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Chornobyl 20 Years After: A Nuclear Nightmare Becomes A Political Disaster

Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa visiting Chornobyl in 1989 (ITAR-TASS) Chornobyl (Chernobyl) shocked the world not just because of the horror of what had happened but because its consequences were made so much worse by the silence of the Soviet authorities. Just a year after Mikhail Gorbachev, then general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, announced his strategy of glasnost, the Chornobyl tragedy demonstrated that the Kremlin was still not ready for genuine transparency. The catastrophe exposed the Soviet leadership to international criticism and accelerated the pace of internal change. Some even argue it was straw that broke the back of the Soviet Union.

PRAGUE, April 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Soviet television broke the news of the Chornobyl disaster on April 28, 1986 -- fully two days after the violent explosion that ripped the 1,000-ton lid off the plant's Reactor No. 4 and sent a giant plume of radioactive dust billowing out over Europe.

"There has been an accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power station," the announcement said. "One of the atomic reactors has been damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Assistance is being given to the injured and a government commission has been set up."

There is nothing here to indicate the devastating scope of a catastrophe that was already claiming scores of lives and wreaking untold environmental and economic damage.

Culture Of Secrecy

One year after Gorbachev proclaimed the importance of glasnost, or openness and transparency, the Soviet leadership's first reaction to the disaster was to enter into denial.

And with tragic consequences: as Chornobyl's crippled reactor belched radioactive particles into the atmosphere, the people of the nearby town of Prypyat carried on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Children played in the dust, workers cycled to work, and the shops sold dairy products that would soon trigger a horrifying increase in thyroid cancer among the young.
"I heard Gorbachev respond to one question like this: 'What do you want? I asked our army generals who attended an atom-bomb test and they told me it's nothing. Two hours after the explosion, they said they were at the test site. They told me that all you need is a glass of red wine and you're fine.'"

Yet something had changed. Gorbachev had taken the lid off a world of secrecy and intrigue and would never quite manage to put it back again.

Masha Lipman, editor in chief of the "Pro et Contra" journal at the Carnegie Moscow Center, an independent Russian think tank, believes that Chornobyl was a turning point for Gorbachev.

"He undertook something so huge that neither himself nor the world around him at the time was even aware of the scope of what was in the making: the eventual collapse of the USSR and the serious shattering of the communist system," she says. "Of course, he wasn't certain, of course he didn't know what he was doing but he made this choice tentatively, maybe without knowing how giant, how gigantic this choice was."

Soviet Humiliation

The same day as the first television announcement breaking the news, the Soviet government began to brief Western governments on the disaster -- itself an unprecedented development. British journalists caught the Soviet ambassador to the United Kingdom as he emerged from a meeting with then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Reporter: "Was Mrs. Thatcher annoyed that you didn't tell the world earlier about this accident?"

Leonid Zamyatin: "No. We informed the government of the United Kingdom this morning about this accident officially. We have just talked with the prime minister just now about this problem."

Reporter: "Did you ask for British help?"

Zamyatin: "Well, we don't ask for help but the prime minister suggested us help from the British side."

Zamyatin's humiliation -- the Soviet Union's humiliation -- was on painful public display. But for the first time this was a Soviet Union that seemed ready to concede, albeit reluctantly, its mistakes.

Belarusian author Svyatlana Aleksiyevich, whose book on Chornobyl, "Chernobyl Prayer: Chronicle Of The Future," has been widely translated, is another who sees the disaster as a turning point. She believes that Gorbachev's initial slowness to respond was conditioned by the system itself, by the reluctance of officials at any level to admit to the accident. In a system starved of reliable information, Gorbachev was as ignorant as everyone else.

Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, visited the Chornobyl plant in February 1989 (TASS)

"The station is burning and Gorbachev is delivering his reports and sending the country's best nuclear physicists to Chornobyl," she says. "They go to the burning nuclear power station with nothing -- not even their shaving kits. Not even they understood what had happened. I heard Gorbachev respond to one question like this: 'What do you want? I asked our army generals who attended an atom-bomb test and they told me it's nothing. Two hours after the explosion, they said they were at the test site. They told me that all you need is a glass of red wine and you're fine.'"

Ignorance pervaded the Soviet system at almost every level -- ignorance and a paralyzing reluctance to take responsibility. But the disaster shone a burning light on some of the murkier corners of a regime choking on its own contradictions.

"In my opinion, this was one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century -- and the 20th century was not short of catastrophes," Aleksiyevich says. "What made it worse was that man stepped beyond the limits of his knowledge. That's to say that our perception of the world was subjected to doubt, our place in this world, our system of values and our readiness to oppose all this -- everything was thrown into doubt."

Gorbachev continued to speak the Soviet rhetoric of the past for some time after Chornobyl -- but the catastrophe appears to have increased his own doubts about the ability of the Soviet Union to cope with the modern world and confirmed his conviction in the overriding importance of glasnost and transparency. The Soviet Union may not have exploded at Chernobyl, but the fuse was burning faster.

Chornobyl's Contamination Of Europe

Chornobyl's Contamination Of Europe

Click on the map to enlarge.

NOT JUST A LOCAL PROBLEM: On April 27, 1986, the day after the explosion at Chornobyl, workers at Sweden's Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant were found to have radioactive particles on their clothes, which led to a search for the source, and the first suspicions that a nuclear accident had occurred in the Soviet Union.
The cloud of radioactive particles from Chornobyl passed over Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the British Isles, before the wind changed, after which it was blown south over much of Europe. Radioactive contamination from the Chornobyl disaster was also detected as far away as North America and Japan.

LOCAL COVERAGE: Click here to see RFE/RL's coverage of Chornobyl in Russian, Ukrainian, or Belarusian.

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