Prime cause of Chernobyl disaster – deep paternalism of the Soviet society and the principle “loyalty – guarantee of survival” – Head of the National Institute of Memory


Kyiv, April 28, 2016. The main cause of the Chernobyl disaster and the enormous loss of life – negligence and incompetence at all levels of government. This is testified by the former KGB declassified documents. The report dated May 7 states that “the explosion occurred as a result of a number of grave violations of work, technology and non-security regime at the 4th block of NPP”. “The Chernobyl disaster could not but happen in a country like the USSR, as it was the embodiment of a fundamental error underlying not the station but the whole country,” stated Volodymyr Viatrovych, Head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, at a public lecture at Crisis Media Center. These fundamental errors were deep paternalism and the principle “loyalty – guarantee of survival.” “KGB secret messages were full of warnings about problems in the construction and operation of the station from the beginning. As usual in Soviet times, those who supervised the construction of the station, wanted to curry favor with those who ran the country and to surprise them with their promptness. […] Negligence and incompetence that led to the disaster dominated thereafter too. The leaders did not understand “what it means” and were not able to evaluate the real threat,” explained Mr. Viatrovych.

According to the documents, the then Minister of Energy of the USSR Neporozhniy made special effort to complete the construction of a new nuclear power plant ahead of schedule and demanded that, ignoring the experts’ warnings. As a result, the reactor was started in December 1977, but numerous errors were committed because of the rush. Already in 1976 there were reports of technical imperfections of equipment – pipes, tanks, etc. On January 17, 1979 it was reported that “at some sectors of the 2nd reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant construction, deviations from the project and technological violations of construction and assembly works were recorded. A month later, on February 19, there was an emergency stop of the NPP first nuclear reactor. On April 20, 1981 there was a significant radioactive leak at the station. “Chernobyl Radiation Safety Service – as the KGB informed the party – defined a ​​180 m² zone with a radiation level reaching 20 micro-roentgens per second at a rate of 0.8 micro-roentgens,” said Mr. Viatrovych. That same year, the KGB reported that ‘’over the operating period in 1977-1981 there were 29 stops at the nuclear power plant, eight of which – due to the attendants’ fault.”

On September 9, 1982 there was an accident on the first nuclear reactor. At first it was assumed that five days would be enough to eliminate the consequences, but in the end it took six weeks. “In the vicinity of the village of Chystohalovka located to the south-west at a distance of 5 kilometers from the plant, the so-called” hot “particle size 10 ÷ 20 microns are recorded on the ground. Their activity ranges from 10-7 ÷ 10-9 Curie exceeding permissible levels hundreds of times,” quoted Mr. Viatrovych. The same report indicated that the substances were deadly, but local residents were not informed about the accident. Instead, senior management got a report that “In the operational plan the situation at the nuclear power plant and in the neighborhood is normal. Facts of spreading rumors of panic are not recorded.”

On March 17, 1984 it was reported that there were cracks in the ceilings of the third and fourth blocks. “The first of the blocks had been working for a little more than two years by that time, the second – only entered into operation. But there was no time to finish it –  later the KGB wrote about the rush of running the reactor for the next Party Congress,” said Mr. Viatrovych. According to the memoirs of the KGB officer Yuri Petrov, over 1983-1985 there were five accidents and 63 primary equipment failures at Chernobyl NPP. In every case, the information was immediately passed to senior management, but “they did not always react properly.” “Moreover, when the Pripyat KGB department had provided information to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, which gave evidence of the leakage of radiation substances from Chernobyl, it was qualified as disinformation, and a number of KGB officers received a penalty,” noted Mr. Viatrovych.

In October 1984 a special analysis of all four units was conducted. The report stated that there were problems with the 1st and 2nd block, and the 3rd and 4th are “constructively performed more reliably.” The report also contained a comment that “the blocks do not guarantee safe and reliable operation, as they have not been tested in extreme conditions.” The final accident on April 26, 1986 was the result of testing turbogenerators number 7 and 8 on the fourth, supposedly secure, reactor.

The tragedy was that senior management was not aware of the scale of the disaster, and the above-mentioned paternalism and loyalty prevented from saying it directly. The first report at night on April 26 looked like a normal message about an accident at industrial sites, where among other things they indicated that the level of radiation “at the station territory was 20-25 micro-roentgen per second, in Pripyat 4-14 micro-roentgen per second.” The report at 3pm on April 26 tells about the level of radiation of gamma particles close to the fire up to 1,000 micro-roentgen per second, within the NPP – up to 100, in parts of Pripyat – 2-4 micro-roentgen per second” and from April 28 – 1,000-2,600 micro-roentgen per second on the third and fourth reactors and 30-160 in the city.” As it turned out, nobody could understand the real significance of these figures. “Volodymyr Shcherbytskyi left a single resolution on the document with information on the city radiation on the third day after the accident:” What does all this mean?” said Mr. Viatrovych. As a result, at the beginning, instead of evacuating the population, a special commission was trying to avoid “spreading false rumors and panic.” The first report in the media was only at 9 pm on April 28, but it did not have any information about danger. On May 1 morning, when the background radiation in Kyiv reached its peak, no one knew about it.  Intelligence agencies reported the leadership that “preparations for the celebration of May 1 are underway in extremely healthy political environment.” Evacuation of residents started only 36 hours later. Evacuation from the 10 km zone finished only on May 3, evacuation from the 30-kilometer zone was planned only for May 4-5. On May 20 the authorities had not even considered “the possibility of returning people to their former places of residence in a number of settlements in the 30km zone.”

The truth about the accident had been concealed for the whole year. “Security label was attached to the data on the true causes of the accident, the extent of damage and radiation situation in the 30 km zone, the measurements of radiation in the area and Ukraine as a whole, the decontamination and disposal of radioactive elements, general information on radiation sickness. The list of inaccessible information totaled to 28 positions,” said Mr. Viatrovych. “KGB information often contains reports on “conducting preventive-explanatory conversations with people who spread false rumors.” 381 preventive conversation of this kind were conducted over a few months in 1986.”

Information blockade was also kept internationally. Alarm began on April 28, but the Soviet authorities resorted to direct disinformation of the international community and foreign journalists who came to the USSR.  Interests of large Western businesses owners, beware of mass movement against the construction of new nuclear power plants, also contributed to concealing the truth. “The film crew is interested in covering the liquidation of the accident in a favorable light according to the desire of the owners of Western nuclear power plants to prove the safety of their further use,” said the KGB report about a group of journalists of American broadcasting company “CBS” who were in the 30 in km area at the time of the accident. European communist newspapers were also used to conceal the truth.

However, society could not fail to see the real scale of the accident. Blatant lies on the part of authorities led to strengthening of protest movement. On the first anniversary of the accident in 1987 KGB reported on their active efforts to stop the demonstrations, but in 1988 special measures could not help.

According to Mr. Viatrovych, it was the Chernobyl disaster that marked the beginning of the end of communism, because it ruined its basic principle “loyalty – guarantee of security.” Enormous discrediting role was played by the fact that the country which declared willingness to nuclear confrontation, failed to respond to an accident in peacetime. “Incompetence in eliminating the accident, evacuating people, providing help began to destroy the habitual for Soviet people paternalism – hope for the state collapsed, only those who took their destiny in their own hands were able to rescue. Anti-Soviet movement that had been elite and even marginal by that time gradually became widespread, gaining support of inert majority that had lost faith in the government strength and help,” concluded Mr. Viatrovych.

They also concealed the truth from the military that had been sent to the zone. “The KGB documents contain interesting facts: during the mobilization some workers of military registration and enlistment offices, including Latvian, Lithuanian SSR, and Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk regions resorted to outright deception of designated personnel who were informed of being sent not to Chernobyl but to virgin lands, promised to pay five times as much, to give help in getting free treatment upon return, to provide other benefits to families,” said Volodymyr Viatrovych.