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Chornobyl nuclear disaster was tragedy in the making, declassified KGB files show

Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster, 4th reactor
Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s 4th nuclear reactor following the 1986 disaster. One of the official photographs.
Chornobyl nuclear disaster was tragedy in the making, declassified KGB files show
Article by: Sofiia Sereda
Declassified KGB documents reveal that the Chornobyl catastrophe was no accident: it was a tragedy, years in the making.
A set of recently declassified documents concerning the 1986 disaster at Chornobyl have been put on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program, where the documents are now registered and filed, according to Andrii Kohut, Director of the Office of State Archives of the Department of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). Director Kohut explained to RFE/RL how the documents were selected and what exactly was in them.
Andrii Kohut

According to Andriy Kohut, the entire procedure was handled by the Office of State Archives. They initiated the move and contacted UNESCO after having gone through the documents, selecting the most important ones. These are the KGB documents that kept track of the daily operations and performance at the nuclear power plant, including any problems and malfunctions that may have occurred as well as the explosion itself and the liquidation of its consequences.

The collection of official papers includes documents from the Department of the Security Service of Ukraine, documents from the Central State Archive of Supreme Bodies of Power and Government of Ukraine, documents of the Central State Archive of Public Organizations of Ukraine, the Central State CinePhotoPhono Archives of Ukraine as well as documents from a number of state regional archives.

“The explosion took place on 26 April 1986, in the 4th unit of Chornobyl NPP, and affected numerous countries. The archives related to the accident, created in the Soviet Union and now declassified by Ukraine, are crucial for the understanding of its nature and its socio-political impact. The archive covers many aspects of the Chornobyl NPP such as its building and development, the accident’s initial handling and the aftermath. The collection is housed in the State Archives of Ukraine and is made available to the public,” reads the collection’s summary on the page of the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Registry.

The documents were selected on the basis of their content and how thorough the descriptions are. The first document, dated 1973, is a staff report listing the violations of the building codes during the construction of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant. What is extremely important, the documents reveal the carelessness and disregard for safety the communist regime displayed not only in green-lighting the substandard project but in the construction of the plant, too. It could be argued that the explosion had been preset because of the shoddy work and devil-may-care attitude.

A number of malfunctions and violations had been recorded before 1986

The design itself was problematic. It was one of the first nuclear power plants where the skeleton of the reactor was not molded entirely from concrete. As well, the concrete used was of inferior quality, not the required brand. The pouring of the concrete was not up to specs, either; there were cracks and gaps between the blocks. This is what led to the collapse of the covering. This information is in the reports which the KGB wrote primarily for the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

“The Chornobyl NPP disaster was, unfortunately, programmed long before 1986,” says Andrii Kohut.

Another batch of documents deals with the explosion itself. There is a wide range of documents reflecting the information the KGB had submitted to the leaders of the country, for example, that

high doses of radiation had been discovered on a vehicle near Kyiv and on the costumes of the children who had participated in the May Day parade (pictured below).

The fact that the KGB had informed the regime about the circumstances even before the first of May shows that the leadership was well aware of what had happened and about the danger it posed to the public. At the same time, the leadership decided to delay the decision to evacuate and proceeded not only with the May Day public demonstration, but with other public events, as well. Displaying the strength of the regime, showing that “communism is always with us” and ignoring the people had always been a priority for the party.

The third batch of documents has to do with the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster and how they were handled, as well as what measures the regime was willing to take to minimize the rumors that were spreading among the citizens; how the regime obstructed the dissemination of the truth about what had happened.

A top-secret KGB report reveals that Steven Strasser, a Newsweek reporter, talked only with KGB agents and KGB-controlled sources while visiting Kyiv on 2-3 June 1986. “As a result of the conducted measures, the foreigner didn’t get any biased information from the Soviet citizens. We succeeded to limit the contacts of Strasser, close them to our sources.” In total, the special operation involved 8 retired KGB operatives and 19 members of a KGB special unit, including 7 sources “who worked over the attacking tactic of the conversations with the correspondent.” Scan:

There is a hope that in filing with UNESCO the documents pertaining to the Chornobyl disaster, the truth about the it will be more widely disseminated, and the perception of what happened will change. To this day, the Chornobyl explosion is the largest man-made disaster in the world, and these documents expose what actually happened, why it happened, and who is responsible. They make clear that rather than it being a natural disaster, the flawed design, poor workmanship, and the communist system itself could be blamed for the disaster.

The collection of the 32 declassified documents on the Chornobyl NPP disaster can be accessed on the website of the E-Archive of the Ukrainian Liberation Movement. Unfortunately, only the Russian-language originals are available as of now.

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