Burned Into Earth, Etched in Memory : Chernobyl commission charges massive cover-up by Soviet hierarchy
On a visit to Kiev in 1987, David R. Marples was surprised to be asked for his autograph. Marples had then just published “Chernobyl and Nuclear Power in the USSR,” the first book-length account of the April, 1986, disaster. His book, he discovered, had become a key document in nascent Ukrainian separatism.
In 1989 Marples published a second book, “The Social Impact of the Chernobyl Disaster,” reconstructing the cover-up of the accident. “Chernobyl may have been both the pioneer of glasnost under Gorbachev,” he wrote, “and its first casualty.”
Mikhail S. Gorbachev himself may now become a casualty of Chernobyl. On Dec. 11, the Supreme Rada, Ukraine’s legislature, accepted the report of a commission charging the Soviet Establishment, up to and including Gorbachev, with criminal conspiracy. By wantonly denying the disaster, the commission claims, the regime caused thousands of avoidable deaths.
Thanks to Marples and to Grigori Medvedev, author of “The Truth About Chernobyl,” many of the lies about Chernobyl have been exposed. But more remains to be learned, and unfortunately the cult of nuclear secrecy lives on under Gorbachev’s successors.
Veteran researcher Paula Garb reported after a recent visit to Moscow that “Russian activists were stone-walled and insulted by Yeltsin’s bureaucrats in their efforts to learn who had advised him to sign a recent decree that allows a nuclear weapons complex to resume operation.”
Nor is the cult of secrecy the only problem. According to Medvedev, a “myth of safety” was created in the Soviet Union by scientists with excessive confidence in their work and the delusion that they were the agents of reason and their critics prey to mere emotion.
In the aftermath of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Marples writes, that myth became the claim that the catastrophic accident was “first and foremost a victory, a story with an ending, and an ending that was triumphant.”
Neither this myth of safety nor the cult of secrecy will expire with the Soviet Union on Dec. 31. And, far from ended, Chernobyl is a radioactive volcano that may erupt again. Though man-made, it must now be regarded as a permanent, quasi-natural feature of life on Earth.
The Times previously called for a strengthening of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a quick response to Ukraine’s call for U.N. assistance at Chernobyl. Such practical measures aside, let Chernobyl stand as a warning against the myth of safety and the cult of secrecy wherever they threaten.