The press conference was short and stormy. Last week, for the first time since an explosion ripped the roof off a reactor at the Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power station on April 26, senior Kremlin officials met Western and Communist Bloc reporters to field questions about the world’s worst nuclear plant disaster. Headed by Boris Scherbina, chief of the official inquiry into the accident, and deputy foreign minister Anatoly Kovalev, the six-member panel said that local technicians and officials had underestimated the severity of the accident— believed by some experts to have been a total meltdown—and sent inadequate reports to Moscow. But as the officials avoided specific questions about amounts of radiation and health risks, Western journalists became frustrated. Finally, with some reporters shouting their objections, Kovalev abruptly ended the session after 65 minutes. Declared one observer: “There is only one way to describe it— a whitewash.”
Still, the Soviet spokesmen all but conceded negligence at the site. Scherbina, for one, said that workers at Chernobyl “did not have a true assessment” of the situation when the accident-thought to be a result of uranium fuel rods overheating because of faulty coolant pumps—occurred at 1:23 a.m. on April 26. As a result, evacuation of the 49,000 residents in towns near the plant was delayed until 2 p.m. on April 27—while radiation levels
were reaching a dangerous peak and the reactor was burning out of control. At week’s end, experts for the International Atomic Energy Agency who had visited the site announced that the fire had been extinguished. But Soviet officials in Kiev, 100 km south of Chernobyl, claimed that the fire was still burning, and added that more than 250,000 local schoolchildren were being taken out of school early and sent to summer camps outside the region.
Throughout the week, meanwhile, the fallout from the Soviet disaster caused abnormally high radioactivity throughout Europe. The 12 European Community countries agreed to suspend fresh food imports from Communist Bloc countries—most affected by the cloud of radioactive dust spewed into the atmosphere by the Chernobyl explosion—until May 31. But even Western European produce was affected, and customs officials across Canada were put on alert after health and welfare officials in Vancouver impounded and destroyed a 600-lb. shipment of highly radioactive Italian foodstuffs.
In fact, by the end of the week radioactive dust had travelled across the Atlantic Ocean. Canada’s health and welfare department reported slightly increased levels of radiation in air samples across the country. After rainwater tests in Ottawa on Wednesday showed a marked rise in radiation, the government warned Canadians not to drink rainwater. But spokesmen
quickly added that there was no real risk. According to a press release: “The advice to refrain from drinking rainwater still holds, but it must be appreciated that this provides an exceptional measure of safety to the Canadian public. The levels would have to be 10,000 times higher before a health advisory were issued. Drinking water from other sources is not affected.”
Reports that the Soviet nuclear industry has been plagued with problems served only to heighten worldwide apprehension. Nuclear physicist LarsErik DeGeer of the Swedish National Defence Institute said that there may have been as many as three unreported Soviet nuclear accidents since 1983. And in March a Ukraine newspaper featured an article by Lyubov Kovalevska, thought to be a senior Chernobyl administrator, stating that shoddy construction and low worker morale in effect made Chernobyl a deadly time bomb.
Last week speculation focused on the long-term health and environmental effects of the disaster. Especially ominous were reports that a Soviet diplomat in West Germany had asked scientists’ advice on how to deal with a reactor core melting through its concrete base into the ground, which could threaten ground water. Indeed, even U.S. commodities exchanges felt the fallout from the disaster as reports of damage to Soviet crops caused wild fluctuations in prices. Declared one trader at the Chicago Board of Trade: “The consensus is that the accident is bound to mean the Soviets are going to need more grain.”
PEETER KOPVILLEM with HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa and correspondents’ reports
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