The trial of six men accused of responsibility for the world’s worst nuclear accident opened Monday in a makeshift courtroom in the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl.
A pool of 10 Western correspondents admitted to the proceedings said the former director of the Chernobyl plant and five of his aides challenged some of the charges against them.
“With so many human deaths, I cannot say I am completely innocent,” said Anatoly Dyatlov, 57, a former deputy chief engineer who was the only defendant who showed emotion at the trial.
The former director, Viktor Bryukhanov, 51, told the court he was not guilty of safety violations but acknowledged that he had abused his powers.
Former Chief Engineer Nikolai Fomin, 50, said he accepted some blame for the tragedy, although he and Bryukhanov were both at home asleep at the time of the explosion in Reactor No. 4 in the early hours of April 26 last year. The resultant fire emitted an enormous cloud of radioactive particles that drifted over much of Europe.
The other three defendants, who still work at the nuclear facility, rejected the charges against them.
Five of the defendants face prison terms of up to 10 years if convicted. A sixth man has been charged with a lesser offense.
Thirty-one people died as a result of the disaster, most of those from radiation sickness, and hundreds were hospitalized. Sixty-seven Communist Party officials have been punished, including 27 who were expelled from the party.
On Tuesday, relatives of the Chernobyl victims watched from spectators’ seats in the room, along with some workers from the plant. All those attending the trial were checked for radioactivity.
Judge Raimond Brize, a deputy chairman of the Soviet Supreme Court, presided from a stage in the Hall of Culture in the center of Chernobyl, which lies 11 miles south of the ruined reactor and was one of the cities evacuated in the aftermath of the disaster.
The Soviet government declared the area within an 18-mile radius of the nuclear power plant a danger zone and evacuated 135,000 people from their homes.
Chernobyl remains off limits to its former residents, although government personnel who are involved in decontamination of the plant are using the town as their base. The decision to hold the trial there appeared designed to add drama to the proceedings.
A report by government investigators, read at the trial, accused plant officials of failing to notify workers and residents of nearby areas of the radiation danger for 36 hours after the explosion.
As a result, the report said, plant workers and residents of Pripyat, the bedroom community for the plant’s workers, were exposed to radiation unnecessarily. Pripyat, a town of 50,000, was not evacuated until 36 hours after the accident and still has such high radiation levels that it is unfit for habitation.
Tass, the official Soviet news agency, said charges against five of the defendants were brought under Article 220 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code concerning breach of safety rules at explosion-prone plants where there are deaths or other grave consequences.
The sixth defendant--Yuri Laushikin, 50, a senior engineer at the plant--was accused of negligence.
In addition to the four named, the others on trial are Alexander Kovalenko, 45, chief of the ill-fated fourth reactor, and Boris Rogozhkin, 52, shift chief for the unit.
All six are accused of violating safety rules during experiments on Reactor No. 4 that ended in disaster at 1:23 a.m. Bryukhanov also is charged with abuse of power.
Dyatlov, who was on duty at the time, was accused of sending four subordinates to inspect the burning reactor without telling them of the radiation hazard.
The trial is expected to last about three weeks. At the opening day, the court heard a lengthy report from a government investigating commission, saying Fomin and Dyatlov had acted without proper authority to conduct an experiment on the fourth reactor as it was being shut down for maintenance.
Automatic shutdown systems and safety controls were turned off during the test, according to a previous report, and the reactor became unstable and exploded.
The report also described the reactor’s system of graphite control rods as inadequate and said further action will be taken against the builders of the plant.