The Big Secret in the Academy Is That Most Research Is Secret

The Big Secret in the Academy Is That Most Research Is Secret

December 5, 2023
research paper
science, history, politics, radiation

The dangerous rift between open and classified research. #

By Kate Brown

In 1987, a year after the Chernobyl accident, the US Health Physics Society met in Columbia, Maryland. Health physicists are scientists who are responsible for radiological protection at nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons plants, and hospitals. They are called on in cases of nuclear accidents. The conference’s keynote speaker came from the Department of Energy (DOE); the title of his talk drew on a sports analogy: “Radiation: The Offense and the Defense.” Switching metaphors to geopolitics, the speaker announced to the hall of nuclear professionals that his talk amounted to “the party line.” The biggest threat to nuclear industries, he told the gathered professionals, was not more disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island but lawsuits. After the address, lawyers from the Department of Justice (DOJ) met in break-out groups with the health physicists to prepare them to serve as “expert witnesses” against claimants suing the US government for alleged health problems due to exposure from radio­activity issued in the production and testing of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. That’s right: the DOE and the DOJ were preparing private citizens to defend the US government and its corporate contractors as they ostensi­bly served as “objective” scientific experts in US courts.

Health physics is an extremely important field for our everyday lives. Health physicists set standards for radiation protection and evaluate damage after nuclear emergencies. They determine where radiologists set the dial for CT scans and X-rays. They calculate how radioactive our food can be (and our food is often radioactive) and determine acceptable levels of radiation in our workplaces, environments, bodies of water, and air. Despite its importance, as it is practiced inside university labs and government organizations, health physics is far from an independent field engaged in the objective, open-ended pursuit of knowledge.

Compromised Science #

The field of health physics emerged inside the Manhat­tan Project along with the development of the world’s first nuclear bombs. From the United States, it migrated abroad. For the past seventy-five years, the vast major­ity of health physicists have been employed in national nuclear agencies or in universities with research under­written by national nuclear agencies. As much as we in the academy like to make distinctions between apoliti­cal, academic research and politicized paid research outside the academy, during the Cold War those distinc­tions hardly made sense. From the end of World War II until the 1970s, federal grants paid for 70 percent of university research. The largest federal donors were the Department of Defense, the US Atomic Energy Agency, and a dozen federal security agencies. Historian Peter Galison estimated in 2004 that the volume of classified research surpassed open literature in American libraries by five to ten times. Put another way, for every article published by American academics in open journals, five to ten articles were filed in sealed repositories available only to the 4 million Americans with security clear­ances. Often, the same researchers penned both open and classified work. Health physics benefited from the largesse of the Pentagon and the Atomic Energy Com­mission, which produced nuclear weapons for US arse­nals. Correspondingly, the field suffered from a closed circle of knowledge that has had a major impact on our abilities to assess and respond to both nuclear emergen­cies and quotidian radioactive contamination.

Tracking the production of knowledge in the field of health physics shows how the effective renunciation of facts has played a major role in this branch of science. More generally, it demonstrates how the boundary between open and classified research is critical yet rarely acknowledged. The response of international health physicists to the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred in Soviet Ukraine in April 1986, shows heavily politicized science in action. History reveals that the official, feder­ally sponsored cultivation of “alternative facts” is not new but has deep roots in the twentieth century.

Chernobyl came at an unfortunate time for nuclear professionals. As the Cold War creaked to an end, law­suits abounded. In the 1980s, Marshall Islanders—their homes blasted in nuclear tests, their bodies subjected to classified medical study by scientists contracted by the Atomic Energy Agency—went to court. In Utah and Nevada, those who lived downwind from the Nevada Test Site were lining up for lawsuits. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Edison Company in Pennsylvania faced lawsuits from plaintiffs living near the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979. In the late 1980s, reporters and congressional investigators began to inquire into US government agencies’ wide-scale engagement in human radiation experiments, which included exposing tens of thou­sands of soldiers to nuclear blasts. These legal actions and investigations constituted an existential threat for nuclear industries, civilian and military. Chernobyl cast into doubt industry statements that nuclear energy is safer than coal, than flying, than living in high-altitude Denver. If another nuclear accident were to occur, UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Hans Blix told the IAEA board of governors a few weeks after the Chernobyl explosions, “I fear the general public will no longer believe any contention that the risk of a severe accident was so small as to be almost negligible.”

Because radioactivity is insensible, society relies on scientists and their technologies to count ionizing radiation and analyze its effect on biological organ­isms. In 1986, the three-decades-old Life Span Study of Japanese bomb survivors served in the West as the “gold standard” for radiation exposure. It became the chief referent in lawsuits over health damage from radioactive contaminants. The Life Span Study started in 1950. In subsequent decades, American and Japanese scientists followed bomb survivors and their offspring, looking for possible health effects from exposure to the bomb blasts. By 1986, the group had detected a signifi­cant increase in a handful of cancers and, surprisingly, no birth defects, though geneticists had expected them.

The Life Span Study told scientists a great deal about the effects of a single exposure of a terrifically large blast of radiation lasting less than a second but little about the impact of chronic, low doses of radioactivity—the kind of exposures served up by the Chernobyl accident and related to the ongoing lawsuits in the United States. At the time, like now, scientists confessed they knew very little about the effects of low doses of radioactivity on human health. For that reason, after Chernobyl, leading scientific administrators in UN agencies and national health agencies called for using the Chernobyl accident to carry out a long-term, large-scale epidemiological study to determine the effects of low doses of radiation on human health. Unfortunately, those requests went nowhere at first because Soviet officials asserted that health damage was limited to the two dozen firefighters who died from acute radiation poisoning. They insisted that they were monitoring the health of neighboring residents and found no change in their health. Soviet spokespeople told the international community that they did not need help, thank you very much.

Silos of Knowledge #

Health physics, a moribund field in the West and a secretive field in the Soviet Union, suddenly appeared in the spotlight after the Chernobyl accident. Archival records show that two silos of knowledge about the ef­fects of low doses of radiation on human health emerged in the wake of the Chernobyl accident. Western health physicists oriented around the Life Span Study, while Soviet health physicists worked from specialized, closed clinics producing literature that mostly was filed in clas­sified libraries. A few months after the accident, Western health physicists— extrapolating from Hiroshima—an­nounced that, given the reported levels of radioactivity released in the accident, they expected to see no detect­able health problems as a result. From the Soviet side, spokespeople gave vague assurances, but scientists were silent. For security reasons, Soviet health physicists did not take the podium. Anyway, they were busy.

Behind the Iron Curtain, Soviet scientists near the accident quietly got to work figuring out the extent of the damage. A few days after the accident, Anatolii Romanenko, minister of health in Ukraine, called up medical brigades to examine evacuees and villagers in contaminated areas. Several thousand doctors and nurses fanned out across the Soviet countryside. The effort would have been unimaginable outside of a socialist state highly skilled in the art of mass mobilization. In Ukraine alone, doctors examined seventy thousand children and over one hundred thousand adults in the summer following the accident. People judged to have received high doses were sent to hospitals in Kiev, Leningrad, and Moscow. By late May, the number of hospitalized citizens rose to the tens of thousands.

For the subsequent five years, the last years of the Soviet Union, doctors and medical researchers in Ukraine and Belarus tracked health statistics in contaminated regions. They reported the results in classified documents each year. Their reports show that after the accident, frequencies of health problems in five major disease categories grew annually. Soviet doctors did not have access to ambient measurements of radioactivity in the environment and the food chain because that information was classified, so doctors did what they had long done in the Soviet Union. They used their patients’ bodies as biological barometers to determine doses of radioactivity. Medical practitioners counted white and red blood cells, held radiation detec­tion counters to the thyroids of their patients, measured blood pressure, and scanned urine. They looked for chromosomal damage in blood cells and counts of radioactivity in tooth enamel. Using these biomarkers, Soviet doctors determined the doses of radioactivity their patients had encountered externally and ingested internally. Doctors calculated the range of radioactive isotopes lodged in their patients’ bodies. A KGB general who ran his own KGB clinic in Kiev for KGB agents and their families counted twelve different radioactive isotopes in organs and tissue of his patients.

In 1986, in neighboring Belarus, which received the majority of Chernobyl fallout, scientists at the Belarusian Academy of Science set up case-control studies to track the impact in real time on the health of children and pregnant women, two populations judged to be especially vulnerable. The academy also commissioned dozens of studies of radioactive contamination in the atmosphere, soils, plants, agricultural products, and live­stock. They drew on a body of knowledge that Soviet scientists had clandestinely developed over four decades in clinics stationed near secret nuclear installations that had suffered a large number of accidents and spills of radioactive effluents during the Cold War rush to produce weapons. In April 1989, the respected president of the Belarusian Academy of Science sent to Moscow a twenty-five-page report that reflected the renaissance of science in the fields of radioecology and radiobiol­ogy that had flourished in the contaminated regions as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. Evgenii Konoplia laid out what his Institute of Radiobiology had found.

Almost the entire territory of Belarus had been con­taminated, Konoplia wrote, except for a few northern regions. The contamination had a mosaic complexion, with radiation levels differing ten to twenty times in areas a few kilometers apart. Even long distances from the plant, they found areas of between fifty and one hun­dred curies per square kilometer in the topsoil (no more than one curie was considered safe). Analyzing corpses of people who died between 1986 and 1988 in the most affected provinces, Belarusian scientists learned that radioactive cesium and ruthenium accumulated in the spleen and muscles, strontium in bones, and plutonium in lungs, liver, and kidneys. They found, unnervingly, no dependent relationship between the levels of accumulated isotopes in bodies and radioactive contamination in territories. All corpses in the Gomel Province had nearly identical accumulations, and bodies in Vitebsk, with far lower counts of radiation, still had surprisingly elevated levels of radioactive isotopes. The scientists attributed this puzzle to the migration of radioactive contamination along food pathways. The study showed that most of the exposure people received came in the form of internal exposures from ingesting radioactivity, not from exter­nal, ambient gamma rays in the environment.

Medical examinations of people in contaminated regions showed a significant increase in the general number of chromosomal mutations in newborns, and the frequency of birth defects in southern Belarus was found to be significantly higher than the control. In terms of general health, Konoplia reported, adults showed an increase in diseases of the circulatory system, hyperten­sion, coronary illness, heart attacks, and myocardial problems, plus a rise in respiratory diseases. Children showed an elevation in cases of chronic respiratory and neurological disease, anemia, and disorders of the thyroid, adenoids, and lymph nodes. Konoplia acknowl­edged that the rise in rates of disease diagnosis might be related to increased medical attention, but, he pointed out, the rates had risen steadily in each of three years. The Belarusian teams had found objective disorders in bodily functions (immune system, blood-forming system, and endocrine glands), and they had discovered similar changes in experimental animals. Since doctors in con­taminated regions had abandoned their jobs, hospitals were operating at half staff, so there was most likely an underdetection of disease rather than overdetection. All of this led the Belarusian team to suspect that radioactive exposures were a factor.

Soviet ministers in public health suppressed this information, which was easy to do as all Chernobyl health data were under security restrictions until June 1989. Once censorship was lifted, health minis­ters from both Belarus and Ukraine started to voice their concerns abroad, using their seat at the United Nations as a platform to declare that they had a public health disaster on their hands. They asked, over the heads of Moscow leaders, for international aid.

The rogue diplomacy of Ukraine and Belarus was a real problem for the Kremlin. Since 1986, Soviet officials had asserted that Chernobyl fallout was contained and citizens’ exposures were not harm­ful. Having spent billions of rubles on cleanup, they sought in 1989 to close the Chernobyl chapter and move on. Moscow leaders, faced with this rebellion from scientists and crowds in Ukraine and Belarus, called for help. Realizing that the prominent Soviet spokespeople for the Chernobyl disaster had lost the public’s trust, they asked the UN World Health Organization (WHO), concerned with issues of public safety and health, to assess the safety of residents liv­ing in contaminated territories.

The WHO sent three nuclear experts to contami­nated areas in 1989. They were followed by Soviet reporters and TV cameras. After a ten-day tour, the experts supported the Moscow party line: the situa­tion was under control, and residents’ doses were too low to expect to detect health problems in the future. The WHO consultants even stated that the Soviet government could safely double or triple the official permissible dose. Before they left, they chastised the Belarusian researchers for their shoddy science.

No one took this ten-day “independent assessment” seriously. The WHO experts merely looked like shills for Moscow. In October 1989, Moscow leaders tried again, inviting the IAEA for a second evaluation of the accident’s environmental and health impact. IAEA administrator Abel Gonzalez, worried that his agency’s mission to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy would make it look like an interested party, created the International Chernobyl Project in order to enlist the participation of other apparently disinterested UN agencies. Gonzalez’s office recruited two hundred vol­unteer scientists to take a “snapshot” of the Chernobyl situation and come to conclusions by the end of 1990.

American scientist Fred Mettler, who had spent most of his career working in labs of the Atomic Energy Commission, led the International Chernobyl Project’s health group. He quickly drew up a protocol for a case-control study. The protocol was not peer reviewed. UN consultants randomly selected eight hundred cases living in contaminated areas and eight hundred controls living nearby. Mettler reported that his group “looked for everything: cancers, disease, birth defects.” He had no baseline of research on which to evaluate the data his teams collected as there were no publicly available long-term studies of people exposed to chronic low doses. Nor did he have Soviet doctors’ measurements of radioactivity in bodies of their patients. KGB intel­ligence considered these records to be Soviet intellectual property and did not share them with the visiting experts. In fact, four computers with that dose infor­mation were stolen, floppy discs with them, during the summer of the IAEA experts’ first visits.

For Mettler and other IAEA experts, the lack of real-time measurements of their study subjects’ expo­sures was not an obstacle. In fact, it was similar to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki studies, which had begun five years after the bombing. A study of Nevada Test Site “downwinders” had also begun many years after expo­sure. Health physicists had a long-standing practice of retroactively estimating doses to patients by taking measurements, not in bodies as Soviet doctors did, but in environments. With ambient levels of radioactiv­ity, IAEA consultants computed doses for populations based on estimates of average volume and types of food consumed and time spent outdoors—information derived from asking people about their consumption and daily practices in the past. Once they had a “dose reconstruction,” an estimate of the doses people prob­ably received, they then calculated how those doses affected health by extrapolating health consequences from Hiroshima to Chernobyl. The substitution treated the large external (gamma) X-ray dose at Hiroshima as a universal exposure comparable to the slow, low-level, internal exposures of Chernobyl survivors.

But Chernobyl doses, Belarusian scientists protested, differed greatly from those of bomb survivors. Much of the danger, they informed visiting IAEA scientists, came not from external gamma rays but from ingested radioactive isotopes, some in the form of inhaled hot particles, which they estimated caused damage at several times lower doses than external exposures. The IAEA researchers, they pointed out, took as fact statements by Moscow officials that all people in contaminated areas ate clean food shipped in from elsewhere. As Belarusian researchers had already found, corpses in relatively clean Vitbesk Province showed nearly the same levels of incorporated radioactivity as those of corpses in contaminated provinces of south­ern Belarus, because food products in circulation were radioactive. Belarusian scientists puzzled over what kind of results the UN study of a small sample of 1,600 people would deliver. According to charts from the Jap­anese Life Span Study, the protocol for the Chernobyl study would find only catastrophic health results, not the wide range of acute and subacute health problems they had reported in studies carried out in Belarus.

While UN teams performed thyroid exams on children selected for their case-control study, Soviet doctors handed to IAEA consultants biopsies of an unexpectedly large number of children with thyroid cancer, twenty to thirty times higher than usual. That, indeed, was a catastrophic result. UN researchers doubted the cancers could be real. The doses were too low compared to Hiroshima, they kept repeating. The cancers came too soon. The latency period was from five to ten years. Four years after the accident, they calculated, was too early to see cancers, even among children, whose cells multiply quickly.

Soviet researchers in Ukraine and Belarus were confused. They did not hold the Japanese Life Span Study as their gold standard; they hardly knew that material. Instead of computing doses and conse­quences, Soviet researchers encouraged visiting experts to use patients’ bodies and bodily material evidence such as biopsies to determine both doses and damage.

But that wasn’t how radiation epidemiology was done in the West. Health physicists were operating on the understanding that if high doses from the atomic bombs caused some damage to the population of bomb survivors, much lower Chernobyl doses would deliver far lower rates of illness, increases of cancers so minimal, they computed, they would be impossible to detect above the average cancer rates.

In fact, with the Life Span Study as a referent and an estimate of ambient radiation levels, Western researchers did not need to do a study; doses were so low, they concluded, they would find no effects. A study done so soon after exposure would produce little useful knowledge. So why do one at all? Clarence Lushbaugh, a doctor with the Atomic Energy Commission–funded Oak Ridge Associated Universities, wrote privately to a colleague in 1980 admitting that these kinds of low-dose radiation studies were largely for public consumption: “Both [nuclear] workers and their management need to be assured that a career involving exposures to low levels of nuclear radiation is not hazardous to one’s health. . . . The results of such a study [of American nuclear workers] could be the best counter-measure to the antinuclear propaganda that continues to flood all of us. . . . They would be immensely useful in resolving workmen’s claims.” It fell to the Department of Energy, the successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, to fund these studies, Lushbaugh continued, because if competitors such as the nuclear workers’ labor union did their own stud­ies, they could come up with damning results: “A study designed to show the transgressions of management will usually succeed.” Lushbaugh was pointing to the fact that the parameters of dose reconstructions were so flexible that they could easily serve political purposes.

The IAEA served up a study just like the one Lushbaugh proposed, one designed to placate anxious publics in the Soviet Union, Europe, and North Amer­ica. The short eighteen-month examination concluded in the rushed publication of the International Cher­nobyl Project Final Report in spring 1991. The report estimated that rates of disease, though higher than expected, were the same in both the control and the exposed groups. They attributed the excess of health problems to stress caused by exposure to radiation, or what scientists called “radiophobia.” The only health outcome UN investigators saw was a possible detect­able future bump in childhood thyroid cancer.

What of the thyroid cancers that had already appeared, Belarusian and Ukrainian researchers asked? What about the biopsies they gave the UN teams to verify? In the transcripts of the 1991 meeting on the International Chernobyl Project report, Mettler acknowledged that he had taken the biopsies home to his lab in New Mexico and they had “checked out.” Despite that “fact,” the final report’s text stated only that there had been “rumors” of pediatric thyroid cancer that were “anecdotal in nature.”

The UN consultants had verified a major, twentyfold increase in pediatric thyroid cancer in a university lab, and then called that proof “anecdotal.” Why did they do that? The UN consultants were volunteers; they worked at universities or government labs. They were indepen­dent of the UN hierarchy, beholden to no one. Perhaps the health physicists denied evidence they had themselves verified because it did not match their predictive models from the Japanese Life Span Study. This could be a case of slow science, where it takes a long time for researchers to shift from one paradigm to another. But there is more to the story. The Japanese Life Span Study was in the open literature, but it was far from the only research into human exposures to radioactive contaminants.

Researchers on the UN team who had security clearances had access to classified studies that showed that 79 percent of children in the Marshall Islands exposed to American bomb blasts under the age of ten had developed thyroid cancer. Seventy-nine percent of several hundred children had thyroid cancer when the background rate was one in a million. That was a clear precedent against which to judge the Chernobyl cancers. In 1991, however, the Marshall Islands studies were still classified. So too was the vast work the US government had commissioned related to radiation experiments on human subjects. Researchers with high-level clearances had known for decades about swift-moving pediatric thyroid cancers in contaminated landscapes, but they could not discuss them in public.

The Chernobyl case is not merely a matter of the slowly shifting gears of scientific advancement at work. Rather, the case shows how the divide between clas­sified and unclassified research places scientists in a dangerously compromised position. Scientists with clearances could not acknowledge the Marshall Islands and other human-subjects research without placing themselves in jeopardy of federal charges for disclosure of state secrets. Russian scientists in Moscow were in the same position. French and British scientists also may have had to negotiate the divide between open and closed research in their own institutional worlds.

And then there were the lawsuits. The opening vignette of this essay showed how DOE and DOJ lawyers worried about the landslide of post Cold War lawsuits and worked to arm health physicists as expert witnesses to defend US government interests. Chernobyl factored in these cases because the chronic, low-dose exposures Chernobyl served up were more similar to the downwinder and human-subjects’ cases than those in the Japanese Life Span Study. Acknowledging the existence of a pediatric thyroid cancer epidemic in the Chernobyl territories would have imperiled the US government’s defense in lawsuits that were working their way through courts at the time. Marshall Islands, Nevada Test Site, Three Mile Island, and Hanford pluto­nium plant downwinders all pointed to thyroid cancer as one major health consequence of their exposures.

Missed Opportunities #

In 1996, after the number of pediatric thyroid cases in Ukraine and Belarus had grown to the thousands, UN agencies could no longer deny the epidemic. UN scientists conceded that they had been wrong—that Chernobyl triggered pediatric thyroid cancers earlier and more significantly than studies in the open litera­ture had predicted. With that announcement, dozens of research teams rushed to do follow-up studies on Chernobyl-caused pediatric cancers. But what of the larger, long-term epidemiological study of a wide range of Chernobyl health consequences? That study promised to resolve many of the unanswered questions about exposures to chronic low doses of radioactivity.

The prospects for such a study looked good. In the early 1990s, Japan donated $20 million to the WHO for a pilot study of Chernobyl health effects. The UN General Assembly formed an ad hoc Chernobyl Task Force and set to work organizing a pledge drive to raise $646 million (more than $1 billion today) to resettle two hundred thousand people from contami­nated areas and fund the much-expected long-term epidemiological study of Chernobyl health effects.

Abel Gonzalez, the IAEA official who directed the International Chernobyl Project, had asked that the UN pledge drive be held after his group’s assessment had been published. Margaret Anstee, head of the Cher­nobyl Task Force, innocently agreed to delay the drive until September 1991. Unfortunately, after the Interna­tional Chernobyl Project announced it had found no detectable health effects, Anstee’s pledge drive failed. Instead of $347 million, the task force raised less than $6 million. The major donors, Germany, the United States, and Japan, begged off, citing the IAEA’s “no effects” assessment “as a factor.” Without funding, no study of long-term low-dose effects on human health occurred. To this day, scientists say we know little about the low-dose health effects. They should say that we have little information in the open literature about low-dose effects. That distinction between open and classified literature should be made every time. It is an important distinction for those thinking about academic freedom and, as it turns out, unfreedom.

In the following years, UN officials used the hasty, poorly designed International Chernobyl Project study to pursue a narrative that the only Chernobyl-related health problems were those caused by anxiety over the fear of radiation. Despite the reams of evidence com­ing to light from declassified Soviet medical facilities, UN officials at the IAEA and the UN Scientific Com­mittee for Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) repeated this claim so often that it was taken as reality.

In 1996, UNSCEAR produced a major review of Chernobyl research. Three UNSCEAR editors, one of them the same Fred Mettler who led the International Chernobyl Project assessment, dismissed about half of the studies gathered for the review. These largely came from Soviet researchers’ reports of wide-scale health problems. The UNSCEAR editors disparaged these studies as “unverified” and “sloppy” with “poor qual­ity control” and warned that their conclusions should be “treated with caution.” The reporters summarized, “Given the experience thus far accumulated in radia­tion studies, unless the exposures are relatively high, it is unlikely that environmentally exposed populations would experience markedly enhanced incidences of radiation-induced effects.” Psychological damage and economic hardship, the 1996 UNSCEAR report main­tained, echoing the original IAEA-led assessment, were the most pervasive and likely causes of health problems in Chernobyl territories. The UNSCEAR reporters rec­ommended against follow-up studies on low-dose effects because of “presumably low level of risk.” In 2006, Met­tler authored the Chernobyl Forum report, which largely repeated the conclusions of the reports UN committees had issued since 1986. The Chernobyl Forum report today is most often cited as the authoritative assessment of Chernobyl damage.

The assertion that Chernobyl was “the worst [nuclear] disaster in human history” and only fifty-four people died is used as a rationale to continue build­ing nuclear power plants. That number, published in respectable material produced by UN agencies, is often cited, but is clearly incorrect. The Ukrainian state currently pays compensation to thirty-five thousand women whose spouses died from Chernobyl-related health problems. This number reckons only the deaths of men who were old enough to marry and had recorded exposures. It does not include the mortal­ity of women, young people, infants, or people who did not have documented exposures. Off the record, Ukrainian officials give a death toll of 150,000. That figure is only for Ukraine, not Russia or Belarus, where 70 percent of Chernobyl fallout landed.

Underestimating Chernobyl damage meant that almost all of the post–Cold War lawsuits related to exposures to radioactivity failed in the United States, Great Britain, and Russia. It left humans unprepared for the next disaster. When a tsunami crashed into the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant in 2011, Japanese leaders responded in ways eerily similar to the responses of Soviet leaders. Today, thirty-four years after the Chernobyl accident, we are still short on answers and long on uncertainties. Ignorance about low-dose exposures is tragic and far from accidental, an ignorance that exposes the breach between open and classified research. We stand with a leg on each side of a crevasse between those two bodies of scholarship. The rift between facts and alternative facts grew out of that deep ravine between open and classified knowledge sunk during the Cold War.

Kate Brown is professor of history in the Department of Science, Technology, and Soci­ety at the Massachusetts Insti­tute of Technology. She is the author of several prize-winning histories, including Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (2013). Her latest book, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (2019), is a finalist for the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award.

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