Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, speaking publicly about the Chernobyl nuclear accident for the first time, today said that the disaster "deeply touched the hearts of the Soviet people" and that "the worst is behind us."
In a rare address to the Soviet people on national television, the general secretary of the Communist Party said details of the accident were released to the Soviet people and the West as quickly as they were learned by the central government.
He lambasted the Western reaction to the accident, calling news coverage and government statements "a mountain of lies" aimed at discrediting the Soviet Union. He cited exaggerated reports of thousands of deaths as one example of what he called an "unbridled anti-Soviet campaign."
Gorbachev dismissed Western criticism that Moscow did not reveal details quickly enough about the Chernobyl accident, which had spread radiation across Scandinavia before the Soviet Union announced it had occurred.
He said the criticism of the accident by the Western media was aimed at "putting up barriers" between the West and the Soviet Union and to "give the green light to further military buildup" in the West.
Turning to nuclear arms, he said the Soviet Union was willing to extend its unilateral moratorium on weapons testing until Aug. 6, the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and repeated his offer to meet with President Reagan in Europe immediately to discuss arms control.
'An Abyss Will Open'
"The (nuclear) accident at Chernobyl showed again what an abyss will open if nuclear war befalls mankind," Gorbachev said.
Gorbachev described the nuclear accident as very severe and of a magnitude never experienced in the history of nuclear power.
He said nine people have died and 299 are hospitalized because of the disaster. On Tuesday, a Soviet official put the death toll at six.
Gorbachev expressed "profound condolences to the families and relatives of the deceased, to the work collectives, to all who suffered from that misfortune, who had suffered personal loss."
The speech was Gorbachev's first comment on the accident at Chernobyl 18 days ago. The accident crippled the plant's No. 4 reactor and spread radioactivity across Europe and to the United States.
Fire's Spread Prevented
"We were able to put out the fire and prevent its spread to other units," Gorbachev said. "The worst is behind us and the worst consequences we have been able to eliminate."
Gorbachev said the accident "deeply touched the hearts of the Soviet people and gave great anxiety to the entire world. For the first time we encountered such a tremendous force going out of control."
He said work is going on 24 hours a day at the reactor, about 80 miles north of Kiev, and praised the workers trying to control the accident as "very courageous."
Gorbachev thanked by name American bone marrow specialists Dr. Robert P. Gale and Dr. Paul Terasaki. Both doctors are in Moscow and have been performing bone-marrow transplants on victims of the Chernobyl disaster. Such transplants are considered the only effective treatment for people seriously injured by radiation exposure.
The Soviet leader said it was too early to pass final judgment on the cause of the accident, but added that the apparent cause was an unexpected power surge during a planned shutdown of the reactor on April 26, followed by a hydrogen explosion, fire and the release of radioactive substances into the air.
Earlier today, Radio Moscow quoted decontamination experts as saying that radiation in Chernobyl, 11 miles from the plant, "is no longer hazardous to people" but did not say if or when residents would be allowed to return.