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35 Years of Chernobyl: How the Communist State Power Covered Up a Nuclear Catastrophe

Zsófia Nagy-Vargha 2021.04.26.

Exactly 35 years ago today, the reactor block of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union exploded. The radioactive particles were spread all over Europe by the wind. The Hungarian – at that time still communist – state media withheld the news regarding the accident for days in order for the public not to learn of the danger in time.

Since the day after the disaster was a Sunday, newspapers in Hungary were not published, while neither television nor radio reports aired the explosion. On Monday, April 28, the dailies published with the headlines “Spring work advances quickly,” “Communist work shifts nationwide,” “Washington threatens Libya with covert action,” and “Arab League summit postponed to May 1.”

The event was briefly reported on in the evening, at 9 p.m on Kossuth Radio based on a BBC report.

A day later, on April 29, newspapers described the disaster in small articles, on April 30 it was reported that as a result of the disaster two people died, but by Tuesday the concentration of the radiation had already decreased. Only after the passing of another weekend, on May 4, the news finally made it to the front page, but the content was still focused towards lifting the emergency situation. It took 10 days to disseminate the news of one of the largest nuclear power plant accidents in history, even though Scandinavia measured the radiation immediately.

Hungarian Radio Studio, 1986. Photo via Fortepan/Zoltán Szalay

Regarding the background of the accident, according to Attila Aszódi, professor at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, people had to wait until August 1986 for the real breakthrough: only then did the Soviets report the details of the accident to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Aszódi also believes that the Hungarian media’s coverage at the time focused more on reassuring the general public than on publicizing the incident. “There is no radiation, and it is decreasing day by day” – it was said. When the contamination reached Hungarian airspace, the public could not effectively assess the danger, since there was no explanation of its cause. The political leadership at that time failed to inform the Hungarian people properly and in time.

The Environmental Dilemmas of the Paks 2 Project
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At the same time, an area of 150,000 square kilometers – made up by Belarus, Russia and Ukraine – was heavily polluted in an instant, which made life in this habitat of a total of 8 million people impossible. 350,000 people had to leave their homes, and to this day they have been unable to return. 34 years after the events, five million people in these three countries still live in contaminated areas, and the incidence of thyroid cancer and other diseases, including many mental illnesses, is much higher than anywhere else in the world, Greenpeace said on its website.

Consequences for Hungary

Many Hungarians, mainly in the western part of the country, heard reports about the accident from Austrian radio and became more cautious in protecting themselves from possible radioactive contamination. Because of the ban on entry introduced in other European countries, Hungarian freighters were transporting goods from the Soviet Union, and many of them passed through Kiev. Most of their crews reportedly received significant doses of radiation along the way, many dying within a few years. However, there was never a clear connection with Chernobyl.

In Hungary, the additional radiation dose received in 1986 was 0.2 mSv (for comparison, the background dose averaged 3 mSv / year). In the days following the accident, an activity of about 50 kBq was measured in the thyroid gland of cows in the most contaminated areas of Hungary.

It is also an interesting fact that the Austrian authorities banned the export of Hungarian products (mainly food) at the border, as they were considered contaminated (due to their proximity to the Soviet Union).

For years, controversy surrounded the long-term consequences on health worldwide. The WHO estimates a total of about 4000 deaths worldwide, mainly from cancer. Deaths directly attributed to the disaster, mostly due to acute radiation sickness, numbered less than 50, according to their report.

The most significant effect observed was the increased number of people with thyroid cancer, a form of cancer with a good prognosis. This effect could have been prevented medically by a so-called iodine blockade, if the government of the time had acted on it.

In a public statement in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, then general secretary of the Communist Party CPSU, called Western coverage of the disaster “rampant anti-Soviet agitation.”

Featured photo illustration via Pixabay