Q&A:

Chernobyl’s high cost

ROBERT GALE July 6 1987
Q&A:

Chernobyl’s high cost

ROBERT GALE July 6 1987

Chernobyl’s high cost

Q&A:

ROBERT GALE

Hospital No. 6 in downtown Moscow has become world-famous in the past 14 months. The massive state institution is where Dr. Robert Gale and his team of American specialists have been treating Soviet radiation victims since the April 26, 1986, nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Gale, head of the bone-marrow transplant team at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center, has worked with top Soviet doctors on burn therapy and transplants. The transplants became necessary because radiation attacks bone marrow, where blood cells are produced. Brought to the Soviet Union largely through the efforts of pro-Soviet billionaire U.S. industrialist Armand Hammer, Gale, 1+1, has made more than 12 trips to the U.S.S.R. since the accident. The physician has now begun work on a book based on his Soviet experiences, scheduled for publication next spring. He spoke to Maclean’s Assistant Editor Julia Bennett from his home in Bel Air, Calif, where he lives with his wife, Tamar, and their three children:

Maclean’s: Has the world already begun to forget Chernobyl?

Gale: To some extent we forget every disaster—in our own personal lives and on an international scale. But it is my own feeling that the impact of Chernobyl has been very substantial. It has had an amazing effect on the glasnost [openness]

‘There is a much bigger issue-the Chernobgl accident would be absolutelg trivial compared with a nuclear attack’

policies of the Soviets—clearly Chernobyl was a watershed for them in information handling. I think the other major impact is the willingness to accept the idea of an American-Soviet reduction in intermediateand short-range nuclear weapons. We have talked about the use of nuclear weapons, deployed in the European theatre, as a deterrent to Soviet conventional

forces. Now, when the people of Europe wound up not having vegetables and are still deathly afraid of food because of Chernobyl a year later, I think the concept of so-called limited nuclear war on European soil has just become an unacceptable alternative.

Maclean’s: What health effects will Chernobyl have on the Soviet Union— and the world?

Gale: Thirty-one people have died, a number of people are still affected and 471 have been discharged from hospital and are essentially doing well except for some residual health problems such as burns. In long-term effects, I have predicted between 2,500 and 75,000 extra cancer deaths worldwide over the next 50 years, and about 40 per cent of those would be in the Soviet Union. The reason for the 50-year range is that in the case of leukemia caused by radiation—which would be about a third of the cases—it develops fairly rapidly, in five or 10 years. But the other cancers that we would expect would occur over 20 or even 30 years. Except for leukemia, most of the people who will develop cancer are children now—the women who will develop breast cancer are young girls now. Maclean’s: How do you respond to allegations that your marrow transplants did little or no good?

Gale: You have to remember that we had 500 patients. Fortunately, most were peo-

pie whom we felt would recover their bone-marrow function —if they could be kept alive. That was the reason that about $1 million worth of antibiotics was flown in, to allow these people to survive long enough to do that. Now, 471 are reasonably well and out of hospital—so that strategy worked. But there is always a small fraction of people whose bone marrow is irreversibly destroyed. These people, 13 in total, received transplants; all except two have died. We believed we could get about 25 per cent of severely affected people to survive this type of accident. But the problem with Soviet reactors, as distinct from Canadian or American reactors, is that with an accident, they also have a major fire. A marrow transplant can only prevent you from dying of bone-marrow failure—it cannot prevent you dying of burns or radiation damage to the liver. Obviously, our overall success rate was over 90 per cent. In a North American accident it would be much higher, because we

wouldn’t have to contend with the severe burns.

Maclean’s: How does the level of Soviet medical expertise in the field of radiation compare with U.S. knowledge? Gale: The Soviet physicians we dealt with were very experienced in dealing with radiation accidents, but they don’t have

the depth of resources we have in North America. Their health-care system has a lower priority in national funding. But they have the brainpower and the experience.

Maclean’s: What does their skill seem to indicate about the frequency of unreported accidents in the Soviet Union? Gale: I understand what you’re getting at. All I can say is that they had a considerable amount of experience. Maclean’s: How will you continue to monitor, as you agreed to do, the 135,000 people in the 30-km danger radius around Chernobyl?

Gale: The primary responsibility has to be the Soviets’. What we can do is try to share our resources and our experience-after all, the prototype for this is the surveys, on roughly the same number of people, of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the past 40 years. On a humanitarian basis, obviously we want to be sure that everything that can be done for these people is done. On a more practical level, we would like to know very much what the outcome is of this accident—and we feel the credibility of the data will be increased by a Soviet-American collaboration. Maclean’s: How would such a program be funded?

Gale: We would like an intergovernmental funding relationship. That may not be feasible in the short run—to date, the

Soviets have declined all offers from various American governmental bodies to collaborate with them. Our choice is either to find alternatives or to say that we’re not working with them. My decision for the moment is to take advantage of the enormous support we have received from companies like [Armand Hammer’s] Occidental Petroleum Corp., which has already donated millions of dollars in emergency equipment and products. But a governmental agency will be needed, and it is my belief that if Gorbachev and Reagan meet to sign an arms reduction treaty in the fall, the climate will be ripe to negotiate such an agreement. It would be a suitably nice gesture for the occasion.

Maclean’s: Are Canada and the United States in danger of a “Chernobyl ”?

Gale: No one would rule out the possibility of a North American nuclear accident. It is our responsibility to look at Chernobyl with respect to our own safety plans. Could we handle 500 victims of radiation? The answer is, we probably could. There is a much bigger issue, however. The accident would be absolutely trivial compared with a nuclear attack. If one were to explode a one-megaton bomb over Detroit, it would result in the immediate deaths of 400,000 people—compared with 31 at Chernobyl. Even with the best medical expertise and millions of dollars, we were hard-pressed to deal with Chernobyl. An attack on one major U.S. city would cost us the total blood reserves of the United States. So if anyone thinks there will be medical solutions to a nuclear war, they are in for a big surprise.

Maclean’s: What prompted you to begin writing a book?

Gale: What I hope I can do, in an impartial way, is get the American public interested in the importance of developing a long-range energy strategy. I want to examine closely the events of Chernobyl, but also expand to broader issues— the whole question of nuclear energy and what Chernobyl means to the industry. There are two schools of thought: some people say the accident is the beginning of the end for nuclear energy; others see it as proof of how safe it is— here we have a major accident, and only 31 lives are lost. And finally, I want to look at what Chernobyl has meant to Soviet-American relations.

Maclean’s: What has it meant?

Gale: Some Soviet officials believe

strongly that the American response to Chernobyl is the most significant development in Soviet-American relations of the past 40 years. It has had an enormous impact on the average Soviet citizen. The Soviets have a very long memory, for the good and for the bad. In the long run, despite all the tension, they will remember that in a time of need, we were there to offer help, and I believe that that is more important than treaties.^