Ten years after a reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the repercussions are still being felt.
The disaster was an early test of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's new policy of glasnost, or openness. At first, it failed. Years of covering up disasters had conditioned Soviet officials to deny and obfuscate. This led them to actions that needlessly endangered millions of people.
When the Swedish science attach in Moscow first called the Soviet atomic-energy agency after Swedish monitoring stations began recording alarming levels of radiation, his Soviet counterpart issued a flat denial that any accident had occurred. Tens of thousands of people living within a few miles of the inferno were not informed or evacuated until almost a day later, needlessly exposing them to radiation. Kiev's May Day parade went on as though nothing had happened, even though plans were already under way to evacuate thousands of women and children.
When Mr. Gorbachev finally went on Soviet TV to report on the accident, he said around 30 people had been killed. But circumstantial evidence exists that up to 10 times that many died in the days and weeks following the accident. The casualty figures since have mounted into the thousands.
The disaster is a humbling lesson from a careless approach to modern technology. Soviet officials at the time said plant officials conducted an unauthorized experiment in which they shut down all the safety systems but left the reactor running. The unstable graphite-cooled RMBK reactor suddenly surged in power, the graphite caught fire, and the reactor exploded. (Another version has it that safety systems were turned off to install additional safety devices.)
The Soviets didn't engineer the plant to prevent the shutdown of all safety systems while the reactor was running because they didn't think anyone would be foolish enough to do it. They built no containment over their reactors because they believed there would never be an accident to contain.
As the Soviet Union began to open up, and then collapsed, much more became known about the accident's effects on the environment and the people living in the area: Doctors say medical problems in the area have skyrocketed. Thousands of acres in Ukraine and Belarus are worthless for agricultural use, and will remain so for thousands of years.
Several RMBK reactors still operate at Chernobyl, in Russia and other former Soviet republics, and in Eastern Europe. Western leaders last weekend agreed to take action to help Ukraine shut Chernobyl down by 2000. The West must also redouble its assistance in closing other Soviet-era reactors or bringing them up to international safety standards.
Such aid has been promised for years now. It's time the US and other Western countries got off the stick and made it happen. The world cannot afford another Chernobyl.