It was a warm spring night when disaster struck. On April 26, 1986, at 1:24 a.m., massive explosions ripped through the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, one of the newest and most powerful nuclear power plants in the USSR. A ball of flame, accompanied by clouds of black smoke, rose into the sky. The wind carried the deadly cloud, ten rimes more radioactive than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, to the northwest, sowing panic in the Soviet Union and Western Europe alike.
Twenty-eight people died in the immediate aftermath of the accident. The surviving victims of the disaster - firefighters and station operators - were airlifted to Moscow, where doctors tried hard to save them, but many of them died. Officials in Moscow's sanitation department insisted that the bodies be buried in zinc coffins because they were radioactive.
In Byelorussia, 7,000 square kilometers of land were contaminated; in the Ukraine and the Russian Federation, the figures were 1,500 and 1,000 square kilometers, respectfully.
The day after the accident, an emergency plan for the evacuation of people living within 30 kilometers of the plant was drawn up. The 40,000 residents of the town of Pripyat, a town near Chernobyl, were evacuated in the space of three hours, although farmers were reluctant to leave because fieldwork was in full swing. Approximately 26,000 people were evacuated from 50 villages in the high-radioactivity zone. At the same time, a massive clean-up effort was launched in the area within a 30-kilometer radius of the disaster.
During the initial clean-up, 116,000 people were evacuated from the danger zone. Altogether, more than 600,000 people including those who took part in the clean-up efforts, have been directly affected by the disaster.
A unified, nationwide system of registering all the people affected by radiation was introduced. So far, some 650,000 people have been registered. Once on the list, a person remains there even if he or she moves to another place.
To date, the state has spent more than 10 billion rubles to counteract the effects of this disaster. But it is not nearly enough. In Byelorussia alone, an additional 17 billion rubles will have to be spent over the next six years. The Russian Federation and the Ukraine will also require greater infusions of resources. The diverse and interconnected consequences of the Chernobyl disaster constitute a horrible and hitherto unknown national malady. Let's take a closer look at how the Chernobyl syndrome has affected the Soviet Union as a whole.
Even though radiation levels were slashed several times in 1986 and 1987, the people are still paying a heavy price. In late 1989, 145 people were diagnosed as having acute radiation sickness. Fifty-nine people were pronounced disabled, of whom 16 are unable to work at all. An increase in the incidence of thyroid disease has occurred in contaminated areas. Newborns fall ill more often than in other areas, and the number of babies born with birth defects has increased.
Some public figures, including Byelorussian writer and People's Deputy Ales Adamovich, have sounded the alarm. Adamovich maintains that radiation levels in a number of towns and villages in Mogilev Region are much higher than acceptable.
However, Ilya Dibobes, Doctor of Science (Medicine), claims that neither the International Commission on Radiological Protection nor the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has questioned the calculations made by Soviet experts concerning the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident Still, many of the people living in the affected regions don't trust the scientists or the authorities.
One of the most unpleasant aspects of the Chernobyl syndrome was the desire of some officials to play down the consequences of the disaster or to hush them up altogether. Mistakes and deliberate distortions of the truth became indications as a sign of concern for the people.
Ten days after the Chernobyl plant exploded, Yuri Israel, chairman of the State Committee of the USSR for Hydrometeorology, spoke to reporters at a press conference. On that occasion he understated radiation levels in the vicinity of the plant by several orders of magnitude. His error has not been forgotten. In 1989, 50 Soviet deputies appealed to USSR Procurator General Alexander Sukharev, demanding that court proceedings be instituted against those who concealed information about the Chernobyl disaster and those who failed to take immediate action.
When it comes to protecting the people's interests, glasnost, and democratization are manifesting themselves more clearly all the time. What's done is done; but people are becoming more and more confident that in the future they won't have to pay a horrible price for the hare-brained decisions of the nuclear power industry. Four years after the Chernobyl catastrophe, what is the future of nuclear power in the USSR?
Valeri Legasov, former deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, committed suicide two years after the disaster. Legasov was convinced that another accident could well happen at a similar nuclear power plant. Legasov argued that it was not yet possible to create fail-safe accident prevention systems for power stations like Chernobyl.
Even so, new nuclear power plants are still being constructed. Although the nuclear power program was cut back to some extent and safer reactors were installed at some plants, the map of the European part of the USSR is studded with nuclear power plants. These include both operating stations and those that are still in the research and development stage.
The designers of nuclear power plants have developed new types of reactors and have provided them with protective domes of reinforced concrete. These are designed to withstand huge pressures and temperatures inside a runaway reactor, as well as earthquakes, explosions, gale-force winds, and plane crashes.
Nevertheless, a number of experts insist that nuclear plants must be constructed underground, inside 100-meter walls. These people say that building costs would increase only by 20 to 30 percent. Many ecologists think that the construction of nuclear power stations must be stopped altogether and that a number of operating plants must be dismantled.
Some scientists say that, now that safety precautions have been taken, another accident like Chernobyl is unlikely to occur in the next million years or so. But people are terrified to think that it could conceivably happen in their lifetime. As a result, the number of protests against new nuclear power projects is on the rise. Rallies and demonstrations against the construction of more plants, as well as roundtable discussions, conferences, and so forth, are being held.
The opponents of nuclear power do not tend to compromise on the issue. When experts try to make a point, they are jeered at. In Kazan, the capital of the Tartar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, protestors even switched on an air-raid siren.
Popular opinion has become a force to be reckoned with. For example, when the management of the Tartarskaya Nuclear Power Plant construction project, near the city of Nizhnekamsk, learned that a protest march was approaching, buses were sent to bring protestors to the construction site. The plant's management offered the marchers a nice place to pitch their tents. Nuclear experts stayed at the campsite for an hour and a half, trying to convince the protesters that nuclear power was relatively safe and that its development was necessary. Nevertheless, the demonstrators surrounded one of the reactors, chanting, " Down with the nuke plant!"
And it turned out that their uncompromising stand was well justified - during the first six months of 1989, several earthquakes shook the construction site. One tremor reached 6.5 on the 12-point scale, damaging one of the reactors.
Are protestors being heard by the powers that be? As a matter of fact, it looks as if some bureaucrats are really listening. As a result of public protests, the designing and construction of nuclear stations in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Krasnodar Territory, Minsk, and Odessa were halted. The Chigirin Nuclear Power Plant has been restructured: from now on, it will be used for training personnel.
The late Andrei Sakharov touched on the problem in 1989, when he addressed a Tokyo symposium on perestroika and Soviet society. " We have no alternative but to develop nuclear power," he said. Scientists who share Sakharov's views on this question argue that the development of nuclear power is imperative not only because oil and gas reserves are being depleted. The huge amounts of coal, oil, and gas that are burned every year also release about 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which may well cause a greenhouse effect. Alternative energy sources like solar and geothermal power are not very promising. In short, the development of nuclear power is an imperative of our times.
Sakharov did not forget about the Chernobyl disaster. Its consequences would continue to manifest themselves in the form of " radiophobia," he said. But he still insisted that the nuclear power industry must be developed. In his opinion, nuclear reactors must be constructed underground only, and an international law banning the building of reactors on the Earth's surface must be adopted.
When people no longer trust the officials, they form unions to protect their rights and interests. Late in 1989, a union called " Chernobyl" was formed. Its first conference took place in Kiev and was attended by people from 30 cities. The Chernobyl Union supports the development of the industry, provided that both experts and the public exercise strict control over it. The union will strive to make the industry as safe as possible. It will select the best power station designs on a competitive basis and will exercise constant public supervision over the construction and operation of nuclear power plants.
Another goal of the union is to protect people who have suffered as a result of the accident. The Chernobyl Union's activists have already conducted talks with West German, Italian, Spanish, American, and Finnish public organizations on cooperation in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of radiation sickness.
Could the union, intentionally or unintentionally, become an obstacle in the way of the nuclear power industry's development? No, says the union's chairman, Lev Khitrov, a Lenin Prize winner who heads a permanent expedition of the Institute of Geochemistry and Analytic Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. " Panic and complacency are equally dangerous here. That's why we plan to set up a national education network to help people learn more about the industry, so that they'll be able to guide themselves by fact.
Pyotr Mikhailov is a Soviet journalist. This article was reprinted with permission from the May 1990 issue of Soviet Life, a monthly publication of the Soviet Embassy for distribution solely within the United States. The photographs used in this article appeared in the original version, and were taken by Igor Kostin.