Soviet Secrecy Blamed for Exaggerated American Reports on Chernobyl Disaster

Times Staff Writer

Soviet authorities have provided more information in recent days about the catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, but they also have intensified their charges that the American media and government were creating a "propaganda cloud" of exaggeration around the accident. Are the accusations valid?

Although precise details of the Chernobyl disaster may never be made public, it does seem that some estimates by officials and others quoted in American news reports of death tolls, of a possible meltdown at a second reactor at Chernobyl, and of other details were exaggerated.

Most observers believe the Soviet Union bears the blame because it tried to restrict information about a disaster whose effects, in the end, it could not control.

This secrecy, past and present, led some journalists and officials to suspect Soviet accounts of the accident, even though new evidence suggests that parts of the Soviet accounts--though scanty and late--may have been more plausible than first thought.

Clash of Cultures

The fundamental problem of covering the news of Chernobyl is the clash of a closed Soviet society and an open Western culture during an incident of paramount concern to both.

"If the Soviets have any complaints, they have only themselves to blame," said Arnold Horelick, director of the Rand-UCLA Center for the Study of Soviet International Behavior.

On the other hand, said David Rubin, director of the New York University Center for War, Peace and the News Media: "We don't have much doubt that some of the press in our country reported the accident with a certain amount of glee . . . and antagonism toward the Soviet Union."

Probably the worst example of exaggeration was a May 2 headline in the New York Post, which said: "Late Word From Inside Russia: Mass Grave for 15,000 N-Victims." Most of the press was more restrained.

UPI Criticized

The two most significant cases that critics considers excesses involved a report of 2,000 deaths carried by United Press International, and a report from a Pentagon official about a meltdown at a second nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.

On April 29, the day after disclosure of the disaster, UPI quoted an unidentified resident of Kiev as saying 2,000 had died. That same day, Soviet authorities in Moscow reported two dead.

David Cohen, press secretary for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which set up an American task force to monitor the disaster, said that UPI's 2,000 figure was "clearly erroneous. . . .

"We were briefed in an internal task force meeting by U.S. intelligence officials that there was absolutely no reason to dismiss the Russian claim that only two were dead," Cohen said.

AP Avoided Figure

Most news agencies handled the 2,000 report as uncorroborated and speculative, giving the Soviet official estimates more prominence. The Associated Press did not use the 2,000 figure at all.

But some American officials were quick to dismiss the Soviet numbers as dishonest, lending credibility to the 2,000 number. Kenneth L. Adelman, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency told a Senate committee in Washington that the Soviet casualty claim was "preposterous," and his remarks were heavily quoted.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz also said he would bet money that more than two died in the first few days of the Soviet accident.

Privately, one U.S. official said that Adelman had no special information on which to base his statement. "He was just Red-bashing," said the official, requesting anonymity.

No Adelman Comment

Adelman and his staff did not return phone calls made to ask for their comments for this story.

UPI Foreign Editor Sylvana Foa said that, based on subsequent information from the Soviets, it was quite plausible that 2,000 people died within four days after the accident.

More confusion developed on Wednesday, April 30, when a Pentagon official told news agency reporters that satellite photographs suggested a meltdown had occurred in a second reactor at Chernobyl.

Cohen of the EPA said that U.S. officials knew "very quickly" that the report was erroneous and that Pentagon officials later in the day began to tone down the account.

But on Thursday, May 1, newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, reported the account of problems at a second reactor on their front pages, including the later softening of the report. The story quickly vanished the next day when it appeared to be incorrect.

'Anti-Soviet Bias' Seen

Rubin of the NYU Center for War, Peace and the News Media said he believes American officials and media were quick to disbelieve anything the Soviets said, in part because of "anti-Soviet bias," a stereotype of the Soviet authorities as devious and dishonest.

But many journalists say they have good reason to doubt Soviet veracity, despite assurances by the EPA task force that the Soviet account, however scant, could be accurate.

To begin with, the Soviets did not disclose the accident, which occurred early Saturday, April 26, until the following Monday evening--and only then after Scandinavian governments discovered elevated radiation levels in the atmosphere over their countries and pressed Moscow for an explanation.

Then, the information disclosed by the Soviets during the first few days was terse and "elliptical," said the Rand-UCLA Center's Horelick. "They practiced all kinds of circumlocution. They used terms that were undefined. The situation is in hand. The situation is stabilized."

'Extreme Evidence'

Richard Kaplan, executive producer of ABC's "Nightline" program, said: "Granted, the Soviets said two dead and nobody believed them. The evidence is far more extreme than their admissions."

At times, journalists said, the Soviet version bordered on ridiculous. On Wednesday, April, 30, for example, Soviet diplomat Eugene Pozdnyakov told "Nightline" host Ted Koppel that the reason the Soviet Union waited three days before disclosing the accident is that "it happened on Saturday, and the governments of proper countries are usually on holidays on weekends."

Koppel responded: "Oh, c'mon."

The initial Soviet stonewalling forced the American media to find independent experts on nuclear power to speculate on how severe the disaster might be.

Compared to U.S. Disaster

Rubin, who worked on the government task force that examined press coverage of the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, said the same thing occurred during the first few days after that 1979 accident in Pennsylvania, when the public utility involved was unable to provide much information to the press.

"With a news vacuum that the press is under pressure to fill, there comes a lot of speculating on what could be the worst-case scenario," which tends to make a disaster seem worse than it might be, Rubin said.

Kaplan defends the speculation on "Nightline" saying, "Most of the experts are turning out right."

Perhaps at bottom, the problem is that Soviet culture, in which information is a tool of the state wielded for political control, has clashed with Western culture, in which information is a right of the citizenry that the state often must react to as much as manage.

"The Soviet position is that they believe what the public has a right to know is what the government can confirm and know as fact." Rubin said.

That is in direct conflict with the interests of the American press, which among other things, Kaplan said, felt it had a public duty to discover whether dangerous levels of radioactivity might reach the United States.

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