The Anniversary of Chornobyl
was yesterday, April 26
There were any number of acknowledgements of the anniversary – but the historical/political importance of Chornobyl is not the accident but the coverup
The systemic malignancies of Gorbachev’s 1986 Kremlin -
With Chornobyl the “evil” of the “Evil Empire” was on full display
It would be a serious mistake to forget or ignore the genuine evil of the Soviet Union exposed by Chornobyl.
In March, 1983, in Orlando, President Ronald Reagan delivered what is now known as his “Evil Empire” speech, his warning to those who wished to “
ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire
.” (Emphasis added) Though the President’s characterization of the Soviet Union was widely criticized, there was more than ample evidence to support his charge. However, regardless of who the doubters or deniers may have been in 1983, a little more than three years and one month later with the explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, the Kremlin itself turned international klieg lights on the depravity of Soviet governance for everyone willing to see. What happened back in 1986 and how events unfolded during subsequent days and weeks and months must not be lost on history; we must not “ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”
The influence of the systemic corruption of Soviet governance started at Chornobyl long before that April day in 1986. The RBMK reactor had many known design flaws, including fundamental problems associated with Soviet insistence on having civilian power plants also capable of making weapons level plutonium. One consequence of the multiple design flaws was a susceptibility of the reactors to lurching out of control relatively easily, a susceptibility that was widely known – and ignored. Two additional points are worth noting here: (a) as part of the Kremlin’s intense Russification program designed to destroy Ukraine’s unique culture and history, the Ukrainian language was marginalized, pushed mostly into the shadows; and (b) because of this marginalization, in February 1986, an article in a Ukrainian-language literary magazine published in Kyiv just a few months before the disaster specifically pointed to all of the problems at Chornobyl. But because this clear warning was in Ukrainian, it was not noted at the time in either Russian-speaking Moscow or by any of the operators of the power plant who were all ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Yet we should recall that even in the repressive Soviet society there were brave souls who warned that Chornobyl was a disaster waiting to happen – but because the warnings appeared in forbidden Ukrainian, they were denigrated and ignored.
However, although you might need to be versed in nuclear engineering to understand and appreciate all of the questionable decisions made in designing, building and managing the Chornobyl Atomic Power Plant, no special training is needed to understand the evil that unfolded when one of its reactors exploded.
At 1:23 a.m. on Saturday, April 26, exactly 25 years ago, a bit more than 90 miles from Kyiv, Ukraine, (and near the city’s main water reservoir) an explosion blew the roof off Chornobyl’s fourth reactor building and, among other tragic consequences huge quantities of radioactive particles began spewing into the air. Other than an immediate scramble of Chornobyl workers trying to put the fire out there was no official reaction to this catastrophic event, no announcement, no warnings whatsoever evidencing concern for either the population of Ukraine, people in other areas of the Soviet Union or in the world beyond the Iron Curtain. The communist government’s callous disregard for human life and health was not a momentary brain freeze, nor was it an accident; it was deliberate.
At 9:00 am, Monday, April 28 –
more than 55 and ½ hours after the explosion
– an alarm went off at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Station in Sweden; high amounts of radioactivity were being detected. Workers were evacuated. High radiation levels were simultaneously detected in Denmark, Finland and Norway. Soon Scandinavian experts determined the incoming nuclear cloud had originated in the Soviet Union, specifically Soviet Ukraine. Yet, when Sweden directly asked Moscow for an explanation, Soviet authorities denied anything had happened; even though by then radiation had been spewing for days from the explosion and resulting fire.
Not until Monday, April 28 at 9 pm (65 hours after the explosion), and only after the Scandinavian countries had warned the world and announced the source of immense radiation, did the Kremlin come forward, but only slightly. A newscaster on the Moscow evening news program
reported, “An accident occurred at the Chornobyl Atomic Power Plant and one of the reactors was damaged. Measures have been undertaken to eliminate the consequences of the accident.”
Over the next few days snippets of information got out of Ukraine from some of the few people who were aware of what had happened, or who were aware of some of the consequences. Into the void of information about actual events, terrifying misinformation resulted in reports of staggering death tolls, hospitals overwhelmed by dead and suffering and mass graves. As a result of the irresponsible silence of Moscow information to citizens of Ukraine and Belarus was not coming from inside the USSR. To know anything, people in Ukraine had to be among the few who were able to receive Voice of America, Radio Liberty and/or Radio Free Europe broadcasts despite the extensive Soviet radio wave jamming facilities established in Western Ukraine. The first broadcast into Ukraine was by VOA at 8 pm on April 28
reporting that radiation had been detected in Sweden and there was a suspicion it was from nuclear leakage at a power plant in the Soviet Union.
By Tuesday, April 29, the Kremlin began to grasp that the world knew something significant had occurred and the Soviet government grudgingly responded in another
broadcast acknowledging that an “accident” had killed two people and “the situation had now been stabilized and was under control.” Such a statement was preposterous. By this time nobody was buying Soviet disinformation. On April 30, as the winds of disbelief in Soviet story-telling circled the globe, the winds that blew the radioactive fallout over Scandinavia turned back on Belarus and Ukraine. United States satellites hundreds of miles above the Soviet Union relayed pictures of fires still burning out of control from at least one reactor and showed aircraft circling the power plant dumping chemicals to try to stop the blaze. Within a few years, each of the young piots who flew those dumping missions over Chornobyl had died, though none of their deaths were officially attributed to their efforts at Chornobyl.
There were offers of assistance and aid from, among others, the United States and American volunteer organizations. The offers were rebuffed by Moscow with one exception. Through his longtime cozy relationship with the Kremlin, Armand Hammer was able to get American physician Dr. Robert Gale, a bone-marrow specialist, invited to help the injured - - in Moscow! Gale was not allowed into Ukraine, but was provided with some selected patients in Moscow, 470 miles away from Kyiv. As my wife Nadia has said, sending Dr. Gale to Moscow to help with Chornobyl was like sending help to Cleveland to help with the rubble of the Twin Towers after 9/11.
With winds pushing the fallout back over the country, and with the continuing release of radiation from the atomic power station, the Soviet evening news on April 30 led with a story about spring flowers in Ukraine and about preparations for the annual May Day celebrations. Then, halfway through the news broadcast, the Soviet news agency switched to Chornobyl and attempting to downplay the findings of the U.S. satellites, showed a photo of the affected reactor. The still photograph revealed little more than destruction to the reactor’s roof, with no evidence of smoke. Looking at the picture it would be difficult for the average Soviet citizen to realize that a nuclear disaster occurred which had released radiation over half of Europe. In an excellent 1986 article in
The Ukrainian Quarterly
, Yurii Bohatiuk, translated the Moscow broadcast report introducing the story on Chornobyl:
“’Now we show you a picture taken by a man at the Chornobyl atomic power station shortly after the accident took place. As you can see for yourself there is no enormous destruction that some Western agencies are writing about, or no great fires, as there are no thousands of dead. In fact, inhabitants of the nearby settlements have been evacuated though the level of radiation had decreased during the past day and night. So it is hardly the place for the Western mass media to spread rumors.”’
The report also assured viewers that the air and water around Kyiv was safe and the drinking water and reservoirs were fine.
There is no way this sequence – Kremlin silence, denial, misinformation – was the result of mistakes. This strategy was all quite calculated and deliberate and, it would appear, has now almost been forgotten.
On the same day, April 30, CNN reported that a man in New York had been able to get through to his brother in Ukraine who worked in a hospital and said that his brother had seen hundreds dead and that the hosptial could not handle the dead and injured. Travelling French students interviewed by CBS quoted a hospital source as saying at least 500 were dead. Though factual reports by the foreign media varied greatly, the Soviet media, completely controlled by the Kremlin and the only media that could have and should have provided facts continued to say everything was fine.
Perhaps the most disgusting and arrogant example of this total disregard for the truth and human lives came on May 1. Winds that had initially blown the radiation north and over the Scandinavian monitoring devices had turned and were keeping most of the increasing radiation over Ukraine, Belarus and some areas within Russia. While this radiation continued to drop over the Ukrainian countryside, the Soviets staged their annual extravagant May Day parade in Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev, whose leadership guided the Kremlin response, smiled and waved to the crowd in Red Square. To the south, just 90 miles from the fires of Chornobyl still burning out of control, the Soviets staged another massive parade in Kyiv that included children dancing down Kyiv’s broad central avenue, Khreshchatyk. Perhaps the only noticable difference from previous May Day celebrations in Kyiv was the fact that as the marchers and dancers reached the reviewing stands where Communist Party bosses traditionally watched the festivities, they found the stands empty. Some members of the “classless” Soviet society had been given enough information to alert them to evacuate the republic’s capitol. Also associated with the May Day celebrations there was a bicycle race in Kyiv; exercise and deep breathing – all the better to inhale the Kremlin’s radiation.
Given the lack of concern Gorbachev’s government showed for the population’s unnecessary exposure to the deadly Chornobyl radiation, the ordinary citizens of Ukraine might as well have been the “kulaks” Stalin sought to “liquidate as a class” in his intentional and forced famine of 1932-33. Their safety and health meant nothing. From Stalin to touted
glasnost, what had changed?
At the same time Gorbachev’s government began to block Western news media attempts to report on Chornobyl. American television companies were told technical problems were keeping photos from reaching communications satellites. This followed some Western news interviews with tourists in Moscow who had arrived from Kyiv and strongly disputed the Soviet casualty count and expressed great anger because Soviet authorities lacked the human decency to tell either them or the citizens of Ukraine what was happening.
The brazenness of the cover-up extended even to a Soviet Embassy official, Vitalii Churkin, appearing in Washington at a briefing of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. For almost two hours Churkin talked in circles. Pressed by direct questions to explain why the Kremlin had not warned other countries he replied, “It is my opinion that there was no real harm to other countries.” This, the Soviet view, was being expressed on Capitol Hill on Thursday, May 1, as the parades were underway and a spy satellite was transmitting pictures of the fires still burning, while the Ukrainian population in Kyiv and around Chornobyl were still in the dark as to the poisons they were breathing. Even as the Voice of America and Radio Liberty increased the number of their broadcasts trying to warn anyone who could pick up the signal despite the jamming attacks, the Soviets had not yet issued the most basic of emergency announcements, no food or water or safety precautions as contamination intensified.
It was not until May 6 that announcements ran on local radio and television in Kyiv issuing warnings to the population to close their windows, to wash and peel vegetables and to keep children indoors (directives similar to ones foreign governments hundreds of miles away had given their citizens over a week earlier). These tragically delayed announcements immediately lead to thousands flooding train stations and all potential routes out of Kyiv, but the Soviet government quicly established travel controls. Only a certain number from each family could travel – families had to prioritize who among them could try to escape and seek help. Armed police blocked the main roads leading out of Kyiv. The authority’s tight control of travel out of the area continued for weeks.
On May 7
The New York Times
reported that large numbers of uniformed police and plainclothes KGB agents were at Moscow’s Kievsky train station when trains arrived from Kyiv mostly with children and elderly women. The officials were doing everything they could to prevent Western journalists from interviewing the arrivals. They ordered reporters to leave the station and turned away a television crew while wisking away the Ukrainian arrivals. But it was obvious that the West was aware of the panic which had set in in Ukraine and so the Kremlin began to release more doctored information. The bland reports that everything was under control morphed into graphic descriptions of the Motherland’s finest fighting 100 foot high flames after the initial explosion. Again, Yurii Bohatiuk’s article translates the Soviet press describing the firemen’s efforts: “Their boots stuck in biumen that melted because of high temperature, soot and smoke made it difficult to breathe, but the brave bold men kept on fighting the blaze courageously.” Still there was no mention of casualties or the risk to people still being exposed to large doses of radiation.
As the days wore on and pressure grew for the Kremlin to explain what happened and was happening, the Soviets stumbled over their lies and their profound incompetence and the growing exposure of their near total disregard for the people. The situation is under control. Everything is fine. The people in close proximity to the plant were evacuated immediately. The evacuation of Prypiat was not completed until May 6. 49,000 people were evacuated. No, 84,000 have been evacuated. Raditation readings show that the area thirty five miles outside Chornobyl and in Kyiv is safe. It looks like much of the area around Chornobyl will be unlivable for at least 100 years. If it all wasn’t so deadly serious this zig-zag information might have been comical.
On May 9, an early summer holiday was announced for Kyiv’s quarter of a million school children although at the same time authorities were saying radiation levels were normal. Enjoy the holidays – inside.
Mikhail Gorbachev, whom the Western media helped so much to acquire a “progressive” image, took 18 days to make up his mind what to say or what not to say to the anxious populations of Eastern Europe and the citizens of the countries he was supposedly leading. On May 16, after having entertained the president of Angola, after visiting various factories in Russia and taking part in those glorious May Day celebration as if nothing had happened, the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet was able to cross his fingers and say publicly, “As soon as we received reliable initial information, it was made available to the Soviet people and sent through diplomatic channels to the governments of foreign countries.” Progressive! More like a prototypical Stalinist; not one word of public reassurance from him for the population of the stricken area nor a single word of encouragement to the people dealing with the disaster. And, of course, not one word of truth. The strength of any system of governance can be measured at least in part by how well it reacts to the unexpected. Soviet Communism failed. And, Gorbachev’s flimsy statement was certainly short of the "openness" which he had promised to introduce and to cultivate as the main feature of his style of leadership.
Yet how the Kremlin reacted and Gorbachev’s own behavior in the Spring of 1986 seems to have been forgotten or dismissed as history marches on. However, by any honest review of his handling of the Chornobyl crisis, the General Secretary did not emerge as a true statesman, but more like a small-minded, provincial party secretary from Stavropol who simply did not know what to do or, worse, whose intentional actions were unforgivable.
This horrid approach of disinformation and callousness continued for months. Genuine assistance from the community of nations really never got to Ukraine and Belarus until all that was possible was too-long-delayed remedial efforts try to comfort the afflicted. Most of the international involvement focused on the “children of Chornobyl” and scientific inquiry and assessment.
Much has been written about the way the Soviet Union handled its eventual studies which certainly were compromised from the outset by the Kremlin’s delayed reactions. I remember meeting with scientists in Ukraine in March 1990 and having one explain how some time after the explosion, scientists with certain specialties were directed to undertake tests and analysis, but to keep their work to themselves, not to communicate with others undertaking different tests. He explained that the entire process was the way the Soviet Union did things, compartmentalize research and keep the individual tests and conclusions from being shared among experts. Turn over the individual and discrete work products to authorities and they would decide what would be shared or made public, essentially without the benefit of vigorous interaction among the experts.
Once the people in Ukraine and Belarus were told the basics of what happened, their attention focused immediately on their children. It has already been noted that families had to choose who should get out of the area and it was mostly children who were put on the planes, trains and buses out of the area. Likewise children already showing symptoms were moved into local hospitals and, once allowed, foreign relief efforts focused on the children, getting aid to many in Ukraine and getting others out of the country and to Western countries where they could be given the best possible treatment. In addition to assistance from foreign governments there were numerous private organizations Children of Chornobyl, Chornobyl Children Charity, Chornobyl Children Project, et al operating from the United States, England, Scotland, Ireland and other countries and focusing their efforts on affected children mostly in Ukraine and Belarus. These efforts, often involving concerned and dedicated members of the Diaspora of Ukraine and Belarus, were – and are – wonderful examples of charitable and voluntary efforts arising from within free societies. They also were so successful that they masked the totally inadequate response and capabilities of the Soviet system.
As for the human “cost” of the disaster, we may never know. There have been many studies but it seems that each have different results and have used different methods. Just as an example, The Chornobyl Forum, which included numerous international agencies issued a report in 2005 that predicted the total number of deaths due to the disaster at around 4,000 (of which 2,200 deaths were expected from the ranks of 200,000 people who in one way or another responded to the explosion or tried to deal with the clean-up). Later the 4,000 estimate was “updated” to 9,000 excess cancer deaths. Others criticized this report in part because its data - 200,000 people involved in the cleanup, and the 400,000 most directly affected by the released radiation, did not even consider the fact that over a half of the radiation from Chornobyl (specifically iodine-131 - which increases the risk of thyroid cancer) was deposited outside the former Soviet Union. And, possible increases in thyroid cancer have been reported in countries like the Czech Republic and England. There are reports that project 30,000 to 60,000 excess cancer deaths and that
predicted excess cases of thyroid cancer ranging between 18,000 and 66,000 in Belarus alone depending on the risk projection model.
Whatever the study and whatever the eventual outcome, the fact is that the Kremlin and the Soviet system made Chornobyl many times worse than necessary by callous disregard for the facts and for human life.
Those who play down the Soviet Union’s malevolent response must not be allowed to hide the facts. Even today Mikhail Gorbachev expects people to believe that the Scandinavians learned about Chornobyl before the Kremlin did with its extensive KGB and apparatchik networks. And he claims he started getting information out to the general population of the Soviet Union on April 28 when, in fact, all the
reported was that there had been an accident and “measures have been undertaken to eliminate the consequences of the accident.” Gorbachev goes so far these days as blaming “The closed nature and secrecy of the nuclear power industry…” and says “We need full transparency and public oversight and regulation of the nuclear power industry today, along with complete emergency preparedness and response mechanisms.”
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
, 67(2) 77-80, “Chernobyl 25 years later: Many lessons learned” 2011. We may need transparency in the nuclear power industry but it was not transparency in that industry that was the problem in 1986, however, it was Mr. Gorbachev’s government “oversight” that maximized the crisis 25 years ago.
Whether it is Gorbachev trying to rewrite history, or those who use Chornobyl to oppose nuclear energy and/or the nuclear power industry, they must not allow them to bury the truth about the system of governance that existed in the Soviet Union. To learn the lessons of the past we must face the truth. As President Reagan said, we must not “ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire,” especially when there are indications that those impulses have not vanished. We need to understand and appreciate the differences between that empire and free societies.
In 2011 when the crisis occurred at the Fukushima Power Plant, criticisms were leveled at the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and at the Japanese government. But, unlike Chornobyl, the entire world was able to follow the on-going story, international aid was welcomed and encouraged, and there was a focus on the safety of the population. If a comparison is to be drawn between Chornobyl and Fukushima, let it be between a government that acts in accordance with an inherent concern for its people in a free society and the Kremlin’s almost total disregard for its people.
Co-Founder, U.S.-Ukraine Foundation
[Throughout this article the Ukrainian spelling of the subject power plant and Ukraine’s capital city are used.]