Soviet Stonewalling on Chernobyl Seen as Effort to Avoid Panic, Embarrassment

Times Staff Writer

Seven and a half weeks after the explosion and fire in a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, it has become apparent that Politburo concern with preventing panic led to the initial Soviet blackout of news of the world's worst nuclear disaster even though Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev urged his colleagues to make a prompt disclosure.

A traditional aversion to acknowledging embarrassing facts also significantly contributed to the silence, just as it did in September, 1983, when Soviet fighter planes shot down a South Korean airliner killing all 269 aboard, a retrospective analysis of Soviet actions and statements shows.

Strong Western criticism of the Kremlin's silence, together with the spread of rumors within the country, finally led to a reversal of the no-news policy on Chernobyl.

Meeting Reported

One knowledgeable Soviet source said that two days after the April 26 accident, while the Soviet government was still denying to its European neighbors that anything had happened, the Politburo met and discussed the accident, the resulting fire and radiation leak, and the evacuation of cities nearby.

At that meeting, the source said, Gorbachev wanted to announce details of the accident immediately but a majority of the Politburo members decided to say as little as possible about the embarrassing episode.

That evening, the Soviet Council of Ministers issued a 42-word statement saying that an accident had occurred at Chernobyl, that a reactor had been damaged, that victims were being treated and that a government commission had been set up to deal with the situation.

No Pravda Report

The story was played down on the nightly television news. It appeared in only one of the leading national newspapers the next day. It was not in Pravda.

"The sparse coverage was aimed at reducing panic," Soviet Analyst, a British fortnightly publication, commented. "It was plausibly argued that if Gorbachev had appeared early (on TV, after the accident), his assurances would not have been believed and people would have taken fright."

The real extent of the disaster was not made clear to the Soviet public until an official news conference 10 days after the event.

Soviet officials have still not disclosed some basic information about the disaster.

For example, it has yet to disclose to the Soviet public the total volume of radioactive substances spilled into the atmosphere by the explosion and fire in the early hours of April 26. Perhaps the closest thing to disclosure came in a television discussion on May 17 when physicist Lev P. Feoktistov said, "A considerable quantity of radioactivity was discharged . . . equivalent to a kiloton-strong nuclear explosion."

(A kiloton is 1,000 tons. The force of nuclear explosions is commonly expressed in the equivalent of kilotons of TNT. The bomb the United States dropped over Hiroshima in 1945 is described as a 20-kiloton bomb.)

Estimates Disputed

Last week, there were reports from Vienna that Soviet experts had told the International Atomic Energy Agency there that only 1% to 3% of the Chernobyl reactor's 180-ton fuel core escaped during the explosion and fire--or about 1.8 to 4 tons of radioactive material. Western experts disputed those estimates, saying that their analysis suggested that 10% of the reactor was lost.

Throughout the episode, the pattern has been that people outside the Soviet Union have been given far more information far earlier than it was provided to Soviet citizens through the official press, television and radio.

News of evacuations was suppressed for days, and some high radiation readings reported by a member of the Soviet leadership were ignored entirely in the Soviet news media. In the first two weeks, the Soviet news media seemed to devote more space and time to denouncing Western news coverage than to reporting on the accident.

On one occasion, after insisting that life in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, was completely normal after the disaster 60 miles to the north, the Soviet news media acknowledged that there had been an unseemly rush to get airline and railroad seats out of the city.

The Communist Party newspaper Pravda acknowledged three weeks after the accident that a shortage of information had contributed to the public's anxiety.

The official position, set forth by Gorbachev and others, is that relevant information was made public as soon as it could be confirmed. But information published in recent days shows clearly that the Politburo had access to more data than it chose to disclose.

The accident occurred at 1:23 a.m. on Saturday, April 26.

By 5 a.m. that day, firefighters, defying deadly radioactive sparks, had halted the spread of the fire, but the flames raged for days in the core of Reactor No. 4. Seventeen firemen were hospitalized, and technicians and others inside the reactor building were given medical treatment. Two men were killed in the blast.

But despite the massive radiation leak, there was no immediate evacuation of the nearby town of Pripyat, where most of the plant workers lived. Life there went on pretty much as usual Saturday; there were weddings, a soccer game and other customary activities.

Still, by 4:30 p.m. that Saturday, medical authorities in Moscow were in touch with hospitals and clinics in the Chernobyl area, and an emergency team was sent out from the Soviet capital.

Judging by official statements since, the authorities decided to evacuate all of Pripyat's 40,000 residents together, instead of in groups.

"If we had taken only 100 people out at a time, there would have been a panic," a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry press department said.

In any event, 1,100 buses were ordered from Kiev's transport fleet. They arrived at doorways of apartment buildings at 2 p.m. Sunday to begin the evacuation, and it was concluded less than four hours later.

"No assembly points were set up, to avoid commotion and panic," according to an article in the government newspaper Izvestia about the Pripyat evacuation. In all that day, 49,000 people were taken out of the security zone, a circular area around the reactor with a radius of six miles.

The next day, Monday, Swedish officials found high levels of radiation in many parts of the country, and by lunchtime they calculated it must have come from the Soviet Union.

Swedes Concerned

The Swedish Embassy in Moscow asked an official at the Soviet Atomic Power Agency if a Soviet reactor was leaking. The reply: "We have no information to provide."

By that time, of course, the Soviets were well aware of the accident, the radiation leak, the death of two technicians and injuries to many others, and the evacuation of the surrounding area. None of this was disclosed.

Later checks by Swedish experts revealed that the leak was in the Kiev area. The Swedes tried again, and again without success, to get information from Soviet officials. At the same time, Hans Blix, general director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was pressing the Soviet delegate there for information.

Politburo Statement

It was only after the repeated inquiries from abroad that the Politburo issued the 42-word statement Monday night.

"If the wind had blown the other way, toward Siberia, we might never have heard of it at all," a cynical young Muscovite told a reporter.

On Tuesday, Western ambassadors immediately asked the Foreign Ministry to provide information on radiation levels and more details about the accident. They were turned down, although Soviet diplomats quietly asked in Sweden and West Germany for advice on how to fight a graphite fire in a nuclear reactor.

Meanwhile, official Soviet statements to the press glowed with optimism. One such statement, on Tuesday, said, "The radiation situation at the power station and the adjacent territory has now been stabilized."

Later reports, however, conflicted with this cheerful outlook. It was only on May 11, for example, that Soviet scientist Yevgeny P. Velikhov said that the threat of a nuclear catastrophe was past. On May 17, physicist Lev P. Feoktistov said, "The (radiation) situation is very serious and difficult in the immediate vicinity of the power station."

The May 1 holiday in the Soviet Union was celebrated almost without any mention of Chernobyl, with a smiling Gorbachev atop Lenin's Tomb to review tens of thousands of parading citizens. In Kiev, it was the same holiday-as-usual mood, but there was a deep underlying anxiety.

"The most pressing problem is not the reactor but the spread of rumors about the consequences of the accident," a leader of the Ukrainian Young Communist League said.

The newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya reported on May 19 that some panic-stricken individuals in Kiev had rushed to the train station on May Day when they learned that some foreign students were being evacuated. As a result, the newspaper said, eight more ticket windows were opened and the hours of ticket sales were extended.

In addition, Kiev officials complained that some people poisoned themselves with "home remedies" for radiation and that others spread the false word that vodka and red wine would cure all ailments caused by the fallout.

While the national TV news poked fun at radiation checks on departing British students, within a week there were similar checks on all persons leaving or entering Kiev by car.

Eventually, dozens of extra trains and planes were authorized, mainly to allow thousands of children and their mothers to leave a city officially declared safe for all residents.

"Perhaps people in Kiev initially lacked complete information about the events that were taking place and the situation in the city," Pravda said on May 9. "This provided grounds for all sorts of rumors, which, incidentally, were quite actively disseminated by various 'voices' in the West"--a reference to the Voice of America and other Western radio stations.

For the first week after the disaster, however, residents of Kiev and other cities were given more reassurance than information by the state-controlled news media.

On May 2, Premier Nikolai I. Ryzhkov and Politburo member Yegor K. Ligachev visited the Chernobyl area and ordered that unspecified additional measures be taken. As it turned out, the size of the danger zone was sharply expanded, to include everything within a radius of 19 miles, not six, from the damaged reactor.

The Kremlin information also changed sharply. Boris N. Yeltsin, a candidate member of the Politburo who was in West Germany at a Communist Party congress, began to make disclosures about Chernobyl that clearly had been approved in advance.

Yeltsin disclosed, for example, that 49,000 people had been evacuated from their homes and that 20 to 25 people were critically ill from radiation exposure. Further, he said, radiation levels at the reactor had reached a peak of 200 roentgens per hour, a very high rate that would be lethal after a few hours.

This information, while reported immediately in the West, was not printed or broadcast in the Soviet Union, despite Yeltsin's high position.

"The Soviet public," a Yugoslav correspondent here wrote, "still has no details about the accident . . . and the press has not even carried the explanation which Boris Yeltsin, a member of the Soviet leadership, gave the other day."

Yet, on May 6, Boris Y. Shcherbina, chairman of the commission set up to deal with the accident, rejected such complaints, saying, "As soon as any reliable data appeared, they were immediately reported."

And despite Yeltsin's statement about a maximum reading of 200 roentgens per hour, Shcherbina said the peak level at the site was only 15 thousandths of a roentgen per hour. But on May 26, Pravda said the radiation level at the site was still 100 roentgens per hour.

There were attempts to exempt the Moscow hierarchy from blame for the delays in disclosing information on radiation and in evacuating people from the danger area.

"It was a very difficult situation, and measurements at first showed there was nothing to fear," said Alexander P. Lyashko, premier of the Ukraine. He said the severity of the accident was not made known to Moscow until April 28.

Perhaps the most telling comment came from Georgy A. Arbatov, director of the Institute for Study of the United States and Canada. Addressing a Western audience nine days after Chernobyl became a household word around the world, Arbatov said:

"You expected from us too much too soon."

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