Chernobyl's Aftermath: The Pompeii of the Nuclear Age

By Walter Mayr

Part 2: Part II: "We Didn't Make Any Mistakes"

The Soviet Union's former second-in-command denies any suggestion of an official cover-up following the reactor disaster. "What should we have written in the papers back then?" he asks. "The deaths weren't visible. We acted quickly and didn't make any mistakes."

To this day, Ryzhkov is proud of his initial response to the reactor accident, of his traditional Soviet approach of mobilizing massive numbers of people and quantities of material to deal with the tragedy. On the day of the accident, nuclear engineers were sent to Chernobyl from Moscow, followed by 6,000 troops, 40,000 members of the Soviet military's chemical task force and experienced helicopter pilots -- some redeployed from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

By the evening of April 26, 1986, Ryzhkov was still unaware that the amount of radiation released at Chernobyl was 400 times higher than that released by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and that trillions of Becquerel units of radiation were already drifting around the globe. He didn't know that firemen, young police officers and soldiers with insufficient protective gear were working 90-second shifts above the maw of Reactor Four, above the red-hot lid of the reactor, ruining their lives in an effort to control the flames.

But he did know, instinctively, that it would be a dark day for himself and for the party.

Years of warnings

Scientists had been issuing warnings for years about Chernobyl, where six reactors, with a combined output of 1,000 megawatts, made up what was then the world's most powerful nuclear power plant. On February 21, 1979, when he was still head of the KGB, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party, Yuri Andropov, had warned the party's central committee about potential problems at Chernobyl.

In a report titled "Deficiencies in the Construction of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant," a document marked "top secret," Andropov described violations of construction specifications "that could lead to technical failures and accidents." According to the report, safety procedures at the plant were not being observed, leading to 170 worker accidents within a span of only nine months.

The response to the report was predictable: the ministry responsible formed a commission. Four years later, on December 31, 1983, Victor Bryuchanov, Chernobyl's director and a Communist Party official, certified the on-time completion of the plant's fourth reactor -- despite the fact that the reactor, which would explode three years later, was not yet fully secured. In December 1985, Bryuchanov told an associate: "God forbid that something serious should ever happen to us. I am afraid that not only the Ukraine, but the entire Soviet Union would be unable to handle such an emergency."

The roof structure on the reactor building was made of a highly flammable material. To satisfy the party's demands for speedy completion, shortcuts were taken when it came to the concrete containment walls, evacuation plans, protective gear and Geiger counters. One of the most outspoken among those party officials calling for rapid completion was Ryzhkov, who became prime minister in September 1985.

At the 27th party congress of the Soviet Communist Party, only eight weeks before the reactor disaster, the USSR's energy ministry was denounced for having "failed to achieve, during the 11th five-year plan, the planned increase in the energy production of nuclear power plants." As far as party officials were concerned, it was an unacceptable state of affairs. After all, Gorbachev himself had called for a two and a half-fold increase in electricity production from nuclear sources within five years. The war in Afghanistan, by then in its seventh year, the arms race with the United States and a dramatic plunge in oil prices had brought the USSR to the brink of bankruptcy. The party was adamant in its demands for an increase in nuclear energy to meet domestic consumer needs and free up the country's oil and gas reserves for export -- and hard currency.

A warm Saturday in April

In the hours following the disaster, the 49,000 residents of Prypiat -- located just three kilometers from the reactor -- continued to go about their lives as if nothing had happened. It was a warm Saturday in April, and the streets were filled with people; mothers walking with their children, men drinking beer and kwas -- a local drink favorite -- at roadside stands.

According to a classified eyewitness report that was later sent to party headquarters in Moscow, officials in Prypiat were well aware of the amount of radiation exposure within an hour of the accident. But no one dared alert the local population without orders from Moscow. By noon, the streets were being washed with soap, but only the men who had worked the night shift at the reactor knew why, so that the only other residents of the city with at least some forewarning were their families.

On that same Saturday -- at a time when radiation in downtown Prypiat was already at several thousand times normal levels -- the operations manager at Chernobyl gave a raucous party to celebrate his daughter's wedding. None of his colleagues who were on duty that weekend felt that it was necessary to warn him.

On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Ryzhkov issued the order to evacuate Prypiat within the next few days, and by Sunday evening 1,100 buses had reached the city from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. Those whose work did not require them to stay behind were told that the party wanted them to pack their bags and leave the city "for two to three days."

The politburo met in Moscow on Monday, and on Tuesday the government newspaper Izvestiya ventured a terse, eight-line report on an "accident" in Chernobyl, saying that "one of the nuclear reactors was damaged" -- nothing more.

By that time, more than three days had passed since the reactor accident. Officials were already aware of the scope of the catastrophe. The most seriously affected of the rescue workers had long since been admitted to Moscow's Clinic 6, their flaking skin burned a dark brown from the radiation and their hair falling out. But most citizens were still being kept in the dark. "We were concerned that a panic could break out -- and that in major cities like Kiev and Minsk," Gorbachev later said. Ironically, as recently as that year's March party congress, Gorbachev, quoting Lenin, had called for "the truth, always and under all circumstances."

The results of studies conducted by Minsk physician Yevgeny Demidchik now show that hundreds of cases of thyroid cancer in Belarusian children who were either not yet born or had just been born at the time of the disaster were caused by contamination with iodine 131 during the first few days following the Chernobyl explosion.

In a resolution dated May 8, 1986, the politburo ordered allowable radiation doses increased by factors ranging from 10 to 50. In a document titled "Secret Attachment to Item 10" of the minutes, party officials ordered radioactively contaminated meat turned into sausage, using a 1:10 ratio, throughout the territory of most republics within the USSR, including Russia, but "excluding Moscow."

Suppression and falsification

Under official order number U-2617 C, issued on June 27, 1986, all data relating to Chernobyl, to the treatment of the victims and to the nature and scope of their radiation exposure was classified. Though signed by Yevgeny Shulshenko, a minor official in the USSR's Ministry of Health, the document was sanctioned by senior party officials and smoothed the way for the subsequent suppression, falsification and destruction of evidence.

It wasn't until 1989 that Pravda published a map of the contaminated regions, which showed that 70 percent of the fallout from Chernobyl descended upon Belarus, with the remainder falling onto the Ukraine and southern Russia. This meant that 5 million people living in thousands of villages and a few larger cities in the Soviet Union spent three years living in areas exposed to high levels of radiation while oblivious to the risks involved. Many continued to eat home-grown vegetables and the berries and mushrooms they normally gathered in the forests.

Central Committee internal report number 20-34 on the Chernobyl disaster, dated July 10, 1986 and labelled "top secret," concedes that the Chernobyl case was "one of the worst accidents in the history of nuclear energy." According to the report, there were 26 dead, 135,000 evacuees and 800,000 people who required medical treatment.

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