The Soviet Union is working to seal the stricken Chernobyl nuclear plant in concrete in order to prevent the further release of radioactivity. Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount that Soviet officials were slow to realize the full consequences of the Chernobyl accident and to take precautions to minimize civilian exposure to radioactivity.
It now appears that the Soviets conducted a second evacuation of tens of thousands of people from villages near the stricken reactor -- but only more than a week after the explosion that began spreading radioactive contamination into the atmosphere.
[Yesterday the scientist heading the clean-up operation at Chernobyl said all danger from the damaged reactor had ended, the Associated Press reports.
[Yevgeny Velikhov, vice-president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, said, ``Theoretically, until today, there existed the possibility of a catastrophe because a large amount of fuel and reactor graphite remained in an overheated condition. Now that possibility is no more.'']
Valentin Falin, head of the Soviet Novosti press agency, now says the death toll from the accident has risen to four.
Tass, the official Soviet news agency, said on Saturday that there had been a ``practical termination of the reactor's graphite burning process,'' apparently a confirmation that the fire in the reactor's core was out.
Officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who visited here last week and viewed the reactor from a helicopter, agreed that the situation at Chernobyl appeared to be under control.
Afterward, at a press conference, they disclosed the Soviet plan to entomb the reactor in concrete.
Under widespread criticism for its handling of the disaster, the Soviet Union agreed to share with the IAEA radiation readings from monitoring devices 38 miles from the site and along the USSR's western border with Europe. The first readings were made public last Friday, nearly two weeks after the initial explosion. Soviet officials said they did not pose any danger to health.
Late last week, selected foreign journalists were finally allowed to travel to Kiev, the large city 70 miles from the reactor site. They reported long lines at railway terminals as people sought to leave the city, but no signs of panic. Ukrainian officials assured them there was no danger in the area around Kiev.
Nevertheless, schools in Kiev closed for the summer 10 days early, allowing a quarter of a million school children between the ages of six and 13 to leave the city. Health officials warned residents to keep children indoors and to take frequent baths. Still, Soviet officials say there is no reason for concern.
``Soviet goods and means of transportation do not pose radiation hazards either to the population of our country, or to citizens of other countries,'' Tass announced Thursday. That was an effort to discourage Western European plans to ban food imports from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
But the move apparently failed and most members of the European Community agreed to ban food imports at least until the end of May.
Meanwhile, the Soviets reportedly approached EC officials to increase their own imports from Western Europe in order to make up for shortfalls caused by contamination from radioactive fallout from Chernobyl.
Soviet officials continue to blame the West for exagerating the importance of the accident. Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, charged that in the West a ``veil of secrecy'' has been drawn over nuclear power plants. And, it said, Soviet plants were far safer than those in the United States and Britain.
Still, there is mounting evidence that the Soviets did not realize the extent of the disaster at first.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Alexander Lyashko told foreign journalists in Kiev that the evacuation of villages surrounding the reactor was only completed on May 4, nine days after the accident. ``The measurements at first showed there was nothing to fear,'' he said.
The evacuation was only ordered, according to a Western diplomat, after Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and the No. 2 man in the ruling Politburo, Yegor Ligachev, visited the area on May 2. According to official figures given to Western reporters, 84,000 people have been evacuated from the area surrounding the nuclear plant.
The figure has still not been mentioned in official statements reprinted in the domestic press. Nor has the admission by Valentin Falin, head of the Novosti press agency, that four people have died as a result of the accident. Mr. Falin made the statement in an interview with the West German newsmagazine Der Spiegel.
He also disclosed, for the first time, that the ruling Communist Party Politburo held a special meeting on Monday, April 28, two days after the accident. That, he said, was the first time Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had received detailed information about the disaster, though he had been informed about the accident the day it happened.
Falin admitted that, with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been better had the Kremlin released information about the disaster earlier.