Robert Gale's Inside Story Of His Chemobyl Days

FINAL WARNING: The Legacy of Chemobyl Robert P Gale and Thomas Hauser Warner Books; New York 230 pages; $18.95 The second anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in April was marked by the publication of several books, each trying to tell the story from a different angle, each attempting to serve a different political purpose. One of them, Richard Mould’s Chernobyl The Real Story (Pergamon Press), got the full endorsement and cooperation of Soviet authorities. The book contains 160 photog

Zhores Medvedev
Jun 12, 1988
FINAL WARNING: The Legacy of Chemobyl
Robert P Gale and Thomas Hauser
Warner Books; New York 230 pages; $18.95

The second anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in April was marked by the publication of several books, each trying to tell the story from a different angle, each attempting to serve a different political purpose.

One of them, Richard Mould’s Chernobyl The Real Story (Pergamon Press), got the full endorsement and cooperation of Soviet authorities. The book contains 160 photographs, most of them provided by the Soviet news agencies, and therefore succeeds to some extent as a photo album depicting a truly great effort to rectify the consequences of a disaster. Unfortunately, the book contains no new facts or independent analyses.

Another recent book, The Chernobyl! Disaster by Victor Haynes and Marko Bojoun (Hogarth Press, London)— which the authors intended to be “an unanswerable indictment against nuclear power”—is a far more objective work.

However the most interesting new addition to the body of “Chernobylia” is Robert P. Gale’s moving story, which makes up the first part of a two-part volume, The Legacy of Chernobyl, co-authored with Thomas Hauser.

While Hauser’s contribution clearly puts forth the “warning” of the title—indeed, it reads somewhat like the declarations of the Association of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War—Gale’s contribution carries the impact of an international thriller. Gale, a scientist based at the UCLA Medical Center, is an expert on bone marrow transplantation. He had never visited the USSR prior to his decision, in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, to go there and help Soviet doctors. He had been summoned by none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, who cabled Gale after receiving a note of recommendation from the influential industrialist Armand Hammer. Gorbachev asked Gale to come “immediately.”

Two days later, at six in the morning, Gale found himself jogging through the streets of Mos- cow, well aware of the problems that his quick pace would create for the secret police. He assumed that the KGB was going to be following him everywhere.

In Moscow, a mysterious “Hospital No. 6,” where the most seriously affected victims were treated, was a far cry from Gale’s UCLA surroundings. “The grounds were an armed camp,” he writes. “A hundred soldiers were on the lawn, in and around tents, milling about in various stages of activity." Even with official escorts from the Ministry of Health at his side—not to mention that he was being driven around in a government limousine—Gale had problems getting through the gate.

Restrictions were severe inside as well. Neither Gale nor any of his U.S.-Israeli team was permitted to visit other hospital sections or to have lunch in the hospital canteen. Their struggle to save time for work by eating sandwiches was futile. Each noon they were taken back to their five-star hotel, more than an hour’s drive away. In the hotel restaurant, beer was always served with lunch, but, Gale tells us, only after dessert—presumably to increase the chances that some would be left over for the waiters.

Gale believes that his treatment did save the lives of two patients, but a few months later when he attended an international meeting reflecting on the Chernobyl disaster, he found that the Soviet experts dismissed bone marrow transplantations as a complete failure and did not acknowledge the U.S. contribution. The Soviets contended that such transplantations should not be considered as an option for victims of radiation exposure. (The Soviet medical service, incidentally, does not take part in the International Bone Marrow Transplant Regis-Gale became so interested in Soviet life that after his first trip he lobbied on behalf of Jewish ref useniks and even signed an agreement with the USSR’s Deputy Health Minister concerning a long-term health study of the irradiated population.)

Zhores Medvedev, an exiled Soviet
scientist, is a senior researcher in the
Genetics Division of the UK’s National
Institute for Medical Research,
London.