beyond chernobyl fairburn bass kennyThroughout 2014 AWW will occasionally invite guest authors to review books of interest to challenge participants. Today’s guest author is historical fiction writer, Isolde Martyn.

According to the International Nuclear Event Scale of 1 to 7, there have been two disasters that have been classified as 7: Fukushima Daiichi on 11 March 2011 and Chernobyl on 26 April 1986. With the impact of Fukushima’s disaster still very fresh and ongoing, perhaps it’s time to pay tribute to a book that came out in 1993 as it is still an important contribution to the continuing debate about nuclear energy.

In the aftermath of Chernobyl, two Australian women, Corin Fairburn Bass, a writer and broadcaster, and Janet Kenny, a nuclear disarmament campaigner, decided to compile a collection of eyewitness accounts across Europe. They sent out appeals on radio stations and wrote hundreds of letters to individual women as well as medical, scientific and women’s organisations. They wanted to record women’s accounts because as mothers and housewives these were the people who had to deal with sick relatives and food contamination.

We want this book to be part of the essential process of establishing women’s values of caring and nurturing in the mainstream of human thought and action.

What their research uncovered was not just how women tried to cope but no end of government cover-ups, mismanagement and misinformation.

In every country women bore the brunt of the disaster since they, in the main, were the shoppers, cooks, house-cleaners and child-carers. Pregnant women were haunted by the fear that radiation might have harmed not just the foetus but future generations. Meanwhile men spoke reassuringly of ‘acceptable risks’. Women’s experiences were treated as insignificant.

The radiation began on 26 April and gradually spread out across the fields and the waterways of Europe. The contamination did not reach the north of the British Isles until 2 May. The impact on livestock meant that milk, other dairy products and meat were affected. Crops especially leafy vegetables might be contaminated. Even in Scotland, traces could be found in river fish such as perch.  Unfortunately, by the time Europeans realised the consequences of Chernobyl, many of them, especially children, had been exposed to radiation from contaminated rain. Official orders to wash hair and clothes were often given too late. People changed their diet, seeking tinned and out of date foods. Safe powdered milk for babies was in short supply.

One of those women, Freda Meissner-Blau, a Viennese journalist, ecologist and feminist, wrote:

While men found wet rags at their office doors to wipe the radioactive dust from their shoes, parents had to deal with restless small children locked into their apartments. It was the mothers who had to bear the brunt of the situation; hunting for relatively uncontaminated food, finding help to guard the little one while shopping, and worrying about halfway ‘clean’ milk and baby-food. Pregnant women suffered from horrific visions of malformed children and abortions jumped.

In the Chernobyl area, many families were forced to leave their homes and make a new life elsewhere but huge numbers found their health affected. Galina Derkach, an economist in Pripyat, was one of the many victims. Her skin turned dark, her legs swelled so much she could not walk, and it was hard to find the right help. She did not know she had two holes burned into her intestine.

As far away as Germany, women felt they were dealing with an invisible menace. Radioactivity in Sweden was 12 thousand times higher than normal. There was no picking of forest berries or garden produce despite the glorious summer weather that year.

Beyond Chernobyl is an important contribution to women’s history. It also demonstrates that many governments across the Northern Hemisphere, either out of ineptitude, confusion or fear,  failed to give their people adequate warning about the exposure to radiation.

The hope of this book was that succeeding generations would be better informed and the organizations that run nuclear reactors would be better prepared against any eventualities. Sadly, a lot of the discussion in Beyond Chernobyl turns out to be relevant still.


Isolde_Martyn2Isolde Martyn writes historical novels. Her latest books are Mistress to the Crown and The Devil in Ermine, both set in the Wars of the Roses.


Title: BEYOND CHERNOBYL: Women respond
Authors: Compiled by Corin Fairburn Bass and Janet Kenny
Publisher: Envirobook, 1993