Evidence has emerged in recent weeks that Soviet authorities at the highest level had at least a general understanding of the scope and gravity of the Chernobyl nuclear accident hours after it occurred, though they delayed notifying the Soviet people and other countries for two days.
“The Kremlin knew what was going on within an hour and a half” after an explosion shattered the reactor at the plant in the Ukraine early on April 26, sending a plume of radioactive fission wastes a mile into the atmosphere, according to a Western diplomat in Moscow who is familiar with the technical aspects of the accident.
The diplomat said that mounting evidence, some of it admittedly circumstantial, indicates that the country’s top political leaders, not simply officials at the upper levels of government agencies, knew the gravity of the situation that early.
His view is supported by Soviet scientific sources, who say that the central government in Moscow was almost certainly aware on the day of the accident that radioactivity from the burning graphite reactor had spread far beyond Chernobyl, 400 miles southwest of Moscow. These sources said that within hours of the initial explosion, the radiation activated alarms and automatic shutdown systems at other Soviet nuclear plants north of Chernobyl.
They said the emergency shutdown of other nuclear plants within Soviet territory would have been immediately apparent to the central authorities in Moscow and could have left no doubt about the geographic scope of the contamination or the likelihood that it would spread beyond the Soviet borders. They said the plants apparently resumed operation when it became clear that the source of radiation was elsewhere.
The sources did not identify the other facilities by name, but only two other nuclear power plants lie north of Chernobyl in the path of the initial fallout plume. They are the Rovno nuclear plant, 220 miles northwest of Chernobyl and two-thirds of the way to the Polish border, and the Ignalina nuclear power plant, 350 miles to the north in Soviet Lithuania and halfway to Helsinki, the Finnish capital.
Even if duty officers at Rovno and Ignalina failed to notify Moscow promptly of radiation-related shutdowns, a sudden drop in generating capacity would have caused a disturbance in the country’s unified electric power grid, which operates on a relatively thin margin of reserve capacity, and this would not have passed unnoticed in Moscow.
Also, Soviet sources said, the KGB security agency maintains officers at all nuclear facilities, with sophisticated and independent lines of communication to Moscow. These officers would have had no incentive to minimize or cover up an emergency situation.
Absence of Safety Feature
The four-unit Chernobyl plant itself was reportedly not equipped with an automatic shutdown system linked to radiation alarms. The absence of such a system is said to have been the result of a cost-cutting feature, one of several that made Chernobyl one of the Soviet Union’s cheapest nuclear power plants.
According to the official report on the accident eventually released by the Politburo, a series of gross breaches of reactor operating regulations by workers at the plant led to a breakdown that resulted in a hydrogen gas explosion. The blast breached the No. 4 reactor at 1:23 a.m. on April 26. But it was not until the evening of April 28 that a four-sentence notice from the news agency Tass disclosed the accident, and it only hinted at casualties.
Even then the news came only hours after radiation alarms had sounded 750 miles to the north in Sweden and Finland, and the Swedish government had demanded an explanation.
Soviet officials have given a variety of reasons for failing to inform the world promptly. These tend to deflect blame from the Kremlin and center instead on bureaucratic confusion and incompetence at the scene of the accident.
A number of officials have said that local authorities initially underestimated the gravity of the accident and failed to fully inform the central leadership. The plant’s director, its chief engineer and other senior officials at Chernobyl have since been fired or severely reprimanded. On Saturday, the official Tass news agency announced the firing of four senior state officials for serious errors and shortcomings in their work which led to the accident. Twenty-eight people have died as a result of the disaster.
In his first, and so far only, substantive comment on the accident, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev appeared to blame local officials. On May 14, he said that “as soon as we received reliable information, it was made available to the Soviet people and sent through diplomatic channels to the governments of foreign countries.”
But there is evidence, even in Soviet newspapers and in official accounts, that the central authorities understood the seriousness of the accident the very day it occurred.
On May 19, Ivan Yemelyanov, the deputy director of the agency that designed the Chernobyl plant, told a news conference for Western reporters that the special investigating commission then headed by Deputy Premier Boris Y. Shcherbina was at work “on the very day of the accident, April 26"--two days before the government disclosed that it had occurred. Only the Politburo has the authority to convene such a commission.
A week earlier, Yemelyanov contradicted the Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman, Vladimir B. Lomeiko, who accused local officials of failing to grasp the seriousness of the accident. Lomeiko implicitly blamed them for Moscow’s delay in telling the world.
Information ‘Not Concealed’
“Those people who dealt with the accident initially did not understand what happened, did not assess it correctly,” Lomeiko said in a May 12 news conference. “We did not conceal any information. We tried to make clear what had happened” before releasing the news.
The next day, however, Yemelyanov told a gathering of West European reporters that officials on the scene “were correct in evaluating the situation” but that they were simply unable to cope with a nuclear disaster of this magnitude.
“Certain measures had been taken, but you saw how large the destruction was, and it was difficult for local personnel, and personnel on duty, to cope with the situation,” Yemelyanov said. “It was impossible.”
Further, the June 7 issue of the armed forces newspaper Red Star disclosed that on April 26, the day of the accident, military planning was already under way for a daring operation using helicopters to drop thousands of tons of sand and radiation-absorbing lead and boron on the burning reactor.
Copter Crews’ Bravery
In a long article praising the bravery of the helicopter crews, Red Star quoted their commander, Maj. Gen. Nikolai Antoshchkin, as saying that he received his orders to “leave urgently for the town of Pripyat,” 2 1/2 miles from the Chernobyl plant, on the evening of April 26.
Arriving the next day, still more than 24 hours before the government announcement of the accident, Antoshchkin found Shcherbina already on the scene and waiting with a terse summary of the situation that could have left no doubt in the general’s mind about its seriousness.
“Everything depends now on you and your helicopter pilots,” the newspaper said Shcherbina told him.
At about the same time as Antoshchkin was being urgently ordered to Pripyat, late on the night of April 26, unidentified authorities in Warsaw, 400 miles to the west, were making discreet inquiries in at least one central hospital and a pharmaceutical supply center about the availability of iodine.
Four days later, the Polish government began distributing millions of doses of bitter brown potassium iodide solution--the Poles quickly dubbed it “Russian Coca-Cola"--to prevent the absorption of radioactive iodine-131.
Notice in Poland
In retrospect, these inquiries suggest that Polish authorities had received notice of the accident within 24 hours of its occurrence, possibly through military or intelligence channels, and that they understood its potential threat to public health. The Polish government has consistently refused to say precisely when or how it learned about the accident, which the Polish news media reported only late on April 28, after Tass published its report.
Saturday’s lengthy Politburo statement on the results of the Chernobyl inquiry made no reference to any delay in notifying the Soviet public and other nations of the disaster.
As Moscow’s claims of having learned too little too late to inform the world any sooner than it did have diminished in credibility, the authorities appear to have taken a new public relations tack in recent weeks that seeks to shift the blame specifically away from Gorbachev while allowing it to rest elsewhere in the Politburo.
According to a story widely circulated in Moscow, Gorbachev favored prompt and full disclosure of information about the accident, in keeping with his campaign for glasnost , or openness. He is said to have been backed by KGB Chairman Viktor M. Chebrikov and Vitaly I. Vortotnikov, premier of the Russian republic, but opposed by other Politburo members, notably the former foreign minister and now ceremonial president, Andrei A. Gromyko.
Many Western diplomats tend to find this story implausible. They say its abrupt appearance from multiple sources suggests an officially circulated rumor. It is also only one of several anti-Gromyko stories currently in circulation that, more than anything else, point to his declining career.
It is more likely, some Western analysts believe, that Gorbachev and his colleagues delayed their announcement of the accident for 68 hours because they concluded that the domestic benefits of suppressing the news simply outweighed the public relations costs in foreign eyes.