The Chornobyl Nuclear Disaster

European Liaison Group
London 1986

The Chornobyl Nuclear Disaster

"In matters nuclear one thing is certain: there is no protection in an iron curtain." A letter in The Times May 3rd, 1986.

On the 26th of April 1986 shortly after midnight, to be precise, at 1:23 GMT, there occurred near the Ukrainian town of Chornobyl a tremendous explosion at a huge nuclear power plant, followed by a gradual meltdown of the reactor No. 4.

Chornobyl[*] is situated 80 miles north-west of Kiev, the ancient capital of Ukraine and the Soviet Union's third largest city.

It was by far the worst nuclear reactor accident ever, which immediately sent a radioactive cloud across neighbouring Byelorussia, Poland and the Baltic Republics towards Scandinavia.

Within days, borne by shifting winds, radioactive mists wafted beyond Soviet borders and spread across most of Europe causing anxiety, apprehension and fear.

The most badly affected were the Republics of Ukraine and Byelorussia. They suffered large scale involuntary irradiation, due to extensive secrecy, and great economic damage. Furthermore the contaminated air mass passed over large areas of Poland and also over parts of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia and a number of West European countries.

Was the disaster unavoidable? How and why did it happen? Could it have been prevented? Why did it happen in the Soviet Union?

There are three important reasons why the disaster took place in a Soviet dominated and controlled territory.


"Montreal (Reuters) - Dr. Edward Teller, known as the father of the hydrogen bomb said yesterday that the amount of radioactivity released by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was probably a million times more than the fall-out from the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island.

The 78 year-old physicist said at a conference here that his calculation was based on the radiation reaching Sweden and other European countries, and known wind patterns.

He said that during the Second World War the United States built three reactors of the same general type as the one at Chernobyl but a safeguard which he chaired recommended against their use in 1950."

The Times, June 5th, 1986:

"Nuclear power stations are being built without the proper technical documentation with inadequate equipment and building materials, often of inferior quality, and without sufficient skilled personnel.

This leads to violation of technical standards and technological processes in construction work to countless defects, and to unauthorised deviations from construction plans."

Allan Kroncher: "Soviet Nuclear Power Station Construction Poses Constant Hazards," Radio Liberty Research RL 194/86, May 15, 1986, p.7.

"More important all experts stress that the Chernobyl reactor couldn't be licensed to operate anywhere in the West and that no such prototype is active in any western city today."

Youssef M. Ibrahim: "Nuclear Energy Plan in Europe Advances in Wake of Chernobyl" The Wall Street Journal July 29, 1986.

Experts in the West have agreed for quite some time that nuclear reactors of the Chornobyl type were "poorly engineered and unsafe" that their design "was potentially dangerous".

Soviet scientists knew this as well but their objections and warnings generally over-ruled by the Soviet political establishment for reasons of prestige and because of military considerations, since the 1950's.

Consequently more and more new nuclear power stations were designed simply by multiplication of the original imperfect unit. "And this also meant multiplication of the risk" according to Zhores A. Medvedev Soviet scientist living in London since 1973 and the author of Nuclear Disaster in the Urals, about the explosion of radioactive wastes in 1957 was covered up by the Kremlin (Newsweek May 12, 1986 p.19).

As for the specific cause of the Chomobyl disaster "Western experts are reluctant to commit themselves to any particular explanation until the cause is known", says the Economist, adding however, "but whether there are specific lessons for western reactors or not, one general lesson is clear as crystal; that Chernobyl had the wrong kind of safety" (May 1986, p.92).

Other available evidence also confirms that conditions at Chornobyl not meet required standards. Furthermore, it was only very recently that the Chornobyl nuclear power station built according to a Kiev journal "at an unprecedented tempo" was exposed to extensive criticism in a Kievan newspaper Literaturna Ukraina of March 27, 1986.

Its author Lyubov Kovalevs'ka, has revealed in considerable detail that numerous earlier difficulties at the nuclear power plant were left unresolved and have accumulated over the years.

Consequently, "the problems of the first reactor have been passed on to the second reactor (block) and from the second to the third and so on, and under these conditions the problems have become more profound, and one has an 'over-growth' of an enormous number of unresolved problems", writes Kovalevs'ka.

At first, she says, attempts were made to discuss the difficulties, but because the talk was not followed by action, "dissatisfaction" and eventually despair spread among the large work force.

Indeed, she is almost saying that under the present Soviet approach to constructing nuclear power stations a major accident would have occurred sooner or later.


"The Chernobyl disaster reminds us that plutonium with all its possibilities for warfare is produced as a by-product in nuclear reactors. In The Times of April 30, Ian Smart suggests that the design of Chernobyl reactors is only comprehensible if considered as a means of producing plutonium for military (or further civil) use, as well as for generating electricity ...

An article in The Guardian on March 14, suggests that before 1969 civil reactors in this country were used to produce weapons grade plutonium. Since then, in the U.K., civil and military reactors have been sharply distinguished. Our military plutonium comes from two special reactors at Calder Hall and Chapelcross..." (Physicist Chris Feetenby in Catholic Herald May 23, 1986).

"Nearly half the Soviet nuclear reactors are of the type involved at Chornobyl, which is known as RBMK" (see W.P. Geddes "Nuclear Power in the Soviet Bloc", The Uranium Institute, London, p.5).

The Soviet Union is a country which spends-for political, ideological and propaganda reasons-enormous resources on various peace campaigns and movements everywhere. But at the same time it is also ruthless and reckless enough to use electricity producing nuclear power stations for purely military purposes—with military demands taking precedence over everything else. This is practised on a scale unthinkable the West.

It was precisely for military reasons that the Soviet Union decided in mid-1950's to build graphite moderated reactors that would proelectricity and plutonium for weapons at the same time since graphite reactors have a neutron spectrum that yields large amounts of tons-quality plutonium on a continuous basis.

Consequently, as is well argued in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial: "the central conclusion is that Soviet reactors are inherently far more dangerous than those in the West, for a single reason: Soviet nuclear and nuclear-weapons programs are intertwined - safety has been sacrificed in the interest of turning out large quantities of weapons grade plutonium" (May 15, 1986).

The fact that the Chomobyl nuclear reactors have been used for military purposes is also corroborated by Kronid Lubarsky, well-known Russian dent and a scientist by training.

He has confirmed this in his extensive and highly informative survey of Chornobyl disaster published in the May issue of the Munich-based monthly Strana I Mir (Our Country and the World), of which he is editor.

Some other confirmations of this disturbing fact come from a usually reliable Polish underground publication "Kos" (No.86, Special edition d May 4, 1986) and from the German physicist Jens Scheer of the University of Bremen (quoted in the "Deutsche Presse Agentur" dispatch from West Berlin, dated April 29, 1986).


"Both Lenin and Stalin created famines which cost millions of lives. Khrushchev's 'virgin lands' scheme ended in ecological devastation. Now, increasingly, the power to create ideological disasters is spreading to industry. Gorbachev has been hurrying all over Russia demanding that managers make the maximum use of high technology to promote efficiency. Scared for their jobs and possibly their lives managers are doing as they are bid. The result is Chernobyl." Paul Johnson: "From Russia with Contempt", The Daily Telegraph May 10, 1986.

"The Soviet nuclear power industry is now proven to have substandard safeguards, low quality maintenance and shoddy management. " Peter Crossland: "Chernobyl: Harvest of Despair" Arabia, The Islamic World Review, July 1986.

As members of nations immediately concerned with the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster we have a distinct feeling that the Chornobyl tragedy need not have happened.

There is enough documentary evidence today to say that early and justified criticism and numerous warnings were largely ignored and that people in Moscow, responsible for the construction and operation of one of the largest nuclear power plants in the world, acted in an irresponsible manner.

Needless to say slipshod attitudes, shoddy workmanship and shock building methods and typical Soviet improvisation may work elsewhere but they are hardly suited to the construction of nuclear reactors. For example, shortly before the Chornobyl disaster, the timetable for the construction of the Chornobyl nuclear plant's planned fifth reactor was suddenly reduced from three to two years.

It is in the already mentioned important survey by Lyubov Kovalevs'ka, in all probability an engineer, published on March 27,1986 in the Kievan Ukrainian-language newspaper Literaturna Ukraina that we find an extremely detailed and truly candid picture of the numerous problems, difficulties and shortcomings at the Chornobyl nuclear power station

It discloses, for instance, that: the management of the plant became more and more indignant and desperate, that the work-force was visibly demoralized and labour discipline poor, that there was a chronic shortage of essential equipment and building materials, that there was poor organisation of work, that disruption in supplies led to frequent stoppages and that much of the materials delivered was not of proper quality ("... 6,000 cu.m. of faulty prefabricated reinforced concrete... 200 tonnes of faulty steel columns").

"When I list these facts," says Kovalevs'ka," I particularly want to draw the reader's attention to the inadmissibility of defects in the construction of AES and energy sources in general, where every detail of construction must meet certain norms. Every cubic meter of reinforced concrete must be of guaranteed quality and safety."

Moreover, it became also widely known that the Chornobyl nuclear power plant is not the only one built in such an apparently careless manner.

In a very brief period of just one year, during the construction of a similar nuclear power plant at Rostov, inspectors found "136 serious technological violations and deviations from plans" according to Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya of August 11,1985.

In 1980, for example, Radio Moscow broadcast a report (on September from the site of the Smolensk nuclear power station. It described considerable detail the persistently poor quality of the work carried and the countless deviations from design specifications, construction standards, and engineering rules. Defects had crept in almost everywhere.

On the other hand "in 1982, the newspaper Trud (of August 28) wrote of unrealistic construction schedules compiled to speed up work oblige the construction teams to get through at least some of what been incorporated in unrealistic plans."

Since 1979 work quotas had been increased four times. As a result the construction teams had lost faith in the plans and their sense of responsibility was declining" (Allan Kroncher, "Soviet Nuclear Power Station construction Poses Constant Hazards," Radio Liberty Research, 194/86, May 15, 1986, p.3).


"The way the Soviet regime handled matters once the explosion occurred demonstrated the depressing stability of Soviet methods.

Its first response was to invest the entire area with KGB security troops and impose absolute silence ... Obviously the Chernobyl affair will be studied for years in the West for any lessons it provides in nuclear safety. But I suspect it may have even more instructive lessons about the failures of the Soviet system as a whole ..." Paul Johnson "From Russia With Contempt", The Daily Telegraph, May 10, 1986.

"So there you are. In the Ukraine an enormous tragedy; in the whole of Europe an ecological catastrophe, and what is happening in Moscow, which is responsible for it? Well, in Moscow they are having a parade ..."

"Kos" Polish underground publication, special Chornobyl supplement, No. 84, May 4, 1986.

"For it was in the matter of notification that the Soviet response to the accident at Chernobyl was most lamentably deficient. " "The Red and the Green" (editorial), The Times June 5, 1986.

An eminent Oxford historian Professor Norman Stone has described handling of the Chornobyl disaster by the Soviet Union as "a deadly combination of secrecy and incompetence" (The Daily Telegraph, May 3, 1986.) Having first suppressed news of the Chornobyl disaster and behaving as if nothing had really happened, the Soviet media not only irresponsibly played down the damage but continued to publish for quite some time false and misleading reports, that there was no longer any danger and that the situation was under control.

Consequently, because of this prolonged crass silence, followed later by bland denials and belated and misleading admissions, the whole world was able to witness an elementary failure of the Soviet regime to give early enough warning of the dangers which an atomic disaster of this magnitude might bring to the western republics of the Soviet Union and the other nations nearby.

As Neal Ascherson states emphatically in The Observer "the release of radioactive material into the environment is a crime against humanity ... for a population showered with deadly radiation, instant information is a matter of life and death" (The Observer, May 18, 1986).

A state which is normally extremely busy mouthing slogans like "all for the people's welfare" has once more totally failed to meet international and humanitarian obligations.

Furthermore it took Mikhail Gorbachev, whom the Western media helped so much to acquire a "progressive" image, 18 days to make up his mind what to say or what not say to the anxious population of the Ukraine and Eastern Europe generally. However, in the meantime he found time to entertain the president of Angola, visit various factories and take part in the usual May Day celebrations, as if nothing had happened.

There was not a word of public reassurance from him for the population of the stricken area nor a word of personal encouragement to people dealing with the disaster.

The "busy" men of the Politbureau too remained silent for 13 days before coming to grips with the Chornobyl nuclear explosion and its disastrous consequences.

Moscow radio and television waited for almost four days, or to be precise for 92 hours and seven minutes, in order to say 23 words in three short sentences about a catastrophe the whole world already knew and talked about.

What the newscaster on the Moscow television news programme "Vremya" (Time) actually said on April 28 at 21.02 hrs. was this:

" There has been an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power generating plant -- one of the reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Those affected by it are being given assistance, and a government commission has been set up."

And that was all! No date or time of the disaster were given, nothing said about the victims and casualties and about the dangers of the radiation, no technical information of any kind was revealed and nothing was said about the nature of measures taken. And all this was happening at the time when neighbouring Poland and faraway Scandinavian countries were already exposed to unusually high levels of radiation.

Ukrainian officialdom too "waited" with their meagre announcement until April 30. And it was not until 36 hours after the explosion that nearby town of Pripyat, inhabited by over 20,000 people, began to be evacuated (the damaged reactor is situated much closer to the north of Pripyat than to the town of Chornobyl).

According to reliable evidence the time taken to get people out of the terminated zone had been dangerously long. Most significant was the re of the officials in charge of the rescue operations to carry out evacuation of a much wider area including the City of Chornobyl If which had been subjected to a steady fall-out of radioactive particles for seven days before anything serious was done!

Eventually it was nine days after the explosion that at last the evacuation of Chornobyl and the surrounding area, comprising large and numerous collective farms, went ahead, widening the zone to be evacuated to approximately 30 kilometres.

Ultimately the clumsy Soviet effort to hide and to minimise the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster has failed.

But, by suppressing vital information and by delaying protective measures, Moscow has certainly increased greatly the amount of radiation exposure suffered by large numbers of people inside and outside Soviet Union.

In fact some very limited facts and figures, especially about the dangers radiation, were revealed to the Soviet public for the first time at a press conference held in Moscow on May 6, eleven days after the Chornobyl disaster.

The conference itself was not a very edifying affair since the two chief spokesmen, Boris Scherbina and Yuri Syedunov, both high-ranking officials, gave contradictory information about the dangers of radiation, which the editors of Pravda were obliged to correct in the next day's edition of that paper (K. Lubarsky Strana I Mir, No. 6, p.5).

Furthermore, the first truly detailed account of the effects of radiation, en in the Soviet Union since the Chornobyl disaster, appeared as late the middle of July in the Komsomolskaya Pravda of July 17, 1986.


For the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union and already suffering from the excesses of ruthless Soviet militarisation, the introduction of large nuclear power stations on their territories had been an unacknowledged issue for quite some time. They had resisted the idea and voiced their misgivings.

Consequently, their free spokesmen living in the West were very quick to protest about the nuclear contamination of their countries, following the Chornobyl disaster.

In a letter sent on behalf of the Baltic Council of Great Britain to Sir Geoffrey Howe, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth affairs, dated May 5, 1986, they had this to say:

"We would also ask that you condemn in the strongest possible terms the reluctance of the Soviet authorities to provide information about this disaster. We consider this secrecy to be in total contradiction to the accepted norms of international behaviour."

Similar language was also used in a letter sent on April 29, 1986 by the 'Conference of Ukrainian Political Parties and Organisations' in the United States to the American Secretary of State George P. Schultz. The letter criticises the Soviet regime for its "deliberate failure to warn Ukrainians of imminent and present dangers" and states that "The USSR must not only be condemned for their ongoing crimes against Ukrainians and humanity, but indicted for their continuing disregard and flagrant violations of human rights and the agreements which promise to preserve and protect the rights of all people, including those in Ukraine."

Poland was the first country outside the Soviet Union across whose border the radioactive cloud actually blew. A very powerful radioactive cloud arrived over Poland on Monday 28 April, contaminating many of its eastern and northern provinces.

How ordinary Polish people felt about this unexpected danger can be best seen in a letter sent to the Polish Episcopate by women workers of the Rosa Luxemburg Factory in Warsaw on May 17, 1986.

It explains their worries and anxieties in the following manner. "... we sympathise with those who suffer most, the families in the Ukraine, but what we do not understand is why the authorities only informed us t the effects of radiation and counter-measures four days after the accident - why was the Polish population not warned when the danger greatest ... we believe we can expect from the authorities at least thing: serious and responsible behaviour in a crisis and not see manipulation of information and actions motivated by immediate political considerations". (Uncensored Poland News Bulletin, No. 14/86, 14, 1986, p.13).

In the neighbouring Republic of Byelorussia too - which because of direction of the prevailing winds at the time of the Chornobyl explosion suffered badly - there was official confusion and lack of and advice, which resulted in belated and disorganised evacuation officially in the province of Homel.

But was only six weeks after the Chornobyl disaster that the unhappy situation and general uneasiness prevailing in the Republic forced the communist regime to admit publicly widely spread "official carelessness elementary medical illiteracy." (Martin Walker, "Russia admits hundred mile radiation zone" The Guardian, June 5, 1986).

There were some repercussions of the Chornobyl disaster in East Germany as well. The West German press published, for example, a lengthy well-documented unofficial petition signed by hundreds of people g permanently in East Germany. (Frankfurter Rundschau, June 26, i, p.15).

The petition focuses its attention on the highly irresponsible behaviour the Soviet and East German regimes and is very critical of East German scientists in particular.

It accuses them of having acted in an "irresponsible and misleading manner" by minimising the Chornobyl disaster and by feeding the media with "embellished speculations".


"Even within the Soviet Union in the Republic of the Ukraine where the accident happened the political fall-out could be equally great.

The Ukrainian population has, perforce, been given more information and suffered more - in human terms and economically - from the accident than any other part of the Soviet Union.

It has now in common with Poland and the Baltic States with which it has such close historical ties, a sense of being, in some sense separate from the Soviet Union as a whole, of being its victim." "More shocks from Chernobyl" (Editorial), The Times May 27, 1986.

"Will the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl revive and sharpen Ukrainian awareness of being an exploitable cog in the Russian Imperial wheel?... Ukrainians are more likely to see the disaster as one having more immediate implications for their own nation. They will be bolstered in this attitude by the nearby Poles ... And they ask: would any of the delays and cover-ups have occurred if a nuclear facility near Moscow or another major Russian city had exploded?" Peter Crossland "Chernobyl: Harvest of Despair" Arabia, The Islamic World Review July, 1986.

"Chornobyl will also remind large segments of the Ukrainian population that we are not masters in our own house!". Leonid Plyusch, exiled Ukrainian dissident and scientist quoted in Soviet Nationality Survey No. 4-5 1986, p.2.

The Ukrainian people on whose territory this nuclear disaster occurred have suffered under Soviet rule enough blows and devastation and experienced enough losses and misery in the past to go through this dreadful nightmare of nuclear contamination.

In peacetime, in 1933, the Soviet regime starved to death almost seven million Ukrainian peasants, in a purposely organised famine. Also in the 1930's a series of mass purges and show trials eliminated a whole generation of Ukrainian intellectuals, writers and artists. And during the last two decades we have witnessed a large scale, brutal suppression of Ukrainian dissidents, pressing for national and human rights and cultural freedom.

Consequently, the Chornobyl tragedy has implications that reach far beyond the critical questions of contamination, radiation, health and nuclear safety. It will, no doubt, exacerbate even further the existing tensions between the Ukrainians and the communist regime in Moscow. the other hand it will have a profound impact on the entire economy of the Ukrainian Republic and the Soviet Union as a whole. According to available information it was precisely the Chornobyl nuclear plant with its six powerful reactors which was supposed to play a crucial role in the Soviet plans to increase very substantially, if not to double, the output of nuclear-generated electricity in the Soviet Union 1990.

Will Moscow in such circumstances still be pushing ahead with its nuclear programme without creating first the required infrastructure without raising nuclear safety levels to required international standards?

Will Moscow still insist on using the Chornobyl reactors for military purposes?

The prospects for the immediate future however, do not seem to be very encouraging.

On he one hand, according to the official Soviet press agency Tass, Moscow and Ukrainian ministries "were moving to put more nuclear reactors into service and were economizing on electricity to make up for losses caused by the Chernobyl accident" (International Herald Tribune, June 27, 1986). As is generally known the latest Soviet five-year economic plan calls for 15 new reactors by 1990, many of them in the Ukraine, and two of them coming into operation year at Rivne (Rovno) and at Zaporizhia (Zaporozhe).

On the other hand Moscow has surprised everybody by announcing on July 17, 1986 controversial plans for two of the four original Chornobyl 100 megawatt graphite core reactors to begin generating electricity in as early as October of this year (The Times July 18, 1986).


"Both give him high marks for ability, drive, determination and political and diplomatic skills." Archie Brown in a review of two recent books, by Zhores Medvedev and by Christian Schmidt Hauer, about Mr. Gorbachev, The Times Literary Supplement July 18, 1986, p.781.

"Strikingly absent from Gorbachev's speech was any word of regret that other nations, in both Eastern and Western Europe, had also suffered the consequences of the Soviet Union's misfortune. His tone throughout was arrogant and aggressive. " Elizabeth Teague "Gorbachev makes Nationwide TV address". Radio Liberty Research RL 193/86, May 14, 1986.

"His handling of the disaster was about as skilled as Richard Nixon's handling of Watergate." The Economist, May 24,1986 p 13.

Needless to say one of the most obvious and most spectacular casualties of the political fall-out from the Chornobyl nuclear disaster is Mr. Gorbachev himself and his much advertised reputation for reform, new-style leadership, decisiveness and openness. "What other leader would stay silent for 18 days while his country suffered the worst disaster in the history of nuclear power? What other system would let him?" asks The Economist (May 24, 1986, p.13), adding: "The strength of any system is measured by how well it reacts to the unexpected. Mr. Gorbachev failed the first test that Chernobyl set for him: to make a public demonstration of his leadership."

On the other hand Chornobyl has clearly shown how very little has changed in the Soviet Union and that under Mr. Gorbachev too, the image and the prestige of the communist system are much more important than human lives and the effect of radiation on people, whether in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe or the West.

Furthermore, the Soviet reaction to the Chornobyl disaster has shown once more how extremely reluctant the Kremlin is to report bad news.

And in what an obviously cynical way it behaved, lying to Swedish diplomats and apparently hoping that the nuclear explosion at Chornobyl would blow over without being noticed outside the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, however, for Mr. Gorbachev and his Kremlin strategists, it did blow over, but not in the way they had hoped.

One could only imagine the anger and disappointment in the Kremlin that a sudden and unexpected nuclear explosion "assisted" by "unfriendly" wind patterns, has so completely undermined the Party's highly cherished and tightly controlled monopoly of information.

Consequently, Mr. Gorbachev's appearance on Soviet TV on 14 May became rather an elaborate exercise in evasiveness being strangely short of the "openness" which he had promised to introduce and to cultivate as the main feature of his style of leadership.

And indeed, as the already mentioned Kronid Lubarsky says, Mr. Gorbachev has certainly missed a unique opportunity to open a new chapter in the political history of his tormented and unhappy country:

"Mikhail Gorbachev could have turned Chernobyl into a Victory, the Victory of a statesman. After all, it was not under him that the unfortunate nuclear power plant was built and it was not under him that the Soviet nuclear programme was worked out ...

He could have come to Chernobyl personally in order to lead the rescue operations. He could have appeared on television with an appropriate address ... proclaimed a period of mourning for the victims, he could have cancelled the indecent, in the circumstances, May Day Celebrations and d have invited foreign observers and specialists. He could have gained. popularity and respect from which he could have benefited for ,y years to come." (Kronid Lubarsky, "Chernobyl Tragedy", Strana r, No. 5, p.25). Quite the contrary, as Lubarsky concludes, Mr. Gorbachev did not emerge from the Chornobyl disaster as a true statesman but as a little narrow minded provincial party secretary from Stavropol who simply not know what to do and how to deal with a crisis of such magnitude.


"The Soviet Union has treated this disaster in the same way as it treats human rights. It considers nuclear power an internal affair of the state without taking into account that today there are very few exclusively internal affairs left in the world." Nadia Svitlychna and Leonid Plyusch, former members of the Ukrainian Helsinki group in Kiev, now in the West.

" 'They'll blame it all on human error', a leading western analyst predicted a few days after the disaster at Chernobyl. By doing so, he said, the Soviet government would attempt to dismiss doubts about the design of the RBMK type of nuclear reactor used at Chernobyl and press ahead with Russia's nuclear power programme as fast as possible. " "Your Mistake Comrades " The Economist July 26,1986, p.54.

After having fed the nations of the Soviet Union and of the rest of the world with an unbalanced and untrustworthy mixture of exaggerated praise and of subdued and highly selective self-criticism, all, of course, carefully channelled and directed by the Party, for almost three months, the Soviet regime finally produced some sort of an official report, on July 20, 1986.

This report goes some way towards revealing the enormity of the Chornobyl disaster but is more than reluctant to explain as to how and it happened. It also admits "gross breaches" of regulations by several high-ranking officials who allowed experiments to be carried out without proper supervision and in disregard of proper safety measures, he Chornobyl plant. Nevertheless, the report leaves a number of questions unanswered.

What experiments were being carried out at the plant? How did they lead to the explosion and fire? Was human error alone to blame or were there technical problems too? Is it not only incongruous but also highly misleading to blame the disaster simply on a bunch of irresponsible officials? It certainly sounds both unconvincing and not very reassuring. After all it is usually the builders and engineers, operators and technicians who are simply forced to improvise and cut corners in order to fulfil unrealistic plans imposed on them from above.

And doesn't the dismissal on July 19 of the deputy director of Nuclear Research and Design Institute constitute a tacit admission that much more than just "human error" was involved? Furthermore, if the Soviet system is based on an enormous army of obedient bureaucrats dutifully carrying out orders from above, why were there no effective orders and instructions from above to prevent such experiments from being carried out and, when the explosion occurred, to deal with a nuclear disaster of such proportions more quickly and more effectively?

On the other hand the Prauda of June 15, 1986 tells us for example, that the director of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, V. Bryukhanov, and the chief engineer N. Fomin, were sacked because they were "unable to ensure the correct firm leadership and proper discipline and showed irresponsibility and inefficiency."

Yet, according to Soviet Analyst, Bryukhanov was the author of an article in the specialist journal Elektricheskiye Stantsii (No. 7, July 1985) entitled "On Strengthening Labour and Technological Discipline." In it he revealed that in 1984 some 2,724 of his staff won the special Soviet title "Shock Worker of Communist Labour" and that his labour collective had been awarded the Order of the Red Banner honouring efficient work. "If such staff are responsible for a nuclear disaster, what about those in charge of other atomic power stations? " asks Soviet Analyst (No.13, June 25,1986, p.5.)

Consequently the Party has once more resorted to the use of an old trick by insisting that individuals and the human factor must be blamed for the Chornobyl disaster, not the communist system or its irresponsible use of technology.

There are a number of other important questions which could and should be asked.

Is there any sense in the persistent attempts of some Western pressure groups to transfer sophisticated technology to a state dominated by a political system that appears incapable of controlling its dangerous side effects?

Why wasn't there a foundation laid at the Chornobyl nuclear plant that was strong enough to withstand any such accident? Why were there no reinforced concrete domes erected over the Chornobyl reactors to help contain any fire?

Why has the Soviet Union launched a grandiose programme to build extremely large super powerful atomic power stations—with enormous reactors of 2.4 million kilowatts - especially in densely populated areas, - all the available international experience indicates that small power stations are far more reliable and therefore safer than larger plants? Why has Moscow declined already on 29 April an American offer of sophisticated monitoring assistance and other generous offers of technical help? There is also the question of trust. If Mr. Gorbachev is not prepared to tell the nations of the Soviet Union and .astern Europe the truth how can he possibly expect to earn the; of the international community? Or how could the Soviet leaders rusted to implement agreements without independent on-the-spot verification when they did not even tell their own people and their s the truth? Indeed, why should the West trust a political regime does not trust its own people with the truth?

And "at the political level", according to a perceptive editorial in the Guardian Weekly of May 11, 1986, "the Chornobyl disaster is likely have a profound impact on the whole range of East-West arms control negotiations. Soviet secretiveness in handling the accident will confirm the belief of the US and its NATO allies that there is almost no way of obtaining Soviet agreement to meaningful on-site verification ms control agreements."


"A gigantic experiment has been carried out on us and the entire world will now watch with the greatest interest to see what happens to these laboratory rabbits ...". Polish Underground Publication "Kos" No. 86 Special edition dated May 4, 1986.

"Mr. Armand Hammer, the industrialist, and Dr. Robert Gale the bone-marrow specialist, have left for the Soviet Union to propose a lifetime study of 200,000 Soviet citizens exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl disaster." The Times July 19, 1986.

"In future millenia, when historians attempt to summarise in a paragraph or two the phenomenon of Soviet Communism, they may well decide to concentrate on three evils: first and most obvious the enormous amount of human suffering and death involved in establishing and maintaining it; second, the awesome mental enslavement wrought by an ideology which, unlike a theology, acknowledges no ultra-human mystery, and therefore no human uncertainty; third, an equally awesome hypocrisy, whereby what every sane decent person knows to be evil must be universally acclaimed as good." D.M. Thomas, in a review of Alexander Zinoviev's The Madhouse, The Observer, August 3, We do hope that some practical and tangible good may yet come from the Chornobyl disaster.

The nations of Eastern and Central Europe also hope that appropriate international pressure will prompt the Soviet Union to reveal and to release precise details of the Chornobyl disaster in order to enable the international community to draw necessary lessons from a disaster of such magnitude.

Such information would be of enormous value in assessing the safety and evacuation procedures involving all reactors in the world. It might also help to seek and establish a common language, a common way to measure radioactivity and radiation effects in a way that is useful, easily available and understandable to everybody; with the purpose of communicating on an international scale, and of course, immediately, any information on the subject.

For the time being, however, the Chornobyl disaster has shown in a very convincing manner that the Soviet Union may be quite good and generally successful at ruthless political manipulation at home and at spreading disinformation abroad but extremely poor at crisis management. We feel, therefore, that the nations and the governments of the free world should impress on the self appointed rulers in the Kremlin that the peoples of the Soviet Union and of Eastern Europe have a right in a time of crisis of such proportions to know about matters which affect the health and well-being of tens of thousands of families and the future of millions of children. Consequently, the initial secrecy adopted by Moscow due as much to the rigidity and incompetence of the communist system evidently hopelessly ill-equipped to handle such a crisis as to a deliberate desire to mislead the world, deserves universal condemnation.

Such an internationally reputable Swiss daily as the "Neue Zurcher Zeitung" (May 3, 1986) refers, for example to the sheer "helplessness" (Hilfslosigkeit) of a regime otherwise well known for its political arrogance and ideological pretentiousness. In fact a regime which has such wide experience at trumpeting its own real and imaginary successes. This feeling of "incompetence" and of "helplessness" is also admitted by the present head of the Soviet "Novosti" Agency and former Soviet Ambassador in Bonn, Valentin Falin, in his revealing interview with the West German weekly magazine "Der Spiegel" (May 12, 1986).

Falin admits in it that the top representatives of the Soviet Communist regime no doubt influenced and conditioned by their own propaganda were simply "mentally unprepared" in the inmost recesses of their communist hearts for such a disaster ("we were not prepared for such an accident, we had not basically foreseen any instructions in advance" and much took place "without coherence"). And yet for generations the nations of the Soviet Union have been taught that the Party is not only the leading political force but also that it is especially equipped to make all the decisions.

They had to read and study "A History Of The Communist Party Bolshevik Short Course" which the Army newspaper "Red Star" called in October 1946 "The great book of our epoch" and "an essential reference book for all Soviet people". This book simply told that one of the things which differentiate the communist from rest of humanity is his conviction of infallibility.

For example on page 355 of the "Short Course" we find these remarkable words: "the power of the Marxist-Leninist theory lies in that it enables the party to find the right orientation in any situation to understand the inner connection of current events, to foresee their course and to perceive not only how and in what direction they developing in the present, but how and in what direction they are bound to develop in the future." This monstrously arrogant claim has, of course, been roughly handled by innumerable events.

Consequently, when the Chornobyl disaster struck the country, the people at various levels of the Party were once more simply unable to make decisions mainly due to the fact that they were always in the habit of letting others decide. It is also highly doubtful whether they really know what taking proper decisions means. On the one hand fatal weakness of the Soviet Marxist-Leninist mentality and methodolgy is unfortunately not always noticed and fully appreciated in West. On the other, however, it certainly does condemn in unmistakable terms the Soviet Communist system's potential to improve or reform itself.

The nuclear disaster at Chornobyl has exposed the Soviet system once as a terrible combination of rigidity and fragility, incompetence and inhumanity, mendacity and cruelty managed and dominated by a means which is both irresponsible and unreformable.

London, July 31, 1986


A team of 28 Soviet nuclear scientists literally "descended", according to The Economist, "on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna on August 25 with a lorry-load of technical papers," which described in considerable detail the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, its main causes and its consequences. The main element of this documentation was the Soviet Union's official report to the Agency, reduced to a two-volume, 430 page document. Just before the departure of the Soviet delegation for Vienna, the report was outlined and discussed at some length at a special press conference in Moscow.

The main purpose of this report was to serve as a working paper at an IAEA international gathering, which took place in the last week of August, in order to assess the technical and international implications of the Chornobyl disaster. Needless to say this week-long meeting, attended by 547 nuclear specialists from 45 countries, produced a considerable number of favourable and critical comments in the international press.

What is the main significance of this report? How far does it go in explaining everything properly and fully? Can it be trusted? And does it really constitute "an unexpected outbreak of candour" (Time Magazine) or "a disarming show of contrition" (The Economist) on the part of Moscow? Or is it just a very clever exercise in public relations for the consumption of Western public opinion? Or rather a very determined and carefully orchestrated attempt to repair the badly dented image of the Soviet Union, caused by the Chornobyl disaster and its very bad handling by Moscow? After all the Soviet Union still remains a country where the flow of information is strictly controlled and turned on and off from communist party headquarters. Or why praise so highly something which constitutes an elementary duty of every responsible and civilised government? On the other hand, are some Western optimists really suggesting that Moscow's inexcusable silence and truly disgraceful behaviour during the most crucial days of April and May, following the Chornobyl disaster, have been suddenly replaced by great candour, unlimited truthfulness and complete sincerity?

Judging from what I have read so far of the report, and about it, it constitutes a typical Soviet mixture of truths and half-truths and of disarmament propaganda, carefully formulated untruths and distortions, and a great deal of calculated evasiveness.

On the other hand it is, however, rather gratifying to see that the report actually confirms many of my arguments put forward and outlined in the main part of this survey. Consequently, just to sum up, I would like to state the following: (1) To say, as it was stated at the Moscow press conference, that the Chornobyl nuclear disaster "took place as a result of a whole series of gross violations of operating regulations by the workers" constitutes a gross over-simplification. Even the careful enumeration in Vienna of the "six fatal errors" committed by them does not give a full or satisfactory explanation, mainly because it plays down and minimises the limitations and shortcomings of Soviet design and equipment. Rudolf Schulten, a West German nuclear scientist has, for example, this to say: "the accident was mainly due to human error, but the reactor itself is a very old-fashioned type ... the safety philosophy of this reactor would never be accepted today by any country in the western world." (Time, September 1, 1986, p.9).

"Many of the Soviet nuclear plants would not be operating if our Swedish safety standards were applied there" says the Swedish Energy Minister, Birgitta Dahl (The Wall Street Journal, August 29, 1986). Or as an unnamed British expert put it "you can make any design safe by having clever operators but the designers of Chornobyl gave the operators too difficult a task" ("The Lesson of Chornobyl," Editorial, Wall Street Journal, August 29, 1986).

Furthermore, as has been revealed at the Vienna meeting, the British government warned the Soviet Union nine years ago that the design of its graphite reactors had "serious defects". Unfortunately Moscow failed to take any remedial action. "We are not talking about hindsight here," said Lord Walter Marshall, Chairman of Britain's Central Electricity Generating Board; "this was a judgment made in advance". The Soviet design was "so unsatisfactory," according to Lord Marshall, that in the West it would "have no chance to get a licence." (WSJ, August 29,1986).

It is only now, however, that this has finally been accepted by Moscow, and that have just decided to make some amends.

On the other hand the head Soviet delegate at the Vienna meeting, Valery A. Legasov, has admitted that there were serious flaws in the safety design of the stricken Chornobyl nuclear plant, and that Soviet reactor designers had failed to sufficiently for errors by plant operators. And on the other hand he has also admitted that Moscow has closed down about half the 27 Soviet reactors of the Chornobyl type to make some quick improvements and alterations. Unfortunately, ever, this does not mean that these belated measures have been implemented everywhere in the Soviet Union. It has, for example, been reliably reported that a nuclear reactor in Lithuania being at present run at 150% of capacity is less safe the Chornobyl plant. A special study by nuclear experts at the Swedish State Power Board showed safety margins at the Ignalina plant are even smaller than at Chornobyl. And the Ignalina plant, which began operations in 1983, is of the same design as the graphite-moderated Chornobyl reactor.

So far, 31 people who were in or near the Chornobyl plant at the time of the explosion have died. But the International Atomic Energy Agency fears that about 10,000 deaths are still to come. They are likely to die prematurely and quietly radiation-induced illnesses, mainly cancer, over the next few decades. Although there is still concern about contamination in other parts of Europe, the data gathered in Vienna indicates that all the premature deaths will be in the Soviet Republics of Ukraine and Byelorussia. Water and soil pollution in these Republics remain a serious worry too. In these circumstances, therefore, Moscow's persistent attempts to link Chornobyl to the arms race, disarmament issues and to the America nuclear-defence programme, is a clumsy but predictable effort to divert the Id's attention from its own blunders and failures.

The Chornobyl nuclear disaster is certain to cast a long shadow across the Soviet Union, across Eastern Europe and the world for a long time to come. But from that we have just heard revealed and discussed in Vienna and from everything else we have learned so far from the Chornobyl tragedy two important points emerge that tell us so much more about the true nature of the Soviet communist system about conditions prevailing in the Soviet Union today:

In the final analysis one of the main underlying causes of the Chornobyl disaster the inexorable pressure for strengthening the Soviet military might and for ever greater Soviet military expansion even at a considerable risk to the peoples of the Soviet Union and to their safety, health and well-being. The twenty or so Soviet graphite reactors were built with the intention of producing weapons-grade plutonium as well as electricity. This, however, effectively ruled out a number of safety measures which the Western nuclear power plants enjoy. Consequently, the Soviet reactors were built to provide the greatest possible output of plutonium, therefore, never truly safe.

The top Soviet nuclear planners, Soviet plant and reactor designers, engineers, operators, regulators, technicians and party watchdogs are pushed, and push themselves, much harder than their Western counterparts to get quick results and cheap electricity from their plants at the expense of safety and of public health, and in order to achieve politically-motivated results. They worry less about the dangers of radioactivity and plan much less for accidents. And if at first glance the men and woman who actually run the Soviet nuclear plants appear ill-trained and undisciplined we must remember than they are also under continuous relentless pressure fulfil over-ambitious and unrealistic plans and demands, and to produce "spectacular" results especially designed to advertise communism as a supposedly superior employer.

London, 31 August 1986


The European Liaison Group (ELG) was founded in London in 1969 by representatives of exiled communities from Central and East European countries. They were joined in 1978 by Russians, led by Vladimir Bukovsky. The ELG now represents 14 exiled communities: Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Byelorussians, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Czechoslovaks, Rumanians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Albanians and Yugoslavs.

The aim of the ELG is to assist our nations in their opposition to communist tyranny and Soviet colonial oppression, to voice the rightful aspirations of our people for freedom and national independence and to protect them from unjust prosecution. We serve the cause of human and national rights in that part of Europe which is under communist domination, but our support is given also to all those, anywhere in the world, who are oppressed and victimised.

The ELG endeavours to promote friendly relations and co-operation among all exiled communities, to promote an interest in Central and East European affairs among Western societies and to co-operate with all those in the West who believe in pluralist democracy and support the cause of European unity, embracing the entire Continent.

The 14 communities represented in the ELG number nearly half a million people in Great Britain and the majority of them are British and European voters. Our numbers are steadily increasing, as the second and third generations swell our ranks. In addition, the ELG has in the last few years developed close co-operation with similar East European bodies all over the free world in Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, Latin America and elsewhere.

Among the increasing ELG activities we can mention a few more outstanding ones: ceaseless demands for the implementation of the terms of the Helsinki Conference and its sequels in Belgrade, Madrid and Ottawa, defence of dissidents and freedom fighters anywhere in co-operation with Amnesty International and similar organisations, the first public meeting to defend Vladimir Bukovsky, who is now a Vice-Chairman of the ELG, and so on. The ELG vigorously participated in the European referendum and the European elections, actively co-operates with the European Parliament, conducted vigorous protest action against the Moscow Olympics and campaigned for the release of Andrei Sakharov and his wife.

Over the years, the ELG organised large and well attended meetings on important topical issues which were addressed by distinguished British and other Western personalities. One notable example was the meeting held in the Grand Committee Room of the House of Commons in February 1984 and addressed by Mr. Carl Gershman, present President of the National Endowment for Democracy, on the theme "The Problem of Totalitarianism". The meeting was sponsored and chaired by the well-known Member of Parliament the Rt. Hon. Sir Bernard Braine, DL. The address was later embodied in a brochure entitled "The Problem of Totalitarianism - a View from the United States".


* Since Chornobyl is situated in Ukraine, Ukrainian spelling of it is used throughout this survey except, of course, in quotations. "Chornobyl" means "wormwood" (artemisia vulgaris) in Ukrainian and some other Slavonic languages.

Copyright © 1986 European Liason Group

since March 1st 1997