Top Secret Chernobyl:
The Nuclear Disaster through the Eyes of the Soviet Politburo, KGB, and U.S. Intelligence
by Svetlana Savranskaya
Washington, D.C., May 15, 2020 – The Soviet Politburo knew as soon as July 1986 that the design of the Chernobyl reactor was at fault in the deadly explosion there the previous April, not just the errors made by reactor staff, according to documents published today for the first time in English by the National Security Archive.
The documents include the extremely important Politburo discussion of Chernobyl on July 3, 1986, when the head of the investigative commission, Boris Shcherbina, clearly stated that it was not just the violations of rules committed by the staff that led to the explosion, but that “RBMK reactors are potentially dangerous” in their very design. Shcherbina called for halting further construction of such reactors (Document 1).
The Shcherbina report gives a deeply critical analysis of the situation throughout the Soviet nuclear power industry and shows that shortcuts had been made that led to serious safety issues and numerous smaller accidents. Although the subsequent Politburo discussion featured attempts to avoid responsibility and to find scapegoats, this document also shows the impact of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost—one hears an unusual amount of disagreements and questioning of the party leadership itself.
Other important documents in today’s posting, which is the second installment in the Archive’s series focusing on Chernobyl evidence (Volume 1), include the initial analysis of radioactive contamination in Sweden, which was the first signal internationally of the Chernobyl accident, Soviet internal discussions of the causes of the accident, and the first signs of domestic opposition in the Soviet Union to the culture of secrecy surrounding all information about the accident.
The Soviet documents published here in translation for the first time show the monumental efforts by the military and civilian services to contain the reactor fire, evacuate citizens, and decontaminate the area. This was a public health emergency of a kind the USSR was utterly unprepared for and once its scope was fully appreciated it prompted a huge government effort to come to grips with the consequences.
The State Hydrometeorological Committee and the Ministry of Health produced reports on the effects of radiation on citizens and levels of contamination of water and agricultural resources, closely monitoring the changing situation on the ground. The Ukrainian Ministry of Health reported to the Union Ministry of Health on extensive programs of medical oversight, testing and treatment of evacuees, nutrition programs, and monitoring of children, who absorbed more of the damaging radiation than other groups.
Truly heroic work by the Soviet military—22,500 conscripts by the end of 1986—is presented in the report by Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev, chief of the Soviet General Staff and the person in charge of the military “liquidation” effort (Document 5). According to the continually growing documentary record, the same system that was initially unprepared for a disaster of this scale, was able to respond quickly and to concentrate all its resources on containment and cleanup of the accident.
At the same time, the shock of Chernobyl in the atmosphere of glasnost promoted by Gorbachev led to widespread grass-roots expressions of discontent and criticism of the government response. In a letter to Pravda that was forwarded to the Politburo, a group of “liquidators” describes the lack of medical care and the attitude of neglect from local party and government organs. In November 1988, Academician Andrei Sakharov addressed Gorbachev directly in a letter where he complained about the lack of glasnost and “obstruction” of a publication about Chernobyl by a nuclear engineer who was involved in mitigation of the accident (Document 9). And in 1989, an independent group of “liquidators” in Ukraine attempted to organize a Union-wide organization of “liquidators” that would monitor the cleanup work and even carry out oversight of how the resources disbursed for the Chernobyl mitigation were used by the local administration.
The documents posted here show that notwithstanding an unprecedented effort by Soviet scientists to understand the dangers made stark by the Chernobyl accident, the level of knowledge was still incomplete and often the long-term consequences were underappreciated. For example, in January 1992, a U.S. congressional delegation met with the Vice President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Academician Evgeny Velikhov, who was one of Gorbachev’s advisers on Chernobyl. According to the cable from U.S. Embassy in Moscow on the meetings of the Codel, when asked about the progress of Chernobyl cleanup,
“Velikhov said that the Chernobyl situation is not as bad as the press says, claiming that low doses of radiation fluctuate more than envisioned and that health dangers are overstated. He cited studies in the Southern Ukraine related to the early warning radar system stating that most illness in this region is due to stress. In Chernobyl, he said, children suffered thyroid problems and other non-cancerous illnesses due to quick iodine emission, but the Soviet record shows there is no record of increased cancer cases. When asked if Chernobyl has been cleaned up, Velikhov responded negatively, saying there is still a thirty-kilometer non-populated zone, which is contaminated by cesium and strontium and which will take a long time to decontaminate. Otherwise, there are local spot concentrations outside the zone. Based on experience from the Urals (Kyshtym), the area will be more or less safe after thirty years, he said.”
The following essays were contributed by two members of the Russia Program staff based on research in the documents in today's posting.
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by Sarah Dunn
Research Assistant, Russia Program, the National Security Archive
In October of 1986, a group of liquidators, a colloquial term for those officially called “participants in the elimination [or liquidation] of the consequences of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,” wrote a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from a sanatorium in the Kharkov region of Ukraine. In this letter, the men spoke of their concerns about the impact of the winter on their health (“The worsening weather conditions increase the likelihood of the emergence of every kind of cold-related disease….And what their consequences will be is still unknown.”), their lack of weather appropriate clothing (“The clothes in which we arrived at the sanatorium in the summer are no longer suited to the season and to buy ‘normal’ warm things in our situation is practically impossible.”), and the poor medical treatment they were receiving (“…medical conditions are not being checked by specialist doctors familiar with radiation sickness, and such regular medical check-ups are not provided.”) (Document 4) The men spoke of inadequate nutrition, the failure to provide them with the housing and funds they had been promised, poor treatment by government organizations that were meant to be helping them, the feelings of unjustness that came from hearing on the radio of the benefits given to the evacuees of the 30-km exclusion zone, and their difficulties in performing everyday tasks, like standing in a line for bus tickets, due to their radiation sickness.
Exact statistics for the health and mortality rates of the liquidators are unknown. There were around 600,000 liquidators who worked at Chernobyl from 1986 to 1990. The highest radiation doses were received by the 240,000 liquidators who were within the 30-km exclusion zone from 1986 to 1987, with the average radiation dose in 1986 estimated to be 170 millisieverts (mSv). For reference, the legal limit set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the radiation dose for an entire year for radiation workers is 50 mSv. A 2005 United Nations study said that fewer than 50 deaths could be directly attributed to radiation related to Chernobyl at the time, and said that 4,000 deaths could be expected among liquidators and evacuees. Greenpeace stated that Chernobyl had caused 200,000 deaths from 1990-2004, and spoke of other effects from the radiation, like premature aging and psychological disorders. As of 2016, the Ukrainian Health Ministry suggested that 20,000 liquidators die from “Chernobyl related illnesses” each year4.
In a resolution of the Central Committee, signed by then General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the liquidators’ letter was described as bearing “witness to the facts of an unacceptably heartless, bureaucratic attitude” shown to them in their attempts to organize treatment and welfare support. Twenty years later, Gorbachev wrote about Chernobyl as a “historic turning point,” as the disaster, which “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.”
The liquidators’ difficulties did not end with the Central Committee’s resolution. To this day many liquidators face struggles in obtaining the medical treatment and compensation they are owed by their governments. Despite their health issues, financial struggles, and psychological stress, many liquidators did not regret their work then, and do not regret it now. In their letter, the liquidators spoke of their pride at having helped avert disaster at Chernobyl, speaking of their pride at not having suffered in vain. Sergey Krasilnikov, a now 65-year-old former liquidator, spoke about his health issues and his time at Chernobyl in 2016, and said “Had I known with what indifference and scorn the state would treat me now, I may not have agreed to be a liquidator. Nevertheless, knowing what I know now, I would probably act in a similar way.”
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by Brooke Lennox
Summer Intern at the National Security Archive (2019)
In order to better understand the impact of the massive catastrophe that happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, one needs to look at the contribution made by other countries and international organizations in collecting and making public information about the spread of contamination. International actors were critical to the discovery of the accident but also deserve a significant amount of credit for the measures taken to protect citizens in their countries and attempts to prevent further contamination.
The first country to discover the environmental effects caused by the explosion was Sweden. As shown in the two documents in this posting on Sweden’s role in developing the international understanding of what happened in the USSR on April 26, 1986, radioactive dust had already traveled 900 miles from the explosion site in around 24 hours. Experts in Stockholm were able to figure out almost entirely what had happened and then share this critical news with the world (Document 3).
As soon as scientists in Sweden determined the seriousness of the accident they took a number of steps including implementing bans on certain products and measuring food’s cesium levels. The rapid attention that was given to Sweden’s own citizens not only confirms the seriousness of the event’s effects on the surrounding environment but also shows the disparity in effort and preparedness between the Soviet Union and Western Europe after the accident.
Sweden’s serious response to the explosion was instrumental in limiting the effects of Cesium-127 in their local environment. Despite the necessity for swift action, the lack of information and the inability of local actors to act independently without orders from Moscow significantly delayed preventative measures in the USSR.
In contrast, Sweden calmly determined the nature and scope of the problem within two days of the accident and immediately took action including informing the rest of the international community.
Various international actors actively participated in the decontamination of Chernobyl and its surrounding areas. However, even today, more than 30 years after the accident, international actors are still part of the story of Chernobyl. For example, in Belarus scientist Bandazhevsky was put in jail in 1999 for his continued research on the effects of Cesium-137, one of the main contaminants produced by Chernobyl. His work was banned because the Belarusian government wanted to continue using agricultural lands despite the evidence of continued contamination. Bellona, an international environmental NGO, has worked on Bandazhevsky’s case and many other cases connected to the damage done by Chernobyl.
Over the years, international actors like Bellona collected invaluable evidence of Chernobyl's massive environmental impact, whether it be Cesium levels or a continuously contaminated food chain. These effects were never limited to Ukraine or the territory that used to be the USSR. The impact of Chernobyl and the cooperation between governments and non-governmental actors in discovery, decontamination, and analysis highlight the need for more cross-border transparency and cooperation in the sphere of peaceful nuclear energy.