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Irish ambassador said Russians blaming Chernobyl staff was a 'typical Soviet tactic'

Nuclear fallout and Soviet scepticism feature in official Irish state papers on the Chernobyl disaster.

Image: Shutterstock/doroshvin

THE IRISH AMBASSADOR to the Soviet Union at the time of the Chernobyl disaster criticised the Russians for blaming the incident on staff at the plant as a “typical Soviet tactic”.

In State Papers released by the Department of Foreign Affairs from 1986, Tadhg O’Sullivan was sharply critical of how the Russians reported on and handled the explosion at the nuclear power plant.

20161208_153643 The ambassador's letter to the Department of Foreign Affairs Source: National Archives 2016_22_1441

A letter written at the time to the Department from Sligo County Council also urged the government to condemn the Soviet Union for their failure to notify other European countries immediately after the disaster.

Pravda

In an edition of the Soviet state newspaper Pravda – dated 21 July 1986 – seen by the ambassador and sent to the Department of Foreign Affairs, its contents put the blame for the incident solely on workers from the plant.

It said: “It has been established that the accident occurred because of a whole series of gross violations of operating rules by the staff at the station.

Neither the station managers nor specialists had prepared well for that experiment, and failed to coordinate it with appropriate organisations, which they ought to have done.

“The irresponsibility and negligence as well as indiscipline led to grave consequences.”

The article closes by calling Chernobyl a “turning point” in the international community’s attitude to nuclear weapons, saying  it should be effective in “curbing the nuclear arms race”.

The Russians were criticised by the wider international community for its reaction to the incident, especially in losing crucial hours and days to inform its closest European neighbours about the fallout.

In separate documents included in the papers, a Soviet delegation at the United Nations Environment Programme was desperate to stress its cooperation with other nations following Chernobyl.

“Since the day of the accident, the Soviet authorities have been maintaining closest contacts with the International Atomic Energy Agency management.”

In the case of Ireland, authorities here weren’t satisfied with the Russian approach.

Unsatisfactory

Upon sending the Pravda report to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador O’Sullivan was unequivocal in his assessment of the situation in a supplementary note.

He said: “Its account basically consists of a description of the punishments and disciplinary measures meted out to [staff], the work being done to repair the damage and the means by which this type of accident is to be prevented in the future.

“The disaster at Chernobyl is thus treated by Pravda in terms of a violation of party rules, for which those concerned are to be punished, and as a lesson in the need for the strict observance of party discipline in the future.

20161208_153648 Source: National Archives 2016_22_1441

This approach is typical of Soviet methods of explaining failures in public policy. There is no criticism of the system, nor any challenge to the party leadership.

O’Sullivan also noted that the accident could have been as a result of defects in the design of the reactor or rushed work on site to meet party deadlines.

“To pick out scapegoats is a classic Soviet way of dealing with such situations,” he concluded. “But it is unlikely to satisfy the international community in its concern over safety standards in the nuclear industry in this country.”

Local worries

It was clear that officials in Ireland were very worried about the impact that the Chernobyl disaster could have.

In a letter sent to the department by Sligo County Council – dated 2 July 1986 – councillors urge condemnation for the conduct of the Russian authorities.

It said: “At its meeting on 16 June 1986, Sligo County Council adopted the following resolution: That the Russian government be condemned for their failure to notify other European countries about the Chernobyl disaster immediately after it happened.”

20161208_153826 Source: National Archives 2016_22_1441

It is known that it took a week for Ireland to be affected but relevant agencies at the time were keen to ascertain what measures should be taken to safeguard Irish people.

In a statement from the Nuclear Energy Board dated 12 May 1986, they detail how radioiodine contamination occurred primarily during the period of 2-4 May.

20161208_152544 Source: National Archives 2016_22_1441

The letter notes: “The levels decreased sharply during the period and the board confirmed that the current indications are that this decrease is continuing.

“The levels of radioiodine observed in milk in Ireland is notably lower than the levels of 1000-1700 Bq/1 found in some regions of Europe.”

The Nuclear Energy Board also sampled the radioiodine activity of rainfall and settled dust during the period of 1-5 May at different locations around Ireland.

20161208_152556 Source: National Archives 2016_22_1441

They add: “These results confirm that the level of fallout which occurred in Ireland from the Chernobyl reactor accident were significantly lower than those observed elsewhere in Europe.”

In a separate letter dated 14 May 1986, the Nuclear Energy Board detail how they’ve found low levels of contamination in foods such as cabbage, cauliflower, leek, rhubarb and onion. “No special measures are therefore necessary in the preparation of these vegetables for consumption,” they said.

As a reassurance to the public and as a safety precaution, testing of vegetables will continue and the board will keep the public informed in this connection.

These papers can be accessed via the National Archives 2016_22_1441

Read: Frozen in time: Looking inside the abandoned towns inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone

Read: The true story behind the Chernobyl ‘suicide squad’ that saved Europe

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Sean Murray

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