Monday, June 18, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia Unprepared for Nuclear Accidents, Medical Specialist Warns

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 19 – The Russian government today is less ready to cope with nuclear accidents than the Soviet regime was before the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, according to a Moscow medical specialist who has worked on how to respond to the accidental release of radiation since the 1940s.
In a book released last week, “On the Edge of the Nuclear Knife” (“Na lezsvii atomnogo nozha,” Moscow: Meditsina, 1200 copies), Angelina Gus’kova, a senior scientist at the Health Ministry’s Institute of Biophysics, discusses what she describes as a continuing tragedy in which Moscow could save far more victims than it has.
Many of the problems, she said, were the result of the desire of bureaucrats to cover up the problems. In the case of the Chelyabinsk accident 50 years ago, the Soviet-era managers of the nuclear power station did not allow doctors to see anyone exposed to less than six times what was considered dangerous.
As a result, many died of cancer and other diseases, Gus’kova continued, but the true toll was obscured not only by Soviet censorship but because there were two few doctors to track those living near the site and because no one was able to conduct serious follow-up research (
From the outset, doctors were not allowed to certify those exposed, the latter were seldom able to claim nuclear-related disabilities. Ordinary physicians, the biophysics specialist said, simply did not have the expertise to do so, and the place of work and residence of those exposed was kept classified.
Indeed, Gus’kova recounts with regret, “only six or seven doctors” working in the region knew “the code word” Soviet officials employed for the reactor site and the adjoining regions. She estimates that more than half of those in the region later diagnosed with cancer were in fact victims of radiation exposure.
In the period immediately preceding the Chernobyl accident, Guskova said, her colleagues developed drug to protect those involved in clean up actions. But, she reports, despite a large stockpile that would have allowed Russian officials to give ten doses to each of those involved in the 1986 accident, none of these medications were handed out.
Again, and as a result of this bureaucratic incompetence, far more people involved in that accident and its aftermath came down with cancer and died.
Unfortunately, Gus’kova continues, the situation today may be even worse. On the one hand, much of the up-to-date equipment Western governments and agencies provided Moscow with after Chernobyl is wearing out and has not been updated or replaced.
And on the other, she continues, “the single institution in the country” where those exposed to radiation are treated on a regular basis – the Institute of Biophysics – does not have the licenses and certificates it needs to treat its patients. Indeed, she says, “its activity is illegal.”
The institute’s clinic is listed as a subdivision of Moscow City Hospital No. 6,” Gus’kova notes, “and [its] specialists are listed as scientific consultants.” As such, they do not bear “any responsibility” for the patients there, “and those who do bear such responsibility by position and the law are not specialists in this area.”
Gus’kova said she has tried to bring this problem to the attention of higher ups, including the new minister of health. But his deputy told her “the minister cannot receive you.” Such a situation, she said, underscored the truth of President Vladimir Putin’s recent observation:
“The most refined form of sabotage is the strict observance of the letter of the law.”

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