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Should the city of Pripyat be saved?:

Gorbachev weighs Chernobyl legacy

Gorbachev weighs Chernobyl legacy

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.

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 realized 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.

'Not panicking'

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 elimination 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 encountering 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.

Moreover, in the early days of May, we evacuated everybody living within a 30km radius of the power station, in dozens of localities: 116,000 people.

Told the truth?

Quite simply, in the beginning even the top experts did not realize 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.

Correct response?

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 that were evacuated later. 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.

Environmental cost

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, humanity 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 kinds 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 also 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.

BBC, April 2006.

Александр Сирота

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