The Lessons of Chernobyl : It Proves That Nuclear Accidents Know No Boundaries

<i> Robert Peter Gale is an associate professor of medicine at UCLA and chairman of the International Bone Marrow Registry</i>

On May 1 the government of the Soviet Union asked me to come to Moscow to aid Soviet physicians and scientists in evaluating the Chernobyl nuclear-reactor accident. I responded immediately, aided greatly in the effort by Armand Hammer of Occidental Petroleum and by my colleagues Paul Terasaki and Richard Champlin of Los Angeles and Yair Reisner from Israel.

We have yet to analyze fully the medical consequences of the Chernobyl accident. Thirty-five individuals were severely affected, and 19 have died; 300 others received substantial doses of radiation. By Soviet estimates, 50,000 to 100,000 individuals may have been exposed to significant doses of radiation. Some Western countries have estimated that 25,000 to 50,000 Europeans ultimately may die as a consequence of the Chernobyl accident.

I regard these estimates as premature, since we lack considerable data on radiation doses and other critical variables. I hope to resolve some of these issues with a visit to Chernobyl soon. Other aspects will require months or years to determine. Because of this, I urge caution in estimating the medical consequences of Chernobyl. There is little to be gained and much to lose by premature speculation. The Soviets have assured me that the West will have full access to the data and that these will be published as soon as possible in the scientific literature. I hope that the National Academy of Sciences, the National Institutes of Health and the International Atomic Energy Agency will join in this effort.


Many individuals have asked me this question: “What are the lessons to be learned from Chernobyl?” Clearly we do not have all the answers, but some are already evident. First are the inseparable potential benefits and dangers of nuclear energy. In the United States, 15.5% of our electricity is generated from nuclear power plants. Insofar as this frees us from domination by foreign powers, as evidenced by the 1973-74 oil crisis, this is a welcome development.

But are we fully prepared to deal with all the consequences of nuclear energy? Recent events at Chernobyl bring this into question. Just as the Challenger accident will not, and should not, deter us from the peaceful exploration of space, the Chernobyl accident will not stop progress in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. It should, however, give us pause for concern. We must assure the public that every possible safeguard is utilized and that we are fully prepared to deal with nuclear accidents. In this regard we are obligated to learn all that we can from the event at Chernobyl.

While in the Soviet Union, and on my return, I received thousands of telephone calls, letters and cables. Most were supportive of international efforts to help the Soviets cope with Chernobyl. A few individuals criticized these activities, asserting that we were naive to help our “enemies.”

It should be clear that the purpose of this mission to the Soviet Union was to help Soviet physicians deal more effectively with complex medical problems. Many years ago, my colleagues and I took an oath to preserve human life, regardless of other considerations. Our actions at Chernobyl were directed by this obligation. Although we as individuals may have personal feelings regarding some Soviet policies, this cannot supersede our duty as physicians. The unfortunate victims of this disaster were not political figures but rather reactor workers, firefighters and paramedics--people with husbands and wives, children and parents, much as all of us.

I sense more important lessons from Chernobyl. In one respect Chernobyl indicates that a nuclear accident knows no international boundaries--nor does international help and collaboration. Within 48 hours after arriving, I was able to assemble in Moscow the resources of physicians and scientists from 15 nations who disregarded political differences to save human lives. Reisner, the Israeli scientist, arrived in Moscow without a visa and was welcomed by the Soviets, who willingly put aside politics to assure optimum care for the individuals exposed to radiation. For this the Soviets deserve our commendation.

Events of the past four weeks also indicate our limited ability to respond to nuclear accidents. This should put to rest any notion of an adequate medical response to a thermonuclear war. I had the privilege, along with Hammer, of meeting Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Secretary of State George P. Shultz. I was impressed that both leaders were aware of the potential dangers of nuclear war. Gorbachev recognized that our presence in the Soviet Union was a sign of American concern for the Chernobyl victims. Shultz asked me to convey to the Soviet leaders both his personal concern and that of President Reagan. In both instances Hammer argued strongly for the need to put aside differences.

I hope that we can seize this unique moment to move toward a reduction in nuclear weapons and toward peace--not on Soviet terms and not on American terms, but on a common ground. We owe it to the victims of Chernobyl and to ourselves. Surely we cannot afford to do less.