A Year Later, Chernobyl Research Still Under a Cloud

Igor Suskov is a cytogeneticist who wants to learn a new technique to analyze the extent of mutation in human cells resulting from radiation. But the Soviet scientist may never get the chance, because the people who have developed the assay are at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the site of classified research on U.S. nuclear weapons.

By | April 20, 1987

Igor Suskov is a cytogeneticist who wants to learn a new technique to analyze the extent of mutation in human cells resulting from radiation. But the Soviet scientist may never get the chance, because the people who have developed the assay are at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the site of classified research on U.S. nuclear weapons.

Suskov's request is caught in the political and scientific fallout that continues one year after the accident inside reactor unit #4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine. Doubts about the quality of the available data, combined with the traditional reluctance of the Soviet Union to share information and the red tape involved in any collaboration between the Soviets and Western nations, have dampened hopes that a better understanding of the effects of radiation on humans and the environment would be the silver lining in the worst civilian nuclear reactor disaster on record.

There are few collaborative efforts underway between Soviet scientists and their international colleagues. Robert Gale, the UCLA physician and scientist who performed bone marrow transplants on several victims shortly after the accident, has been granted the greatest access, through the backing of industrialist Armand Hammer. But his efforts have barely dented the wall of secrecy surrounding Soviet studies on the 135,000 people evacuated in the days following the accident.

Trips Cancelled

The National Academy of Sciences, at the invitation of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, has twice in the past six months assembled a delegation of biomedical researchers to visit the Soviet Union. But each time Soviet officials cancelled the trip at the last moment, saying that they were not ready. A long-dormant health sciences exchange between the two countries has been revived, with a four-day meeting scheduled for last week hosted by the National Institutes of Health, but Chernobyl was not on the agenda.

Suskov made his request in a March letter to Livermore scientists that carried the endorsement of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. It is based on his knowledge of studies by a team of scientists from Livermore's biomedical sciences division, led by Ronald Jensen. The researchers applied a new technique, called the glycophorin A somatic cell mutation assay, to measure the effects of radiation exposure on cells using blood samples of Chernobyl survivors obtained with Gale's help.

Last year Jensen's team trained Japanese scientists from the Hiroshima laboratory run by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation. This past winter five Soviet scientists visited the Japanese laboratory, which is continuing with follow-up studies of the World War II survivors. Jensen said he would expect a collaboration with the Soviets to work in a similar fashion.

Jop Thiessen, deputy director of the Office of Health and Environmental Research within the Department of Energy, said that, in light of the security considerations at Livermore, the visit would be best handled by the State Department. Jensen said he has passed along that suggestion to the Soviet Academy. Thiessen emphasized that the Energy Department is very interested in any collaborative efforts relating to the accident.

Degrees of Openness

The request from Suskov is one example of how Chernobyl has forced the Soviet Union to modify its traditional reluctance to disclose information about natural or manmade disasters. Last fall, at the most recent meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Soviet officials surprised participants with their willingness to discuss many aspects of the accident.

Last month an NIH scientist was a member of a Nuclear Regulatory Commission delegation that examined nuclear reactor safety during a tour of the Soviet Union. Robert Miller, an epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute, said the health effects of the accident were mentioned during meetings in Moscow and Kiev but that there was little time for serious discussion or an exchange of data. Next month a Soviet delegation is expected to discuss the health effects of the accident at a meeting of the IAEA in Vienna.

"Clearly, the Soviets are interested in contacts with individual scientists, but they are hesitant to become involved in any relationship with a foreign government," said Thiessen, whose agency funds work at Lawrence Livermore and other federal laboratories on the effects of radiation. "I have the feeling that they do not want to expose the population to undue stress. At the same time, they feel an obligation to safeguard the health of their citizens."

Such an approach, noted several scientists, severely limits both the type of studies that can be conducted and the quality of the work.

"I think they'd like to put the whole thing behind them," said Joseph RaIl, NIH deputy director of intramural research and an authority on the effects of radiation. "They have led us to believe that they would monitor the local population that was evacuated, but it's not clear which organization is handling it, what data they have collected, and what they are planning to do."

Limits on Research

One reason for the seeming lack of urgency among many biomedical and environmental scientists is that they don't know whether the accident offers opportunities for significant research.

A major barrier is the uncertainty surrounding the level of radiation released. Instead of the instantaneous, known quantity of radiation released by an atomic warhead, the accident produced dosages that were spotty, scattered over several days, and ingested in a variety of ways. That imprecision, along with the delayed announcement of the accident, has led to questions about the quality of the data collected—by Soviet scientists and those in other countries—both immediately following the explosion and during the ongoing monitoring of the people and the environment in the vicinity of the nuclear plant.

Another problem is the difficulty in separating the extent of injuries and deaths caused by the accident from the normal level of mortality and morbidity in the relevant population. "Even if this accident was a worst-case scenario," said NIH's Rail, "it doesn't seem to have done a lot of damage. It's not a terribly important incident, scientifically speaking, which makes it less compelling as a research issue."

Mervis is on the staff of The Scientist.

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