A second reactor at the crippled Soviet nuclear power plant appeared to have melted down, U.S. officials said today, and an uncontrolled nuclear fire was “spewing radiation” which is now showing up in Austria and Switzerland.
And a Senate source who attended a secret CIA briefing told Reuters that U.S. intelligence estimates that overall casualties--dead and injured--may range from 2,000 to 3,000.
The Soviet government acknowledged for the first time today that the accident caused widespread casualties, saying that 197 were hospitalized but still claiming that only two people died.
In a statement read on state-run television, the Council of Ministers denied that “a chain reaction” second meltdown was taking place at the Chernobyl plant 80 miles north of Kiev.
Reactor Shut Down
“Measurements taken by specialists by means of control equipment show that the chain reaction of fission of nuclear fuel is not taking place,” the statement said. “The reactor is shut down.”
U.S. officials say that there is no concrete proof of a second meltdown, which might be in progress or already have occurred at a reactor adjoining the one already burning.
A Swedish communications company that analyzed pictures taken Tuesday by the U.S. satellite Landsat said today that those photos show what appears to be two meltdowns.
Michael Stern of the Satellitbild company in Kiruna, Sweden, told reporters that “two bright red spots are visible beneath a cloud of bluish smoke. Judging from contacts with nuclear power experts, it seems likely that these are two separate meltdowns.”
No Proof of 2nd Meltdown
U.S. officials say that there is no concrete proof of a second meltdown but that it might be in progress or already have occurred at a reactor adjoining the one already burning.
“There may be a similar problem at the other one (reactor). There may be a meltdown,” said one official, speaking on condition he was not identified.
Other U.S. officials expressed more doubt of a meltdown at reactor Unit 3 in addition to the one reported earlier at reactor Unit 4. Unit 3 is closest to the crippled reactor.
Environmental Protection Administration chief Lee Thomas said Unit 3 has stopped producing electricity and is in a lengthy cool-down phase but added that “we have no information at this point that would indicate there are problems at the other unit.”
Fire Could Take Weeks
Harold Denton, director of the office of nuclear reactor regulation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told a news conference that elements in the radioactivity being monitored in Sweden indicated that the core of the Unit 4 reactor had melted down and that the reactor fire could take weeks to burn itself out.
He said that because of high temperatures and high radiation in the region it would be “difficult to take corrective action.” Other officials have cited blaze temperatures of around 4,000 degrees.
The fire in the building where the blast occurred was burning out of control today.
U.S. officials said the second reactor may have reached meltdown when the reactor’s fuel melts and sends radioactive steam into the atmosphere, or was in the process of melting down. “It’s still spewing radiation,” one official said.
West ‘Spreading Rumors’
In their official statement, the Soviets said: “Some news agencies in the West are spreading the rumors that thousands of people, allegedly, perished during the accident at the atomic power station.
“It has already been reported that in reality two persons died, that only 197 people were hospitalized, 49 of them were discharged from the hospital after a medical examination.”
In a rare gesture to the Soviets, the United States has offered to send doctors and provide technical expertise to help with the disaster. The Soviets have thanked the United States for its offer but has not said whether it will accept the help, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said today.
Aid Offered in Five Areas
U.S. officials were offering assistance in five areas:
--Technical advice on predicting radioactive material dispersion based on geography, weather and the type of radioactivity released.
--An aerial measuring system that can map the spread of radioactive contamination.
--Radiological assistance teams to measure radioactivity in water, air and soil and technical advice in assessing environmental effects of radioactive materials released.
--Medical personnel experienced in diagnosing and treating radioactive exposure.
--Technical expertise and assistance in radiological decontamination, recovery from nuclear reactor accidents and minimization of environmental effects.
U.S. officials expressed hope that the Soviets will swallow their pride and accept expertise from wherever it was available, including ideological opponents. They said they were encouraged that the Soviets had asked for help from West Germany, a NATO ally of the United States.
Redman also said that the Soviets have given the Administration “preliminary information” that parallels sketchy details in the Soviet news media on the accident but that the details fall short of what the Administration has requested.
Redman said the Administration believes the Soviets “should notify other states of such events, of the possibility of trans-boundary effects of the accident and furnish them with the information necessary to address these effects.”
Radioactive Cloud Formed
According to Lester Machta of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a radioactive cloud from the accident formed at an altitude of 5,000 feet, covering “a good part of East and North Europe and probably the northwest Soviet Union” and might even extend into the Arctic basin, he said.
Energy Department expert Dale Bunch said that if and when the cloud reaches the United States--probably via the West Coast--it would be “hardly measurable,” with no significant health effects.
Austrian officials said a radioactive cloud passed over the country early today and authorities urged pregnant women and children to take precautions in the southernmost province of Carinthia. “The situation is serious but there is no reason to panic,” Health Minister Franz Kreuzer said.
Delay Angers Europeans
European health officials reassured the public that radiation levels presented no major danger. But anger built up against the Soviets, who kept word of the deadly nuclear event from the rest of the world until Monday, three days after it happened.
“The Soviet Union has an obligation and duty to the international community to give the fullest possible explanation of what happened and why,” Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, said at a West European ministers’ meeting in Italy.
His West German counterpart, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, called on Moscow to shut down all nuclear power stations similar to the crippled Chernobyl plant, which uses an unusual graphite-moderation process.
Americans Urged to Leave
The United States has advised American tourists in Kiev to leave the region. The ambassador, Arthur A. Hartman, said the embassy was seeking equipment to test for radiation in Moscow.