|The Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disaster (UNU, 1996, 307 pages)|
|7 The Chernobyl disasters Its effect on Belarus and Ukraine|
|The accident and its immediate aftermath|
First came measures designed to reassure the Soviet public that the situation was not dangerous and was basically "under control." Reports that the accident at Chernobyl was less serious than first feared began as early as 30 April 1986 and continued into 1987. On 30 April, for example, Radio Moscow reported (without any knowledge of the actual situation) that the quality of the drinking water in rivers and reservoirs had not been affected. Radio Kiev also began inauspiciously with the statement that "only two" people had been killed, as though the loss of two lives did not indicate a serious accident. Major newspapers in Moscow, Minsk, and Kiev featured the May Day celebrations in their 1 May editions, relegating the events at Chernobyl to the inside or back pages. The radiation background level, according to Radio Kiev, had fallen a further "1.5 to 2 times" from the time of the accident on 26 April 1986 - it was not stated, however, what the initial levels had been.9 In addition to the May Day events, Kiev also featured the start of a bicycle race and the streets were filled with children in national costumes. The impression given to the outside world was one of normality.
Statements about victims were similarly circumspect, conforming to a USSR Ministry of Health decision not to release pertinent information immediately after the disaster. However, because Chernobyl quickly became an event of international significance, foreign governments and scientists soon began to offer aid. The roles of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and foreign physicians are discussed below. In these circumstances, the Soviet authorities were obliged to disclose some of the casualty figures, though they were limited to people in the public eye - in hospitals, among fire crews, and among first-aid workers who tended to the fire-fighters.
Moreover, at the accident scene itself, the desire to ensure an atmosphere of normality was taken to extremes. The first evacuees were informed that they would be moved for a period of only three days; this may have been in part to discourage them from taking belongings from their residences and to reduce the time required for evacuation. Though reactor number four had been destroyed, and reactor three was in serious danger of catching fire, reactors one and two were left in service for a full 24 hours after the accident. On 9 May, Ukrainian Health Minister Anatolii Romanenko was heard on Radio Kiev, assuring listeners that radiation levels at Chernobyl were now within both national and international norms. On the same day, however, there was a "sudden new eruption of radioactive material" from the damaged reactor, which was not officially acknowledged by Soviet authorities until June 1989. Areas up to 40 miles from the reactor were affected!10 This new release of radioactivity was not mentioned in the Soviet report to the IAEA (August 1986) - a report that outsider observers heralded as a sign of new openness among the USSR's leaders.
Similarly, on 11 May 1986, scientists who had visited the disaster site held a press conference in Moscow and announced that the situation at Chernobyl "is stabilizing." It was reported that peak levels of radiation in the 30 kilometre zone had at first been 10-15 milliroentgens per hour; by 5 May they had fallen to 2-3 milliroentgens and by 8 May to 0.15 (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, 11 May 1986).11 Hans Blix, the Director-General of the IAEA, was inducted into the campaign of reassurance. At the press conference after his visit to Kiev, he noted that life near Chernobyl was proceeding normally. Schools were open and there were many foreign tourists in the streets. He said that, before long, the neighbouring fields would again be cultivated, and the "settlements around the nuclear power plant will be safe for residence."12
The optimistic (and quite unrealistic) tone continued for several weeks. On 13 May, for example, the news agency Novosti cited a 10 May report from the USSR Council of Ministers, that employed data from the USSR State Committee for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Control. It stated that, 60 kilometres from the station, radiation levels were 0.33 milliroentgens per hour, only slightly above those in Kiev (0.32) and "completely safe for the health of the people."13 In the western borderlands of the USSR, the situation was reported to be "normal." In Ukraine and Belarus, levels of radiation remained "the same as before the accident" (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, 13 May 1986). Not until three years later, when independent researchers tested radiation in rural areas of Ukraine and Belarus, was it recognized that these reports were, at best, incomplete and, at worst, fallacious.
In his memoirs, Andrei Sakharov recalls that he was at first taken in by the publication of such figures: "To my shame, I at first pretended that nothing much had happened." Observing that an early May 1986 report in the Soviet press had stated that radiation levels around the reactor were 10-15 milliroentgens per hour, he believed that there would be no significant fallout. However, "I had, in fact made a serious mistake. The radiation levels published in the Soviet press were one percent or less of the true figure... " Sakharov goes on to point out that he was ignorant of whether the publication of erroneous figures was a deliberate deception (Sakharov 1992: 608).
That an eminent scientist such as Sakharov could have been reassured by the publication of such figures is testimony to the effectiveness of the Soviet campaign to assure the public that the consequences of Chernobyl were limited in scope and firmly under control. It was left to the scrutiny of Evgenii Velikhov, Vice-President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, to produce a more realistic picture that finally convinced Sakharov something was amiss.
On 14 May, the USSR Council of Ministers entered a new realm of surrealism when it declared that "the radiation situation in Byelorussia and in Ukraine, including Kiev, is improving" (Sovetskaya Belorussiya, 14 May 1993). Though the trend was reported accurately, the statement gave no indication of what the original levels had been. People were left with the misleading implication that the accident was over and life was proceeding in conditions of safety. Regions on the edge of the 30 kilometre zone were supposedly conducting agricultural work, industrial enterprises were functioning as normal, and the "usual tourist trips" were being carried out. Of the casualties from Chernobyl, 35 people were declared to be in a "serious condition," and six had died (ibid.). The toll rose to 31 by the summer of 1986, and there it remained. None of the many officially corroborated direct victims of Chernobyl were ever added to this list: their deaths were attributed to other causes.