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Ukraine: Declassified Files Reveal Authorities Knew Of Chornobyl's Fatal Flaws

By Askold Krushelnycky & Yulia Zhmakina

Ukraine's intelligence service, the SBU, is marking the 17th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear catastrophe by releasing dramatic information from previously secret KGB files. The files show that the Ukrainian branch of the former Soviet secret police had warned that Chornobyl was a disaster waiting to happen.

Prague, 9 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Ukrainian intelligence service, the SBU, has released a large number of previously secret documents that reveal the Chornobyl nuclear-power plant suffered from serious design and building flaws.

The documents show that the authorities ignored KGB warnings that the materials used in the plant's construction were substandard and that the technicians operating the plant often did not comply with safety regulations.

The SBU is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB. Around 120 files composed of information sent at the time to Moscow KGB headquarters by its Ukrainian branch have been published by the SBU on the Internet (

The documents reveal there had been previous accidents at Chornobyl that released radioactive pollution into the atmosphere and that the KGB had warned the plant should be shut down only months before one of its reactors exploded on 26 April 1986. That explosion resulted in the world's worst civilian nuclear accident and spewed radiation across vast sections of Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Western Europe.

But now the agency wants to set the record straight. "For a long time, a section of the documents concerning Chornobyl was inaccessible to historians and, therefore, much of the published work that aimed at analyzing the causes of the catastrophe or to shed light on government actions [at the time] are based essentially on the memoirs and observations of the participants. Because of that, many are tendentious and obstruct an objective examination of the reasons and circumstances for the accident, especially in analyzing its consequences and the effectiveness of government bodies," Maryna Ostapenko, a spokeswoman for the SBU, told RFE/RL..

The bulk of the documents cover the 1986 accident and the cleanup efforts running through 1988. Ostapenko says the files also show that the plant, built in the 1970s, suffered 29 accidents between 1977 and 1981 and that the Ukrainian KGB had warned of the dangers posed by its continuing operation.

One KGB report, written in January 1979, said: "According to operational data, there were deviations from design and violations of technology procedures during building and assembling works. It may lead to accidents."

"This release [of KGB files] contains only documents," Ostapenko said, "and it speaks in the language of documents -- that is to say, a person who has these before him sees what actions were taken by the Ukrainian secret services to warn the country's ruling circles about the dangers of an accident and what actions were taken by the security services after the accident. These [documents] reveal a true picture of events at the time."

In September 1982, an accident at Chornobyl released what are described in the files as "significant quantities of radiation" into the atmosphere. Most accidents occurred through equipment failures. Chornobyl technicians warned about the high risk of accidents at the power station. One document deals with an inspection of the plant in early 1986 by engineers who urged that it be shut down.

"We hope to restore the historic truth by publishing documents about the station, its construction and the disaster itself," Ostapenko said.

The documents, Ostapenko said, point a finger of blame at the authorities in Moscow for failing to heed warnings about Chornobyl.

"You can find here letters written by the heads of the Ukrainian security services to the top leaders of the Soviet Union about the shortcomings in the construction and operation of the Chornobyl power station," he says.

Ostapenko added that one reason Soviet leaders failed to take action may have been because the information coming from Ukraine was just a small proportion of the intelligence coming from the KGB's offices throughout the Soviet Union.

"When this accident happened in 1986, the Ukrainian KGB was part of a big machine. Ukraine was one of 15 Soviet republics. Therefore, the reaction of the USSR leadership was not very attentive. The very way that documents were transmitted, the lapse of time and the conviction that such [an accident] could never happen played a big role," she said.

The release of the documents comes shortly after Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev said a new shelter should be built over the exploded reactor at Chornobyl. Russia is concerned it could be affected if the present, hastily built sarcophagus over the damaged reactor develops leaks or collapses, allowing contaminants to escape.

The Ukrainian government says there is no immediate danger at Chornobyl but is calling for more money from Western nations to erect a new shield around the damaged reactor. It also wants funds to complete construction of two new nuclear units to replace the Chornobyl plant, which finally closed at the urging of Western countries in 2000.