On April 26, 1986, arguably the world's worst nuclear accident took place in Chernobyl (Chornobyl in Ukrainian), about an hour’s drive from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.
As it happened behind the Iron Curtain, the Chernobyl disaster occurred under a veil of secrecy. Soviet authorities at first refused to admit anything out of the ordinary had happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, even after radioactive fallout was detected in Sweden and elsewhere in Scandinavia.
I recall that time well. I was in university, a newly “born-again Ukrainian” learning about Ukrainian history, and life and politics behind the Iron Curtain. It was, however, the first time I heard of Chernobyl… along with the rest of the world.
I remember those media reports about radioactive fallout
detected in Sweden, and the speculation that it came from the then Ukrainian SSR. It was excruciating to see western journalists reeling in shock as it dawned on them that a major world power (one that many of them admired, and still do) was deliberately lying, and moreover in the process endangering the health and well-being of millions.
It was equally excruciating wondering how far and how fast that radioactive cloud was moving west to North America, and having no means to find out the extent of the danger we might be facing.
According to an article in the May 1, 1986 edition of The New Jersey-based publication, The Ukrainian Weekly, Ukrainian Americans reported difficulties reaching family members in Ukraine in the days immediately following the explosion in Chernobyl. Phone lines were down as the Kremlin stubbornly refused to acknowledge the scope of the disaster, along with offers of international aid.
Despite gargantuan efforts to cover up the nuclear disaster, two days after the explosion a red-faced Kremlin had no choice but to admit what happened. In an online feature article recalling the Chernobyl disaster, the BBC reported that the official Soviet news agency, Tass, said there had been casualties but gave no details.
On April 29th CBS News reported that “Even Radio Moscow is now using the word disaster to describe the massive release of radiation from a nuclear reactor in the [sic] Ukraine, the Soviet bread basket. … One Soviet diplomat called it the “worst nuclear accident in history”. … A Swedish diplomat in Moscow says Soviet officials there told him it was worse than a meltdown.” (Hat tip to Gordonskene at Crooks and Liars.)
If there is any silver lining to be found in the Chernobyl disaster, it is that it was a historic turning point. In an article published in 2006, former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev said that the 1986 "nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl [even more than perestroika], was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.
"The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else, opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue. It made absolutely clear how important it was to continue the policy of glasnost..."
I agree that Chernobyl was a turning point, at least in terms of openness. When the tsunami demolished the nuclear power plant at Fukishima, Japan, on March 16th this year, the inevitable comparisons to Chernobyl were drawn. Japan residents may have been frustrated with the pace at which the Japanese government was relaying information. But they were not lied to by Japanese authorities, the way that Soviet citizens were in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.
Even Russia’s current president, Dmitri Medvedev was beating his chest yesterday about “truth telling.” He took the opportunity to slam Soviet authorities of the time a day ahead of visiting Chernobyl with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was similarly beating his chest.
While the pair shed plenty of crocodile tears at a special ceremony honouring the memory of emergency workers who lost their lives due to the stupidity of Soviet authorities, I am not aware of any reports of Moscow offering financial assistance to the surviving victims of Chernobyl, many of whom were left to fend for themselves in the aftermath of the disaster. Nor for repairs to the sarcophagus of the disintegrating reactor. Since every decision about how the disaster was handled was made in Moscow, it behoves them to take some responsibility and make some reparations.
That may happen, but chances are it probably won’t be before Chernobyl is no longer radioactive, or at least safely habitable.