Remembering Chornobyl

23 years ago…

On April 26, 1986, Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the town of Pripyat, Ukraine exploded. The explosion took place around midnight while the neighboring town of Pripyat slept. 4 workers were killed instantly. Four days later, the residents of Pripyat were ordered to evacuate. The residents never returned and the town still remains uninhabited to this day.

While we should never forget the tragedy and who it affected, never forget who allowed it to happen and let innocent people suffer:

The first warning came in Sweden. At 9 a.m. on Monday, April 28, technicians at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, 60 miles north of Stockholm, noticed disturbing signals blipping across their computer screens.

Two days later, Sweden noticed the radiated pollution before the Soviet authorities mentioned anything!

A glance at prevailing wind patterns confirmed their fear. For several days, currents of air had been whipping up from the Black Sea, across the Ukraine, over the Baltic and into Scandinavia. But when the Swedes and their neighbors demanded an explanation from Moscow, they were met by denials and stony silence. For six hours, as officials throughout Scandinavia insisted that something was dangerously amiss, the Soviets steadfastly maintained that nothing untoward had happened.


Throughout the week, an anxious, puzzled and increasingly frustrated world struggled to understand the extent of the disaster. The task was made impossibly difficult by the Soviets’ stubborn refusal to provide anything more than a few sketchy details. Moscow’s obstinance condemned people everywhere to fragmentary and often conflicting accounts that tended to shift abruptly as new facts became known. Not until the weekend did a Soviet official come forth with the beginnings of a straightforward account.


While Soviet pronouncements sought to minimize the extent of the damage, information gathered from satellite photos suggested a hellish scene at the accident site. All evidence pointed to a nuclear reactor fire burning out of control in the gentle, rolling Ukrainian countryside and steadily releasing radiation into the air. That makes the catastrophe unimaginably worse than the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, where a containment building kept most radioactive material from escaping out of the plant. The Chernobyl unit, by contrast, lacked such a protective structure.

Why lose face in front of your global peers when you can let your second class citizens (the Ukrainians) suffer in silence instead?

Soviet officials were reluctant to seek much outside assistance while still trying to pretend that not much had happened. Tuesday morning at 8:10, a scientific liaison officer from the Soviet embassy in Bonn appeared, unannounced and without an appointment, at the office of the Atomforum, a nongovernment agency that represents West Germany’s nuclear power industry. He asked Atomforum’s Peter Haug if the Germans knew anyone who could advise his country on how to put out a graphite fire. A similar request went out the same day to the Swedish nuclear authority. The U.S. Government stepped forward to offer assistance, but the Soviets politely rejected it, saying that they had the means to deal with the situation. Moscow did invite Dr. Robert Gale, a UCLA bone-marrow-transplant specialist, to provide medical aid to Chernobyl victims.


While the lack of detailed information makes estimates of the health impact extremely difficult, Wagner offered further guidance. At distances of perhaps three to four miles, victims stood a fifty-fifty chance of surviving, though not without bone-marrow andgastrointestinal-tract damage. People living five to seven miles from the accident could experience nausea and other symptoms but would be unlikely to die. Smaller amounts of radiation within a range of 60 miles from the site would result in significantly increased deaths from leukemia and other forms of cancer during the next 30 years. People living 200 miles or more from the accident would run much smaller risks. The Swedes and many of those affected in Eastern Europe probably received the exposure equivalent of one to two chest X rays.

The damage to the earth around Chernobyl was probably equally severe. Up to 60 sq. mi. of Soviet farmland is likely to remain severely contaminated for decades, unless steps are taken to remove the tainted topsoil. Reason: cesium 137 and strontium 90, two radioactive particles spewed by the blaze, decay very slowly. It could take decades for the ground to be free of them. Together with the shorter-lived iodine 131, the substances promise to pose short- and long-term problems for people, crops and animals. Says James Warf, a chemistry professor at the University of Southern California: ”I wouldn’t be surprised if the immediate area has to be evacuated for generations.”


In Europe, leaders were furious with the Soviets for initially concealing the disaster, and fearful of its health effects. Said Swedish Energy Minister Birgitta Dahl: ”We shall reiterate our demand that the whole Soviet civilian nuclear program be subject to international control.” In West Germany, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher urged Moscow to shut all nuclear-power plants similar to the one at Chernobyl. The West Germans asked that an international team be allowed to visit the site. Danish Prime Minister Poul Schluter called the situation ”intolerable and extremely worrying.” In Poland, where officials said there could be a sharp increase in cancer rates in the next two to three decades as a result of the mishap, people were especially angry. Said one Warsaw resident: ”We can understand an accident. It could happen to anyone. But that the Soviets said nothing and let our children suffer exposure to this cloud for days is unforgivable.”


The Soviets’ lack of candor struck many observers as part of an ingrained national trait. Says Marshall Goldman, associate director of Harvard’s Russian Research Center: ”There is a traditional fear and concern within the Soviet Union about panic. After all, mass panic is what set off the revolutions in 1905 and 1917. The authorities have an inordinate fear of the masses running wild.”

Because the Soviets kept details secret, Moscow and the Western press contradicted each other with pronouncements that left the world mystified about the actual developments at Chernobyl. While one U.S. news agency reported 2,000 dead and others emphasized the serious dangers the radiation created, the Soviets insisted that only two people had died. When some Western papers carried increasingly sensational but unconfirmed accounts of the reactor’s condition, TASS reported that the fire was under control. At week’s end the official Soviet news agency buttressed earlier claims of the plant’s safety by reporting that Politburo Members Nikolai Ryzhkov and Yegor Ligachev had toured the damaged facility.


Stung by the Western reporting, the Soviet media launched a week-long counterattack. Each limited disclosure about Chernobyl was followed by a shrill TASS account of nuclear problems in the U.S. and Europe. On Wednesday the Soviets went further. In a three-minute news brief carried on all three Moscow channels, an announcer lashed out at the foreign coverage. Said he: ”Some news agencies in the West are spreading rumors that thousands of people allegedly perished during the accident at the atomic power station. It has already been reported that in reality two people died and only 197 were hospitalized.” Viewers then saw a grainy black-and-white photo of what was described as Chernobyl’s stricken Unit No. 4. Commentator Alexander Galkin said the photo proved that the damage was less severe than Western reporters had claimed. In fact, the photo showed that part of the reactor’s roof had blown off and that there was substantial damage to the walls


Soviet citizens received vastly less information about Chernobyl than was available to the outside world. In Kiev, foreigners were the first to learn of the seriousness of the accident when authorities warned West German technicians on Tuesday that the Chernobyl area was being sealed off. Most of the Soviet Union spent last week in a festive mood for the annual May Day pageant, which combines celebrations of international worker solidarity with the rites of spring. Amid the red flags and bunting that adorned Moscow’s bridges and thoroughfares for the four-day holiday, headlines about the ruined reactor would have been unwelcome indeed. Wearing a hat and light topcoat, Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev waved frequently at the hundreds of thousands of marchers who went past him in Red Square and showed no sign whatever of being preoccupied with other matters.


The Chernobyl disaster is likely to have political and diplomatic repercussions that reach far beyond that small Ukrainian town. When the Soviet Union was faced with a major crisis last week, its leaders reacted in a historic defensive style. Rather than opening up to explain how the Chernobyl accident happened and how the rest of the world could protect itself, Moscow built up a wall of silence that showed a contemptuous disregard for its neighbors.


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