A Ukrainian parliamentary commission, concluding a sweeping probe of the Chernobyl disaster, has accused Communist leaders at the time, including Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, of a massive criminal cover-up that led to thousands of deaths.
Faced with the worst accident in the history of nuclear power, Soviet authorities in April, 1986, reacted with “a total lie, falsehoods, cover-up and concealment,” the commission chairman, Volodymyr Yavorivsky, said. He called their conduct “a crime of the Communist system.”
The panel’s blistering report, submitted to Ukraine’s Supreme Rada (legislature) this month, is packed with horrific details of high-level callousness and cynicism. In Pripyat, Chernobyl’s bedroom city of 49,000, the party chief ordered weddings to go ahead on the day of the accident, despite a shower of radioactivity, to persuade people that nothing was amiss.
Most damningly, the commission, after gaining access to documents that had been kept secret by the now-dissolved Ukrainian Communist Party, concluded that “everyone in the upper echelons of power knew everything” as early as 1 p.m. on April 26, 1986, or less than 12 hours after an explosion and fire wrecked Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor.
“Already on April 26, the party leadership had secret information about the destruction of the active zone of the reactor, the discharge of radioactive particles into the open air and the danger to the health of tens of thousands,” Yavorivsky said.
“This information was not given to people; moreover, there was criminal disinformation which led to radiation exposure of hundreds of thousands of people in Ukraine,” he said.
For years, Moscow-based officials claimed that they were as much the victims of misinformation about Chernobyl as anyone, since Ukrainian authorities supposedly deceived them about what had happened. The Ukrainian report, however, asserts that Kremlin leaders were rapidly informed of the gravity of events and reacted not with Gorbachev’s then-novel policy of glasnost, or openness, but with “an ideology of state lying.”
Such findings will do much to demolish any credibility that Gorbachev or the Soviet state still have in Ukraine.
According to the commission’s findings, on the very day of the accident, the Ukrainian State Meteorological Committee submitted results of initial radiation surveys to Ukrainian leaders. Soviet troops were also ordered in to assess the hazard, it said.
“The entire upper echelon received trustworthy information, from Gorbachev to the scramblers of messages,” Yavorivsky said.
On May 14, Gorbachev broke a long silence to finally address the nation about the catastrophe. “As soon as we received reliable information, it was given to the Soviet people,” he said on television. “Today we can say that because of the effective measures taken, the worst is behind us.”
Those statements, Yavorivsky said, were disinformation of “almost Mephistophelean proportions.”
“By estimate of the (grass-roots organization) Chernobyl Union, we have already lost 7,000 people ‘burned’ by Chernobyl, tens of thousands of children have hyperplasia of the thyroid gland, the number of newborns with genetic defects has increased, there is a rise in leukemia among children,” the commission concluded. “This is the result of nothing but the unjustified exposure to radiation of millions of our people.”
Demanding “justice,” the commission handed over its documents to the Ukrainian prosecutor so charges can be brought against implicated officials in Ukraine. It asked that the Russian procurator general “open a criminal case against the party leadership, government and administration of the ex-U.S.S.R.” who knowingly hid the truth about Chernobyl.
Leaders accused by name include Gorbachev and three other top Kremlin figures of the period--Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, KGB Chairman Viktor M. Chebrikov and Soviet Communist Party ideologist Yegor K. Ligachev. Others are former Defense Ministers Sergei L. Sokolov and Dmitri T. Yazov (the latter already in prison for taking part in the August putsch), Gorbachev’s chief of staff, Grigory Revenko, and First Deputy Health Minister Oleg Shchepin.
A trial was held in 1987 of the Chernobyl director, chief engineer and other top members of the plant’s personnel on charges of criminal negligence in the accident, but they were only “scapegoats,” Yavorivsky said. The panel report charges blatant misconduct by much higher-ranking officials in both Moscow and Kiev, including the very people supposed to safeguard public health.
On April 30, four days after the accident, the equivalent of Ukraine’s surgeon general, Sanitary Dr. Anatoly Kasianenko, submitted an alarmed report to the Council of Ministers saying that on that day in Kiev, 80 miles south of Chernobyl, a “severe increase in the gamma radiation level” had been registered.
He asked that inhabitants of Kiev and its environs be warned of the danger. Yet that same day, the Ukrainian Communist Party Politburo ordered May Day festivities to go ahead as scheduled “since in Kiev there was a normal radiation situation,” Valentina Shevchenko, then the chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament, told the commission.
The result was one of the most chilling, inhumane events of the tragedy. Despite unequivocal data about the hazards of fallout carried to Kiev on the wind, the late Ukrainian Communist Party first secretary, Vladimir V. Shcherbitsky, ordered schoolchildren and workers to march down Kiev’s main thoroughfare, the Kreshchatik, on May 1 to demonstrate to the world that all was fine in Ukraine.
The conduct of Revenko, since summoned to Moscow to become the chief of Gorbachev’s staff, was also branded criminal by the commission. In April, 1986, he was running the party apparatus in the Kiev region.
In Pripyat, on the day of the accident, which was a Saturday, “at the bidding of Revenko . . . seven weddings were celebrated, scarce items were sold on the streets, they were organizing a massive cross-country run,” the committee found.
Meanwhile, “from the open maw of the reactor, an invisible deadly ash was falling” on Pripyat.
The lawmakers were particularly repelled by the conduct of the Ukraine’s health minister of the time, Anatoly Romanenko, whom they accused of “betraying his people.”
Romanenko seemed to believe “radiophobia,” or unjustified fear of Chernobyl’s consequences, was a bigger menace to health than the actual radiation released, the commission said. He waited until May to address the people, although taking potassium iodine to prevent radiation damage to the thyroid is only effective if done within 10 days, the commission said.
Shchepin, the Soviet deputy health minister, ordered Romanenko to see to it that only the most severe cases of radiation illness were noted as such in patients’ dossiers--a clear attempt to minimize the accident’s apparent impact. Romanenko dutifully issued such a directive to all physicians in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk, then in charge of the party’s propaganda machine, “without a doubt” bears some of the blame for the Chernobyl cover-up, given his official duties at the time, the committee said. Yet Yavorivsky, in an interview with The Times, said no documents were found to implicate him directly.
Many specifics about the exact role of officials may never be known, however, because the Ukrainian Politburo held its April and May meetings without minutes, the committee said. It also was unable to prove or refute one persistent rumor--that officials sent their children out of Kiev to escape the fallout even as they were making other youngsters march in the May Day parade.
In October, a fire broke out in Chernobyl’s No. 2 unit, greatly increasing public pressure to shut down the power station because of radiation hazards. Later that month, the Supreme Rada voted to close Chernobyl within two years.