival manual has yet to be written.

Author Notes

Kate Brown is an award-winning historian of environmental and nuclear history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her previous book, Plutopia, won seven academic prizes. She splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a gripping book part scientific exploration, part Cold War thriller, Brown (Dispatches from Dystopia), a University of Maryland historian of environmental and nuclear history, investigates the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and reveals why ferreting out the truth about it is so difficult. The Soviet government assured the world that the meltdown's repercussions weren't severe, with only 54 plant staff and firefighters dead from acute radiation sickness, and minimal exposure of families, who'd been swiftly evacuated to safety. But behind that optimistic lie, there were secrets on all sides. The Soviet government didn't want to reveal how much it actually knew about radiation effects, or how it had learned that information. The American government, meanwhile, refused to share information from its own medical study of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims with the Soviets. As the crumbling Soviet Union fought to avoid blame, historians and scientists struggled to document data before it disappeared, and Chernobyl victims found their lives dropped into the hands of bureaucrats more interested in covering up the truth than in helping them. Brown's indepth research and clean, concise writing illuminate the reality behind decades of "halftruths and baldfaced lies." Readers will be fascinated by this provocative history of a deadly accident and its consequences. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

CATASTROPHES HAPPEN when a large system gets so out of sync with its environment that a tiny tweak can crash it to the ground. It's happened to oil rigs, spacecraft and mines. Afterward, committees blame the people who did the tweaking. But what matters is how the system became unstable and crashed, the atmosphere that caused it and the aftereffects. In these two books about the April 1986 explosion of the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, "Midnight in Chernobyl" focuses on the first and second, "Manual for Survival" on the third. Electricity is easy to create in small amounts. A hamster on an exercise wheel can make a little light bulb flicker. A generator and some gas powers a house. But the vast quantities of energy demanded by modern cities require huge steam turbines that operate 24 hours a day. One way to heat the water to create the steam is to burn fossil fuels. Another is using heat created by nuclear fission. The Soviets, who built the first nuclear power plant in 1954, considered themselves the finest reactor engineers in the world, and masters of gigantic engineering projects. Their rapidly expanding infrastructure desperately needed electrical power, especially in the Soviet Union's industrialized western region, far away from Siberia's fossil fuel deposits. Planners thus decided to build colossal reactors. These included a set of four at Chernobyl, about 100 miles north of Kiev, intended to be "the greatest nuclear power station on earth." Its No. 1 reactor was completed in 1977, No. 4 in 1983. Adam Higginbotham's "Midnight in Chernobyl" is a gripping, miss-your-subway-stop read. The details of the disaster pile up inexorably. They include worn control rod switches, the 2,000-ton reactor lid nicknamed Elena, a core so huge that understanding its behavior was impossible. Politicians lacked the technical knowledge to take action, while scientists who had the knowledge feared to provide it lest they lose their jobs or lives. Higginbotham captures the nerve-racked Soviet atmosphere brilliantly, mostly through vivid details about the participants. Schedules were impossible, production quotas demanding, workers sloppy, budgets insufficient, rules disregarded. Warnings that the design was unsound were ignored. While the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island prompted American engineers to re-examine reactor designs, the Soviets did not bother. In 1957, one Soviet reactor had a radioactive contamination accident, as did Chernobyl No. 1 in 1982. These and other accidents were covered up. A design fix was planned, but implementation at No. 4 was postponed until its first safety test in April 1986. Higginbotham, who has written for such publications as The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, follows the postponed safety test minute by minute. A neglected step caused the reactor's power to plunge, and frantic attempts to revive it created an unexpected power surge. Poorly trained operators panicked. An explosion of hydrogen and oxygen sent Elena into the air "like a flipped coin" and destroyed the reactor. Operators vainly tried to stop a meltdown by planning to shove control rods in by hand. Escaping radiation shot a pillar of blue-white phosphorescent light into the air. The explosion occurs less than 100 pages into this 366-page book (plus more than 100 pages of notes, glossary, cast of characters and explanation of radiation units). But what follows is equally gripping. Radio-controlled repair bulldozers became stuck in the rubble. Exposure to radiation made voices grow high and squeaky. A dying man whispered to his nurse to step back because he was too radioactive. A workman's radioactive shoe was the first sign in Sweden of a nuclear accident 1,000 miles upwind. Soviet bigwigs entered the area with high-tech dosimeters they didn't know how to turn on. Investigations blamed the accident on six tweakers, portrayed them as "hooligans" and convicted them. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear), which is to radiation studies something like what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) is to assessing human-induced climate effects, struggled to make sense of changing and confusing information. Kate Brown's "Manual for Survival" has a different style and emphasis. Its aim is to be an exposé of the attempts to minimize the impact of Chernobyl. The disaster was less an accident, says Brown, a historian at M.I.T., than "an exclamation point in a chain of toxic exposures that restructured the landscape, bodies and politics." Unscear's publications were cover-ups, and radiation-related maladies are "a dark horseman riding wild across the Chernobyl territories." Brown undertook the book so as not to become "one of those duped comrades who found out too late that the survival manual contained a pack of lies." Around 2014, Brown began interviewing people in the affected areas, and sought measurements of radioactivity in such things as wool, livestock and swamps. Her stories are affecting, yet it is hard to evaluate memories and anecdotes. It is also hard to evaluate measurements. These are meaningful only within the tangled web of factors that radiation epidemiologists consider - including type and time-span of dose, pathways through the body, susceptibility of individual tissues and background radiation - as well as health issues like alcohol, obesity and stress. Radioactivity is present in different amounts in everything from muscles to masonry. Higginbotham notes that the granite in the United States Capitol "is so radioactive that the building would fail federal safety codes regulating nuclear power plants." Brown writes that permitting an annual dose of five millisieverts (a dose unit) in one Chernobyl region is "cruel" and implies that its inhabitants should be relocated. Yet that's less than the background radiation in many populated areas. According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the average annual radiation dose in the United States (including medical diagnostics) is 6.2 mSv, while many studies put the annual dose in Denver at over 10 mSv, with no noticeable increase in cancer rates. Brown plays down reports of relocation's psychological and social effects. Immigrants and refugees may have a different perspective. 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. Neither book is about nuclear power. The Chernobyl story is indeed as little about nuclear power as the Bhopal catastrophe is about the pesticide industry. Yet the issue looms, for the fossil fuel alternative has disastrous long-term effects. Brown notes that the founders of Kiev built the city on a bluff to repel invaders. It's a haunting image. Today's threats are pollutants that cannot be stopped by bluffs, and we create these threats ourselves to drive the turbines that sustain our towns. To keep these modern invaders at bay requires separating fact from fiction, and depending on expert advice. Will we avert catastrophe by honestly judging the benefits and risks of each energy source without hiding their costs - and will politicians have the guts to act on those judgments? Not yet.

Library Journal Review

Award-winning author Brown (history, Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore Cty.; A Biography of No Place) writes a new history of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster that begins with text from the first survival manual ever issued to a population after a nuclear incident. The author's research then uncovers terrible truths that the official account of the disaster chose to ignore. Using archival records and interviews with those living in Ukraine and Belarus, Brown explores the environmental devastation that resulted from the incident. International scientists who wanted to promote the safety of nuclear energy deliberately downplayed the danger to the people still living in the Chernobyl area and to the flora and fauna in that region. For example, the official record states that only 44 people died as a result of the tragedy. Brown's research shows the actual death toll from radioactive isotopes to be in the hundreds of thousands, and engaging and accessible writing makes for a page--turning read. VERDICT This important work should be read by those concerned about the environmental impacts of nuclear energy and climate change. [See Prepub Alert, 10/1/18.]-Jason L. Steagall, formerly with Gateway Technical Coll. Lib., Elkhorn, WI © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.