Mikhail Gorbachev had been Soviet leader for only 13 months when the Chernobyl nuclear accident happened. He describes how the authorities responded and reflects on the lessons from the disaster.
Former leader Mikhail Gorbachev admits some mistakes were made
I received a call at 0500 on 26 April 1986, informing me that a major accident, followed by a fire, had just occurred in the fourth block of the Chernobyl nuclear power station, but that the reactor was still intact.
In those early hours, until the evening of 26 April, we had not yet realised that the reactor had actually exploded and that there had been a huge discharge of radioactive materials into the atmosphere.
Nobody had any idea that we were facing a major nuclear disaster.
Naturally, we can regret, today, after the fact, that we did not grasp everything more quickly.
[At the time], I was astounded: how was such a thing possible? Nuclear scientists had always assured the country's leadership that our nuclear reactors were completely safe.
Immediately after the accident, the management of the station gave the order to flood the reactor with water, because they were not aware that the reactor had exploded and there was nothing left to extinguish.
Finally, the pool under the reactor and some underground locations were filled up with water.
Scientists were afraid that if the hot mass of nuclear fuel and graphite were to rupture the bottom of the reactor's tank and fall into radioactive water, this would create the conditions for a further nuclear explosion.
We were not panicking... but we urgently needed to pump out this water. This was completed at the beginning of May. In this way, such an explosion, however slight its probability, was effectively prevented.
There were other threats that needed to be eliminated with the utmost urgency.
Firstly, there remained the danger that the mass at the heart of the reactor would rupture its tank and even blast through the foundations of the building housing the reactor, so coming into contact with the soil and leading to a major contamination of groundwater.
We also had to prevent the radioactive waste and debris from around the plant from contaminating the waters of the Dnieper and Desna rivers. This required operations on a massive scale...
But, of course, our main concern was to evacuate the population from the most contaminated areas.
On 27 April we performed an exemplary operation: in just three hours the entire population of Pripyat, located very close to the power station, was evacuated.
And in the early days of May, we evacuated everybody living within a 30km radius of the power station, in dozens of localities: a total of 116,000 people.
Told the truth?
Quite simply, in the beginning even the top experts did not realise the gravity of the situation.
We needed several weeks to obtain precise evaluations and to draw up maps of the contamination.
Certainly, I will not exclude the possibility that certain functionaries, who were afraid of being accused of not having taken the correct measures, had a tendency to embellish their reports.
But, for the most part, I believe that I was kept informed in good faith by my representatives.
We did not cancel the May Day parades [in Kiev and Minsk] because we still did not have information on the full extent of the disaster.
I confess that we were afraid of panic - you can imagine for yourselves the consequences of a terrible panic in a town of several million inhabitants. I admit that it was a grave mistake.
We published the first information on the accident on 28 April, in Pravda, but to speak to the people, I needed a more substantial and precise analysis. That is why I waited almost three weeks before speaking on television.
Nowadays, experts think that our fears over the possible contamination of groundwater were exaggerated, and that it was not worth the trouble of installing a "cushion" [concrete slab] underneath the reactor.
The construction of the sarcophagus, all the measures for aquatic protection, most of the measures aimed at decontamination - these were good decisions, even though some of the deactivation did ultimately prove to be superfluous.
We decontaminated areas which were later evacuated. Nobody knew, for instance, that Pripyat, that beautiful modern city, would find itself forever uninhabitable.
At first, scientists thought that the population of Pripyat would be able to return to the city around the end of May or beginning of June.
People left leaving their fridges full of food, without even unplugging them, since they expected to return quickly.
The explosion at Chernobyl showed that we are capable of contaminating the planet for the long term, and of leaving a terrible legacy for future generations.
Today, mankind faces a challenge so huge that, by comparison, the Cold War appears like an incongruous vestige from the past.
Chernobyl clearly demonstrated that each disaster is unique and that no country can be prepared for every eventuality.
That is why we must deploy the maximum amount of effort to prevent disasters.
One must not compromise on nuclear safety. The social, ecological and economic consequences of these kind of disasters are much too heavy in every sense of the word.
We can therefore see what enormous responsibility is placed not only on politicians, but on scientists, engineers and designers - their mistakes could cost the life and health of millions of people.
The victims of Chernobyl continue to suffer both physically and mentally. It is our moral duty to help them while continuing to limit the ecological consequences of this disaster.
Mikhail Gorbachev was interviewed by Green Cross International, a non-governmental organisation he founded in the wake of Chernobyl. A fuller version is appearing in the latest issue of the Optimist magazine.
How culpable was the Soviet leadership for the Chernobyl disaster? What do you think of Mr Gorbachev's analysis of the dangers facing today's world?
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It is clear in Gorbachev's admitting that reports were "embellished" that the soviet system of lies, deceit and propaganda helped to allow time to elapse that could have saved more lives and environmental damage.
He is aware through hindsight being involved directly in the disaster how dangerous, and uncontrollable nuclear power out of control can be. Nobody could have caused more damage to Russia than the Russians themselves. Today's world has many countries holding nuclear weapons which is of course far more of a threat than the USA - USSR standoff of the past.
Cat Miller, Melbourne, Australia
I am convinced that Mr. M. Gorbatschev had good intention of solving the problem scientifically and quietly, with least damage to the environment and populations , however, the Soviet Scientists were in a bind : 1) never before having experienced such a catastrophe, and not being able to seek advise from abroad, were confused and afraid for a reprisal by the notorious KGB,
2) all decision were made in Moscow, they waited for a directives from the top, 3)Silence, was the motto of the former USSR Government. I had the pleasure of speaking with several scientists from the Ukrainian Academy of Science, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and they affirmed my suspicion.
In 1990, I organized scientific conference on Environmental Disasters, primarily ecological, and several distinguished scientists from Ukraine attended the conference and presented papers on the subject, and we learned a lot from their presentations, known as " the first-hand experience". I am also convinced that the Ukrainian Scientists have and know more about the disaster, that they are willing to share with us. Let's hope that it will never happened again.
Dr.J.G. Kurys, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
I had a lot of respect for Gorbachev until I read this interview. I cannot understand how he could have waited for 3 weeks before telling his own people they were being killed.
Michal kirejczyk, Toronto, Canada
I think Mr. Gorbachev is very accurate in his assessment of the dangers we all must face. He is being forthright in his analysis and the governments of the world should take is experience seriously.
Patricia Ross Eastman, St Paul MN USA
For the disaster itself the Soviet leadership cannot be held responsible directly, but for the slow informing or covering up they can be blamed. I think Mr Gorbachev is right in stating that we shouldn't compromise on nuclear safety. Hope to be able to find a copy of the Optimist magazine for the complete interview.
Dick Vestdijk, Netherlands
Like all disasters, we always come up with the answers from hindsight. I think that Mr.Gorbachev acted in good faith without being informed of the full nature of the disaster. However, his administration and top scientists should be held accountable for an improper analysis of the gravity of the situation and failure to act decisively and rapidly to minimise casualties.
In this instance he should have taken the welfare and safety of his people first.
In any major accident at any nuclear power plant it must be dealt with as if the threat is serious, later on, if it proves otherwise, the people in charge can justify the over reaction by simply stating that human safety was paramount. Mr Gorbachev's analysis of the nuclear dangers facing today's world is prophetic, and I wish that certain other leaders will take a hint from him. And as he stated we have a moral duty to help the victims.
Patanjali Ramlall, Miami, Florida, USA
Ultimately, the real cause was the chase for economic conditions like the Western world; fostered by the Western world's ever-increasing economic rush itself, which is not perceived as being unsustainable (to put it at it's mildest and kindest). As for the analysis: stark but inadequate. Only when terrorists create Pripyat conditions in a Western city, or there is another nuclear war (hopefully between smaller nations and not Superpowers), will people begin to see the nuclear conundrum in a better perspective.
philip gray, torun, poland
I'm most interested by Mr. Gorbachev's comment, "I confess that we were afraid of panic - you can imagine for yourselves the consequences of a terrible panic in a town of several million inhabitants."
In both the (former) Soviet Union and in China, a reflexive fear of "panic" (or uprisings) seems at times to prevent clear thinking among the leadership. Compare this with the similar - but not identical - fear of bad publicity or political consequences which too often paralyzes leaders in the U.S. and in European countries.
Ralph Dratman, Cherry Hill, NJ, USA
Mr. Gorbachev was (and is) in the unfortunate position of culpability for responsibilities which were not directly his. From all accounts, the accident, misinformation, and subsequent mistakes such as the intentional flooding of the reactor which resulted from this misinformation, resulted from mistakes made by bureaucrats and technicians who were directly responsible on the site itself.
One could correctly state that the bureaucratic culture which allowed these initial exaggerations and cover-ups was created by, and was the responsibility of Gorbachev and the rest of the Soviet state. Also, it is the responsibility of leadership to assume blame for the appointing of the men and women responsible for the accident. Mr. Gorbachev can rightly take credit for ordering helpful actions (such as the mass evacuations and the construction of the sarcophagus) which took place after the fact. It is disturbing, however, to note that some 20 years after the accident, the Chernobyl site has still not been permanently cleaned up.
David Hilbert, Ann Arbor, USA
Gorbachev is right for the wrong reasons. The earth now has the responsibility for radioactive waste storage and for nuclear weapons which can destroy life on this planet. The engineering was easy, but politics is not, and the political world now has the bigger problem of controlling nuclear waste and weapons.
Bruce McClintic, Palo Alto, CA USA