The Chornobyl Disaster*

Автор Oleskiw Stephen

Causes and consequences of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe

On Monday April 28, a radioactive cloud blew over Scandinavia from the direction of the Soviet Union. Several hours later, the world learnt about what is being termed as the world’s worst nuclear disaster. At 9 a.m. that morning, technicians at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, 60 miles north of Stockholm, picked up abnormally high levels of radiation — a sure sign of serious trouble. Had it not been for this, the rest of the world would still be unaware of the fact that an accident had occurred at the Chornobyl Atomic Energy Station in Ukraine, some 50 miles north of the country’s capital, Kyiv. Ironically, the accident occurred at a time when the Soviet Union was publicly boasting of the high levels of safety maintained at Soviet nuclear power plants and the fact that they are thoroughly up to date. Only two months previously, the February 1986 issue of Soviet Life, an English-language publication, published an article on Chornobyl in which Ukrainian Power Minister, Vitaliy Skliarov, declared the chances of a meltdown at the plant to be one in 10,000 years, and claimed that the environment was securely protected. As Western experts desperately tried to locate the source of the radiation, one of the four operational reactors at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant was burning out of control, blowing a huge cloud of highly radioactive debris across Northern Europe. All this time Moscow remained silent, putting the whole of Europe at risk. By Monday afternoon, Swedish experts had identified isotopes of krypton, iodine, caesium and cobalt in the fall-out which could only come from an accident at a nuclear reactor. Thus, on the basis of these findings, they came to the conclusion that a meltdown must have occurred at a nuclear power plant somewhere in that part of the world.

(In the photograpf: the Soviet TV picture of the damaged Chornobyl reactor.)

After checking the direction of the wind that weekend, Western experts backtracked the line through Latvia, Byelorussia down to Kyiv, which made the nuclear plant at Chornobyl the most likely source of the leakage of radiation. But when Swedish officials pressed Moscow for information, they were confronted with consistent denials that an accident had occurred at one of the Soviet Union’s nuclear reactor plants, and silence. It was not until 9 p.m. that Monday that Moscow television broadcast a four-line statement, issued by TASS, which raised more questions than it answered, officially acknowledging that an accident had, in fact, occurred at the Chornobyl nuclear plant. At that time, however, no mention was made of the number of casualties, and no technical information on the scale of the disaster, or how it was being dealt with, was released. When the Swedes demanded additional information, Moscow refused to give any and continued to stonewall. The only indication of the seriousness of the situation was the fact that Soviet diplomats in Stockholm and Bonn were frantically looking for information on how to put out a graphite fire. This was a sure sign that something was terribly wrong inside the Soviet Union, as Moscow was openly seeking advice from the Western powers despite ideological beliefs in Marxist-Leninist infallibility.

The immediate causes of the disaster

In accordance with a report issued by the Soviet government, discussed at a special meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in August of this year, the accident occurred as a direct result of an unauthorised and improperly conducted experiment of little value, carried out with blatant disregard for safety regulations. The shift manager in charge of the experiment was an electrical engineer, not a nuclear scientist, and had insufficient knowledge to realise the risks which were being taken in an experiment of this nature. The experiment resulted in an explosion which sent radiation streaming across most of Europe. It began at 1 a.m., on April 25, when staff allowed the operative reserves of radioactivity in the reactor core to drop below permissible levels, thereby weakening the unit’s defences. Next, the reactor’s capacity was allowed to drop significantly below the 700 mw of heat energy needed for the tests. Then, the main circulation pumps were overloaded. Trying to prevent a reactor shutdown, staff cut the automatic blocking devices which would have come into operation when steam failed to reach the generator. They also switched off the defences controlling the water level and steam pressure. Finally, the emergency cooling system was switched off during tests designed to find out how long stable power could be maintained after switching over to a diesel generator. Thus, the unit was functioning with its cooling system switched off for almost 12 hours. This was strictly against all regulations, and the worst mistake of the whole experiment. Although Soviet Russian authorities try to point the finger at local officials, putting the blame entirely on human error, it is the serious flaws in design and construction of Chornobyl’s fourth reactor that lie at the core of the factors which caused the disaster. Drawings and other information, which have become available to US experts, reveal that the No. 4 reactor lacked a secondary containment shell. Although there was a steel and concrete structure surrounding the reactor itself, it was grossly inadequate. According to Edward Zebroski, chief nuclear scientist at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, it was not designed to withstand pressures similar to those anticipated in Western reactor [1].

The shell was designed to withstand only one particular type of pressure from a specific type of accident and was not intended to contain radioactivity from a serious nuclear disaster. Chornobyl was inferior in equipment and design to modern Western plants and was inherently less safe. Its steel and concrete walls enclosed a smaller volume than most US plants which meant that pressures would build up more rapidly inside the Soviet reactor. In comparison, the containment building at Three-Mile Island withstood the pressures which built up inside it during the accident in 1979. Although some radiation was released into the atmosphere and radioactive water was dumped into the Susquehanna river, most of the radioactivity was contained inside the four-foot thick steel and concrete walls of the reactor’s containment building. Had there been adequate secondary containment at Chornobyl, most of the radioactivity would undoubtedly have been retained inside the reactor. But, as described later in this article, the No. 4 reactor was built and put into operation in the fastest possible time in order to meet construction plans, which meant that adequate safety measures to protect the workers and the thousands of people living in the area around the plant from any mishaps which might have occurred, were disregarded. In the words of Artem Kulikov, former Soviet scientist now working as a physicist in Stamford University: “When there are building problems or delays [in the Soviet Union], the first thing that is sacrificed is pollution control and safety” and although “there are good laws against pollution and unsafe operations of industrial plants. . . they are disregarded” [2].

There are problems in all Soviet industries, but the nuclear industry is the most dangerous. For this reason, particular care should have been taken to ensure that the reactor was not of an archaic and dangerous design, that it was designed to withstand every conceivable problem and that all required safety standards were adequately met. This was not the case with Chornobyl. As a result, the Ukrainian and Byelorussian people will pay the price of Soviet Russian negligence and disregard for human safety for many years to come.

The long-term causes

The Chornobyl disaster happened at a time of rapid expansion of the Soviet Union’s nuclear energy programme, designed to expand additional sources of energy to avoid an energy crisis, and to further integrate the economies of Eastern Europe into the Soviet plan, thereby curtailing still further the autonomy of Eastern bloc countries. The expansion began in the late 1970s, at a time when the Kremlin decided to strive for nuclear superiority over the West, rather than satisfy itself with parity. The Ukrainian SSR was to play a major role in this overall expansion, firstly because a third of the coal deposits at Donbas had been exhausted and the rest was of poorer quality and more difficult to extract; secondly, because the uranium deposits near the town of Zhovti Vody, north of Kryvyi Rih, are the best known source of uranium in the Soviet Union, which would greatly facilitate the nuclear energy programme by the advantageous positioning of raw materials (uranium) in close proximity to nuclear power plants; and thirdly, because Ukraine is situated in the far western part of the USSR, bordering on the satellite countries,
a factor greatly facilitating the development of energy in the Eastern bloc. Thus, at least 3 of the proposed 9 nuclear power plants already functioning, or presently still under construction, in Ukraine were designed to serve Eastern European countries: the Khmelnytskyi plant — Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary; the South Ukrainian plant — Rumania and Bulgaria; and Chomobyl — Hungary [3]. For these reasons, Moscow set itself the goal of doubling the amount of nuclear-generated electricity in Ukraine by 1990.

But, as one can imagine, such a dramatic expansion of the Soviet nuclear energy industry could not take place without serious problems. In fact, the nuclear industry was being rapidly expanded before an adequate infrastructure had been established. The Soviet Union itself admitted a shortage of specialists, and that training of qualified technicaians specifically for the nuclear energy industry was still in its infancy. The first faculty of nuclear energy in the Soviet Union was only set up in 1975 in the Odessa Polytechnic Institute. The second did not appear until 1985, in Kyiv, along with the foundation of the Institute of Nuclear Energy at the Moscow Physical Engineering Institute [4]. Thus, the necessary cadres of qualified specialists on nuclear energy were only now beginning to emerge. It was also common practice for students to spend their summer vacation working on the construction of nuclear plants [5]. The Soviet press had reported that “bands of students" were working at the Odessa, Rivne, Chornobyl, South Ukrainian and Zaporizhia plants (Komsomolskoye znamia, summer 1985). Thus, the fact that the construction of nuclear power plants in the Soviet Union, particularly Ukraine, failed to keep pace with the scheduled plans was hardly surprising. However, instead of tackling the problem logically, the authorities merely pressed on with meeting the deadlines set by the plan. They made great efforts to raise the tempo of construction by inducing workers to greater output and to compete with other plants. This led to a race to complete the specified number of reactors in the set time, irrespective of all other factors.

The Chomobyl plant, as can be seen from Soviet press, was of particular importance and received special attention in the race to fulfil set plans. Although it was already the largest plant in Ukraine, with four huge RBMK- 1000 reactors (total output 4,000 mw) [6], and one of the four largest in the Soviet Union, two more reactors were scheduled for completion in 1986 and 1988. The first was to be ready in 1986, that is 50% faster than the average time span between the construction of energy blocks advocated by the Soviet authorities. One can assume that this particular place was reserved for Chomobyl due to its additional military significance. It is the only Ukrainian plant with graphite dual purpose reactors capable of producing not only electricity, but also weapons-grade plutonium for the further expansion of the USSR’s nuclear arsenal. A look at Soviet Ukrainian press on the subject of Chomobyl underlines the very gloomy picture of the circumstances which surrounded the construction and operation of the plant. It was built in record time by more or less experimental methods, and has, since the beginning, been plagued by numerous problems, such as chronic shortages of essential materials, poor organisation, and a demoralised workforce. According to an article which appeared in the journal Nauka i suspilstvo ( as early as 1971, when the Chomobyl power plant was being built, it was “unique” at the time in the Soviet Union “not only because of its design, but also because of the fast methods of construction”. It was being built “at an unprecedented tempo" and “many technological methods” were going to be tried out for the first time. Radyanska Ukraina confirms this in an article published on December 29, 1985, which stated that Chomobyl was already “leading the field in the race” to become the largest nuclear plant in the Soviet Union with a total output of 6,000 mw. A correspondent, who had worked on the Chomobyl plant, published an article in Znannya ta pratsya (No. 12, 1977) in which he drew attention, once again, to the “unique nature of construction” that had required "bold decisions and the latest work methods” from the work force. In his opinion, the site became “an extraordinary forum for experimentation". By 1984, when the 4th reactor had been constructed, the plant had developed serious personnel problems. On July 26, 1985, Pravda printed a report by the first secretary of the town party committee of Prypiat, A. Hamaniuk, who mentioned the “insufficient regard of the leaders for the task at hand, their not very high level of professionalism [and that the] “low level of labour and population discipline” only led to “more frequent shortages and the resultant unfulfilled plans”. Taking the matter still further, an article by Lyubov Kovalevska, which appeared in Literaturna Ukraina (No. 3), on March 27 of this year, describes how the officials responsible for the running and expansion of the plant ignored constructional defects which came to light during the building of the first reactor at Chornobyl in the early 1970s, in their great haste to meet the tight construction schedule. She goes on to say that “the problems of the first reactor [were] passed on to the second reactor [block], and from the second to the third and so on, and under these conditions the problems [became] more profound, and one [had] an ‘overgrowth’ of an enormous number of unresolved problems. At first, these problems were discussed with great interest, later they were the subject of indignation and finally there came a sense of helplessness. ‘How long can we talk about one and the same thing? What’s the point of all this discussion?’ And now the fifth block. . . The deadlines for its completion were reduced from 3 to 2 years, and construction began in 1985 with a minimum number of supplies.

This change in deadlines, and the tightening-up of current time periods, even without flexible plans, caught project coordinators, suppliers and even construction workers unprepared, and their capacities, of course, have their limits. But the organs directing the projects, sometimes for objective reasons, made no attempt to adjust unrealistic expectations, and did not support new programmes of work with adequate resources — all of which led to the disorganisation of the construction project and often to a collapse of plans”. These problems were accompanied by a breakdown in work discipline and morale which led to delays in the supply of essential materials, many of which were defective on arrival. In short, Kovalevska summarised the situation at Chornobyl on the eve of the accident as the lack of “the strictest adherence to the correct building techniques”, something which is “characteristic of many sites in this country”. A similar uncomplimentary article appeared in the March 1986 issue of Vitchy zna, the Kyiv literary journal. Serhiy Kyselov, the author, also reveals how construction work on the 5th reactor at Chornobyl was to be completed in 1986, a year earlier than the set date for completion. He goes on to say that “Construction work at the Kursk nuclear power station began a year prior to work at the Chornobyl plant, and at Smolensk — a year later. [By 1984] three reactors had been brought into operation at the Kursk nuclear power station, and one at Smolensk. At Chornobyl, four [had been brought into operation]”. The article further states that although work on the 4th reactor at Chornobyl was speeded up, detailed construction plans were not to available to the work force until the last minute. As a result, a “dead zone” was created inside the condensing system where no equipment could gain access. Assembly workers had to seek new ways of completing the joints. But what is even more disturbing is that the reactors at Chornobyl are not equipped with secondary safety measures — a reinforced concrete outer containment structure which would prevent radioactive materials from escaping into the atmosphere during an accident or leak. In other nuclear meltdowns many of the radioactive materials would be buried in the ground, but at Chornobyl the graphite fire sucked in oxygen as it burned and blew radioactive isotopes into the air. In her article, Kovalevska reported how safety was abandoned in order to achieve speed in the completion of construction plans. In summary, therefore, the long-term causes of the accident at Chornobyl can be accredited to the fact that the Soviet nuclear energy industry, particularly in Ukraine, was being rapidly expanded regardless of all other considerations, however serious, and before the necessary infrastructure had even been created. As a result, the work was being carried out in extreme haste to meet production deadlines, and mainly by unskilled personnel and a demoralised workforce with no incentive to do their best. This led to shoddy workmanship and carelessness both on the part of the workers and the management. Because of the lag in construction, the job had to be completed in great haste despite the mounting problems which became most acute during the construction of the 4th reactor where the explosion occurred. Here the management quite blatanty set aside the serious difficulties they had encountered in order to meet the schedules. However, despite these facts, the construction of nuclear reactors is under central, not local, authority. Although Moscow tried to soften the blame by downplaying the danger, by accusing the foreign media of hyping the story, and trying to set the blame on local officials, these were purely hollow facts. Since the Soviet Ukrainian press had published previous warnings of the shortcomings in construction at Chornobyl, the attempt to blame local officials lacks persuasiveness. Thus, the blame for the disaster ultimately lies with the Politburo in Moscow.

Consequences of the disaster

1986 04
It is now more than five months since the accident at Chornobyl. Details, however, still remain relatively scant, and the effects of radioactive fall-out on the Ukrainian population can still only be estimated. Although the Soviet media has gradually revealed more and more about the disaster and its after- math, the information is very much lacking in detail and the reports are highly contradictory. Soviet coverage of the accident is, on the whole, characterised by attempts to balance negative news with reports of a more positive nature in order to reduce the embarrasment to the CPSU and its new General Secretary and to minimise the scale of the disaster and its consequences. On this basis, it is very difficult to establish an accurate figure for the resulting number of casualties and also to predict the overall toll of Chorno- byl. Winds carried the fall-out over large areas of the Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, Byelorussia and the Baltic States, as well as much of Europe. People in countries such as Poland, who were in the path of the radioactive cloud, received unknown doses of radioactivity for days before any announcement about the accident was made. Although we do not know exactly how much radiation was released into the atmosphere (the true figures have not, as yet, been revealed) we can assume that, immediately after the explosion, and in the first few days that followed, the radiation levels in the immediate vicinity of the reactor and the surrounding area, including the nearby town of Prypiat and Chomobyl, must have been been very high. Unfortunately, because there is a great discrepancy between figures for the levels of radiation which have been released by official Soviet sources, Western experts and analysts can only make speculations as to the possible extent of the damage caused to people and the environment. On May 11, 1986, Robitnycha Hazeta (No. 107) stated that, at the peak of the disaster, the level of radiation within the danger zone was 10-15 millirem [7], which had gone down to 2-3 millerem by May 5, reaching the low level of 0.15 millerem three days later (May 8). Two days after the appearance of the first article, the same publication printed a report from the USSR Council of Ministers which stated that on May 10 the radiation level was 0.33 millirem, 60 km. from Kyiv, and 0.32 millirem in the capital itself. In an interview in West Germany during the week-end of May 10-11, Moscow’s Communist Party boss, Boris Yeltsin, stated that the level of radiation around Chornobyl, had at that time dropped to 200 rem an hour, while a few days later, on May 14, after his 18-day silence, Mikhail Gorbachev announced, during his television appearance, that the level of radiation was 10-15 millirem [7].

All these figures are highly contradictory and merely add to the uncertainty and confusion which already surrounds the disaster. So far, Western scientists have managed to establish that the magnitude of the radiation which escaped into the atmosphere during the Windscale accident in Britain, in October 1957, was far smaller than the amount of radiation released at Chornobyl, probably by a factor of 100 or more. This can be inferred from the area of significant fall-out which was far smaller for Windscale. Fifty km. from the Windscale plant, ground deposits of iodine 131 measured a quarter of the fall-out deposited at Konstanz, West Germany, 1,500 km. from Chornobyl. It has been estimated, through environmental measurements and computer simulation, that Windscale released 300,000 curies of xenon 133, 10,000- 20,000 curies of iodine 131 and 1,300 curies of caesium 137 — a total of just under 1 million curies overall [8].

Taking the figure quoted by Yeltsin (200 rem), which, in the opinion of Petr Beckmann, an electrical engineer, seems to be the most realistic because, in such cases, Soviet statistics are usually greatly deflated in order to minimise the scale of the particular mishap, we can establish that in 5 hours this amount of radiation would be lethal (total of 1,000 rem). What is more, Yeltsin’s statement appeared to imply that radiation levels had initially been even higher. Dr. Gale (a bone marrow expert at the University of California, Los Angeles) himself admitted treating some casualties who had been exposed to between 1,200 and 1,500 rads. They were suffering from radiation bums which had peeled of large portions of skin, and also from burns sustained from the fire at the plant which reached a temperature of 5,000° centigrade. Many had inhaled radioactive gases and were suffering from blistering sores and other symptoms of radiation. According to Henry Wagner, professor of radiation health sciences at the John Hopkins University, local residents of the Chomobyl area risked exposure to extreme doses of radiation leading to celebral haemorrhage, nausea, vomiting and death within hours. Kerry Dance, president of G.A. Technologies which produce nuclear reactors, confirmed this when he stated that at close range the radiation would have been deadly, and that the immediate danger was greatest to those nearest the disaster — the workforce, firemen, medics, security guards and so on. People on the actual site, and the teams attempting to put out the graphite fire, faced the most serious threat of all to their lives. Unofficial sources reported that prisoners worked on so-called “special jobs”, such as cleaning up the Chomobyl nuclear plant. Many of them are said to have died [9].

Some Western sources suggest that after the explosion the immediate death toll was somewhere in the region of between 800-1,000. In the vicinity, the possibility existed of another 2,000-3,000 dead. According to Petr Beckmann, by early July of this year, more than 1,000 people have already died as a result of the disaster. His estimate is based on conclusions drawn from official reports of deaths and hospitalisations from serious radiation illnesses. In his trade newsletter, Access to Energy, Beckmann writes that most of the deaths will be “unnecessary” as they will have resulted from the Soviet authorities’ failure to inform people and carry out prompt evacuation measures. In accordance with information received from three separate sources, some 100 people appear to have died from the blast and the initial high radiation. In a similar report, Dutch radio ham, Annis Kofman, who picked up a broadcast from a Ukrainian radio enthusiast just 20 miles away from the scene of the disaster, stated that hundreds of people died in the first few days after the accident. One resident of Kyiv, contacted by UPI, said that 80 people died immediately and some 2,000 died on the way to hospital. The bodies of those who perished as a result of the accident were reportedly either burnt on the spot of buried in mass graves, probably nuclear waste dumping grounds, with the aid of bulldozers and other heavy equipment. Unofficial sources, and also some Western sources, suggest that only high- ranking party, military and government officials and members of the militia, along with their families, were evacuated to Moscow. The rest of the casualties were taken to hospitals in Kyiv and surrounding areas, where Western reporters and medical staff are forbidden to go. Many of the children who have been resettled are ill, and many are already dying. There have been cases of pregnant women, affected by radiation, giving birth to dead children. It has also been reported that pregnant women have been advised to seek abortions. Presently, 18,000 people are reported to be suffering from headaches, coughing and respiratory problems — typical symptoms of exposure to high doses of radioactivity [10]. On May 15, 1986, the West German newspaper Bild reported that in parts of Byelorussia, 130 km. north of Chomobyl, women and children had begun to loose their hair as a result of radiation. On June 3, Sovetskaya Byelorussiya, admitted that people in parts of Khoiniki, Bragin and Narovlya regions of Byelorussia, had been evacuated. Earlier reports in the same newspaper, such as that of May 9, had emphasised that life was proceeding normally and agricultural work continued outside the 18-mile danger zone around Chomobyl. The next day, June 4, Pravda itself stated that highly contaminated spots had been discovered in certain parts of the Gomel region in Byelorussia, outside the 18-mile zone, as a result of which, additional evacuations had to be undertaken. On June 5, Pravda stated that all 60,000 children from the Gomel region, regardless of whether they were in the actual danger zones, had been evacuated to summer camps [11].

A nuclear accident of such proportions demands immediate action — the implementation of measures to reduce the chances of the exposure of the local population to radiation, the evacuation of the inhabitants of the affected areas, decontamination measures, and so on. But Moscow acted to the contrary. Instead of warning the people who lived in the danger area and organising an evacuation, the Soviet authorities concealed the fact that a nuclear accident had taken place in Ukraine, both before the people of the Soviet Union, and the West. Because of Chomobyl’s military significance, the danger area was sealed off by special military and police units, mostly made up of non-Ukrainians, according to unofficial sources, blocking of all access to the areas immediately affected. At the same time, this made it impossible for neutral observers to assess the situation and estimate the damage. Ukraine was cut off from the rest of the world: all telephone links with the republic were cut off, and no one was allowed either in or out of the danger zone, especially Western correspondents. As a result, the inhabitants of the Chorno- byl area carried on as if nothing had happened, exposing themselves to the harmful effects of radiation. According to Dmitri Mikheyev, a Soviet physicist now living in the US, the fact that people had to stand in long queues for food each day outside shops caused people in the affected areas to expose themselves to radiation even more. And while Moscow decided what steps to take, the people of Prypiat, Chornobyl and other settlements in the danger zone unknowingly exposed themselves to radiation until the decision was made to evacuate the population inside the 18-mile danger zone. In the initial 36 hours or so, there was very little movement.

Military helicopters hovered over Chornobyl dumping boron, lead and sand onto the damaged fourth reactor, but no evacuations were carried out. What is even worse, not only did Moscow fail to react instantly to what had happened at Chornobyl, the Politburo also refused all practical help offered by the US and other Western countries. President Reagan had offered the Soviet Union a highly sophisticated computer system that uses wind and terrain data to predict the path of radioactivity; a heli-bome system that can measure and map the spread of radioactive contamination; a team of health physicists and others to examine the air, water and soil; medical specialists on radiation exposure, and technical experts on decontamination — invaluable help in saving lives and minimising the casualty rate. Within 24 hours, the offer was turned down.The only US offer that the Kremlin accepted was conveyed by Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum, who volunteered the services of a bone marrow specialist and his associates. In these circumstances, it is highly likely that a very large number of people had been exposed to massive doses of radiation during this period of delay. It is, therefore, also quite likely that many of the people who have reportedly been evacuated from the 18-mile zone, the majority of whom were not evacuated until a week or so after the explosion, are now suffering from some form of radiation sickness. The effects and seriousness of this will depend on the distance of the casualties from the reactor and the degree of contamination they sustained. In the opinion of Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, former chairman of the American Atomic Energy Commission, 20,000 people are “at real risk" from the radiation and 100,000 should be followed for radiation diseases over many years [12].

According to Dr. Robert Gale, thousands of Ukrainians could suffer radiation-induced cancer in the future. Frank Von Hippel of Princeton University states that one estimate places the cancer rate in Ukraine, as a result of the accident, at ten times the normal rate, and predicts 5,100 deaths which normally would not have occurred [13].However, all we can say with any degree of certainty is that the people who died immediately or shortly after the accident would have received a dose of over 1,000 rem in several hours or even days. Most of those now critically ill or dying would have received doses of between 600-800 rem leading to severe radiation damage, especially to bone marrow. Death is likely in the next few months. Those people who received a dose of 100-600 rem could face serious medical problems, including thyroid damage, blood cell disruption and damage to their immunity system. The symptoms are not severe in the first month after exposure, but become more severe in the months that follow. These people are probably now suffering in hospitals. Many thousands could have received significant doses of radiation below 100 rem with the possibility of an abnormal cancer rate, particularly from leukemia, over the rest of their lives. We can deduce the seriousness of the situation from the fact that all the hospitals in Kyiv and the surrounding areas are reportedly full of casualties from Chornobyl. Secondly, also reported by unofficial sources, all medical personnel, doctors and nurses, from all over Ukraine, are called up for an official tour of duty to work in the affected areas for 36 hours.

On their return, they are forbidden to say where they had been and what they did there. Kyiv itself, with a population of 21/2 million, was affected by the radiation. But, as the rest of Europe took no chances, for instance France, Finland and Britain recalled their nationals from the Soviet Union, and the Polish authorities distributed iodine tablets, the people of Kyiv were kept in the dark. Many did not even know that a nuclear accident had taken place at Chornobyl, only 50 miles to the north. In Kyiv, foreigners were the first to learn of the seriousness of the disaster when the authorities warned West German technicians, on Tuesday April 29, that the Chornobyl area was being sealed off. Without any announcement from the authorities, the residents of the Chornobyl area were being quietly evacuated in order to conceal the fact that an accident of such a serious nature had occurred in Ukraine, so near to its capital. As it turned out, people in Ukraine and the rest of the USSR received less information than was made available to the outside world. Thus, in Kyiv, life went on as normal. Reports from foreign students and tourists stated that people were going about their daily business as if nothing had happened, and everything seemed normal. News of the Chornobyl disaster came to Ukraine through Western radio broadcasts and also, apparently, via the satellite countries. It is reported in unofficial sources that tourists from Ukraine and other Soviet republics who visited Yugoslavia saw what had happened on Yugoslav television.

Long-term damage

Apart from the horrendous effects of radioactivity on human life, radiation also poses a great threat to the environment. The main danger to the land comes from two radioactive elements caesium 137 and strontium 90, both of which were detected in the radiation emitted from the Chornobyl plant. Some radioactive isotopes, such as iodine, have very short half-lives and will not remain a threat for very long. Others, however, such as caesium and strontium remain dangerous for hundreds of years, some contaminants even longer. For instance, plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. These isotopes take years to decay and thus pose long-term dangers of turning affected farm land into wasteland for generations to come. The radioactive particles that settled on the land have contaminated grain which is eaten by cattle giving rise to contaminated milk and beef. Much of the cattle has died in consequence of this contamination. Much more will probably die as time goes on. The ground itself will become unsuitable for farming and the affected crops will obviously be unsuitable for consumption. Thus, as a resust of the Chornobyl disaster, agriculture in Ukraine has suffered immeasurable damage and certain areas will probably never again be used for farming. The Vice-President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Yevgeni Velikhov, has already stated that the 25,000 evacuees from the town of Prypiat will probably never be able to return to their homes [14].

Furthermore, about 10 million people are dependent on water supplied from the river Dnieper. Contamination of Ukraine’s main north-south waterway would have devastating effects on the whole of Ukraine’s agriculture. Boris Yeltsin revealed that the reservoir near the plant (which flows into the Dnieper) has been contaminated, and that the area remains too radioactive for residents to return. The Prypiat river is also contaminated as a result of the disaster. Should Ukraine’s livestock, soil and water supply become seriously contaminated, the cumulative effect will pose a great threat to Europe’s breadbasket and the Soviet Union’s main grain producer, which feeds not only the Soviet Union, but the whole of the Eastern bloc as well, and Ukraine may once again become a victim of famine. There are already rumours that Ukraine may suffer another famine in the not too distant future. But, whatever the ultimate effects on Ukrainian agriculture will be, we may be certain that large areas of Ukraine’s rich farmland will be destroyed for many years to come.


Despite the lengthy 382-page report submitted by Soviet Russia during the international accident review conference staged by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna last August, the Soviet Union is still avoiding the key issues which surround the Chornobyl disaster, and has so far failed to answer the most pressing questions posed by Western experts. For instance. Moscow has not yet disclosed how many people were exposed to radiation. It has not explained why the Soviet Union relies so heavily on outdated and inherently dangerous graphite-moderated reactors or why they do not contain the necessary safety measures. The Soviet government has not given an adequate explanation of what happened to the thousands of women and children who were evacuated from the danger areas, or published a list stating the whereabouts of those who were evacuated. And neither has it made clear what material aid has been given to the victims of the disaster, or explained why telephone links were not established so that relatives residing in the West could contact their families in Ukraine, and why a large number of letters to the West have been withheld. Secondly, it is important to stress that Chornobyl was not the first nuclear accident in the Soviet Union. In 1957-58, an explosion occurred at a nuclear waste dump near the town of Kyshtym in the Urals, as a result of which large tracts of land were turned into wasteland and dozens of villages simply disappeared from the map. In 1981, there was a minor scale disaster at the Rivne nuclear plant in Western Ukraine. Presently, another Soviet reactor is deemed to be unsafe. In a private report for the Swedish government, experts from the Swedish State Power Board claim that the Ignalina plant in Lithuania, which went into operation in 1983 and is of the same design as Chornobyl, is being run at 150% of its capacity1'’. If temperatures are allowed to rise out of control, the seals around the fuel elements would melt causing radioactivity to leak out. In addition to this, well before the Chornobyl disaster, Lithuanian scientists published and signed a study which criticised safety systems and the lack of cooling towers at the huge Ignalina plant [15 16].

Thus, on the basis of all the above-mentioned faults, the Soviet Russian government should be condemned by the international community for its negligence and disregard for human safety in the construction and operation of its nuclear power plants, especially Chornobyl; for attempting to conceal the fact that a nuclear accident had occurred in the Soviet Union, both inside its own borders and before the peoples of Europe and the rest of the world; for failing to warn people in the affected areas of the accident, and to carry out immediate emergency measures: to issue directives on the safe handling of food-stuffs, and to ban the use of milk and water from the contaminated areas; and also for its long withholding of relevant information regarding the disaster. Furthermore, the Soviet government must be pressed into allowing the International Red Cross access to the affected areas in order to give the necessary medical treatment to the casualties, and to take in much needed food parcels. In order to prevent further accidents of this nature, the International Atomic Energy Agency must be allowed to inspect all of the Soviet Union’s nuclear power plants. To achieve this effectively, the Soviet government must adhere to the resolution passed at the Tokyo Summit earlier this year: “For each country, the maintenance of safety and security is an international responsibility for the safe design, manufacture, operation and maintenance of its installations. . .

Each country, furthermore, is responsible for prompt provision of detailed and complete information on nuclear emergencies and accidents, in particular those with transboundary consequences.

Each of our countries accept that responsibility, and we urge the Soviet Union which did not do so in the case of Chomobyl, to provide urgently such information, as our countries have requested”. In concluding this summary of the Chomobyl nuclear disaster, it would be most appropriate to finish with the words of President Ronald Reagan, when speaking of the catastrophe.

I quote: “The Russian handling of the disaster manifests a disregard for the legitimate concern of people everywhere”. As such, the Ukrainian nation has once again suffered at the hands of the Russians, and will go on suffering, as a result of Chomobyl, for many years to come.


1. Time, June 2, 1986, p. 11.

2. The Ukrainian Weekly, June 1, 1986, p. 3.

3. David Marples: “Chernobyl in Ukraine’s Nuclear Energy Programme", Soviet Nationality Survey, Vol. Ill, No. 4-5, April-May 1986, p. 5.

4. Ibid, p. 5.

5. Ibid, p. 5.

6. Reactor No. 4 at Chomobyl is one of four similar units at the plant. In its design, it is a direct descendant of the world's first nuclear power plant which came into operation at Obninsk, in the Soviet Union, in 1954. The RBMK-1000 reactor generates UXX) mw of electricity and 3200 mw of thermal power. In size it is comparable to the largest of Western power plants, but is of a design which uses graphite as a moderator (a substance used to slow down the neutrons in the fuel), used almost exclusively in the USSR. The only Western reactor of similar design is the graphite-moderated reactor at Hanford, Washington. The No. 4 reactor at Chomobyl houses a uniquely bad combination of moderator and cooling system. It is cooled by water and uses graphite as a moderator. Graphite can burn, which is one reason why US reactors use water as a moderator and not graphite. Although British reactors also use graphite, they are cooled by carbon dioxide. The diference is vital: graphite will not burn in carbon dioxide, but does so extremely well in steam. However, since 1954, the Soviet Union has continued to develop the graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactors despite their inherent dangers.

7. One rad is the unit absorbed dose of radiation. A rem is a unit of dose x quality factor X distribution factor x any other necessary modifying factors. Most people receive 0.2 of a rem in a year, which probably has the same effect on their cancer risk as smoking a cigarette every ten days. At the other extreme, however, 1000 rem received within a short period of time would be fatal.

8. C. Hohenemser ct al: "Chernobyl: An Early Report”, Environment, Vol. 28, No. 5, pp. 32- 33. 1 curie is a unit of measurement = 3.7 x 10“’ nuclear transformations per second.

9. The fact that prisoners are used to clear up nuclear plants and other “dirty jobs” of a similar nature, has been confirmed by a woman who has recently arrived in the West from Lviv, Western Ukraine. Her relative, himself a prisoner, died as a result of a smaller scale accident in 1981 at the Rivne plant where he was working.

10. Ukrainian Echo, June 25, 1986, p. 1.

11. Vera Tolz: Soviet Media Coverage of the Chernobyl Accident, RL 222/86, June 6, 1986, p. 2.

12. The Ukrainian Weekly, June 1, 1986, p. 3.

13. Ibid, p. 3.

14. Time, June 9, 1986, p. 16.

15. The Daily Telegraph, August 29. 1986.

16. Ibid.



*Oleskiw Stephen. The Chornobyl Disaster // The Ukrainian Review. - 1986. - 4. - p.3-19.

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The Ukrainian Information Service (UIS London) is an information bureau established in London during the 1970s as the successor of the Ukrainian Publishers. Originally, the aim of UIS London was the dissemination of factual information about Ukraine, in particular, Ukrainian politics, history and current affairs.

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Although the nature of work UIS London undertook altered after Ukrainian independence, the basic tenets of promoting, advocating and strengthening Ukraine has remained.

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