25 December 2018

Radiation Explosion in Russia in 1957 - Interesting 'Exposure'

During the late 1960s I developed a keen interest in a disease of (mainly) cattle associated with the consumption of bracken fern. The acute form of the disease commonly was seen as severe haemorrages throughout the animals' tissues. Longterm exposure to bracken caused cancers of the urinary bladder. The disease syndrome of bracken toxicity was often described as 'radiomimetic', an acknowledgement of its likeness to radiation sickness. Eventually the cause of the disease (a plant carcinogen, ptaquiloside) was discovered almost simultaneously by Japanese and Dutch scientists. I eventually did some work on the disease myself and wrote a few reviews on the subject. It was a very interesting story.

But back in about 1965 I came across a curious paper in Russian describing some work on the subject. I had it translated. The author, Moroshkin, in 1959 described the condition and its radiomimetic nature and showed the results of their investigation. They had taken bracken from the area where they had seen the disease, ashed the bracken in situ and exposed the undisturbed bracken ashes on a photographic plate in total darkness. This was the then method of doing an autoradiograph. The photographic plate showed the image of the fern ash, indicating that the fern emitted ionising radiation. They did the same with the animal bones! No other details of the nature of these radioactive substances was given. Subsequent science has clearly indicated that the carcinogen is ptaquiloside (and some similar minor molecules) and, although nothing to do with radiation, that the 'radiomimetic' effect is due to ptaquiloside's action on the DNA of rapidly dividing cells (mainly gut epithelium and bone marrow cells) - something radioactive substances also do. But what had caused these autoradiographic images?

Eventually it transpired that back in 1957 a major explosion of nuclear materials had occurred in Kyshtym, in the eastern Urals area. The whole event had been hushed up at the time but eventually exposed publicly by a Soviet scientist, Zhores A Medvedev, in his book, "Nuclear Disaster in the Urals", in 1979. The radiation had spread over about 50 000 square kilometres. Medvedev called it at the time 'biggest nuclear tragedy in peacetime the world has known'. The explosion at Kyshtym has since been confirmed.

Zhores Medvedev

Not only had the Soviet Union denied and disguised the event at the time - but, fearing public reaction against nuclear energy, the CIA, who had knowledge of the disaster, also did the same. Even the chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Sir John Hill, dismissed Medvedev's claims as 'rubbish' and 'a figment of the imagination'. Medvedev became a Soviet dissident and was sacked from his post as head of a department of molecular biology near Moscow. He was detained in 1970 and taken to a psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed as having 'creeping schizophrenia' and 'paranoid delusions of reforming society'. Although exiled in the UK (his Russian citizenship was revoked while he was working legitimately in the UK) he eventually regained his citizenship but chose to remain working in the National Institute for Medical Research in London until he retired in 1991. He died recently on 15th November 2018.

But I still wonder if the Russian publication of this interesting investigation of the cattle disease caused by bracken was not a cryptic attempt to let the rest of the world know that this nuclear accident had occurred.

I searched assiduously for the original paper recently but could find no evidence of its existence. But I still have the translation.

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