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A Valuable Lesson in Soviet Secrecy : Stonewalling on Nuclear Accident Adds to Doubts About Verification of Arms Pacts

May 05, 1986|ERNEST CONINE | Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, commenting on the Soviet failure to provide its neighbors with full and timely information on the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, said that the attempted cover-up demonstrates the importance of strict verification clauses in arms control agreements with Moscow.

The connection may not be immediately apparent to everyone, but the lady is right.

One result of Soviet behavior during the past week is likely to be greater European skepticism toward Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's recent initiatives on subjects ranging from nuclear test bans to the outlawing of chemical and biological arms.

Dissident Andrei D. Sakharov, a physicist who was once a leading figure in the Soviet nuclear weapons complex, has tried to make the point that the closed nature of Soviet society is not just an affront to democratic values, but a major barrier to genuine progress in arms control as well.

To the degree that Soviet secrecy prevents outsiders from getting reliable information on the direction and pace of Soviet weapons programs, the United States and other Western nations are inclined to accept worst-case analyses and to design their own programs accordingly. This helps to fuel the ongoing competition in both nuclear and conventional arms.

The Russian compulsion toward secrecy did not begin with the Communists; it goes back hundreds of years. In modern times it takes the form of tight restraints on news available to the outside world and to the Soviet people themselves.

Airline accidents are not usually reported unless foreigners are killed. An earthquake in Mexico gets far more coverage than an earthquake in the Soviet Union. A nuclear catastrophe that occurred in 1957 has still not been officially acknowledged.

Gorbachev has talked a good game about the need for a freer flow of information. But when disaster struck the reactor at Chernobyl, he failed the test.

Western experts believe they now know that the problem with the reactor began on a Friday and became steadily more serious over the weekend. But there was no mention in the Soviet media, and no word to neighboring countries, until Sweden raised questions Monday about extraordinarily high radioactivity.

The Soviet behavior goes far beyond the cover-up syndrome that is common among bureaucrats everywhere--and was much in evidence in the wake of our own Three Mile Island incident. The highest levels of the Kremlin were obviously involved in the attempted news blackout on Chernobyl.

Even when the Soviets grudgingly confirmed that something was amiss, the first Tass story ran only one paragraph, followed by a lengthy account of nuclear accidents in America. A week after the dangerous release of radioactivity began, the Soviet government still had not explained the extent and nature of the disaster to the world or to its own people.

What we know has been pieced together from amateur radio transmissions, telephone conversations and, most important, surveillance by spy satellites and the monitoring of radioactivity by neighboring countries.

The picture that emerges is of an explosion, a reactor core meltdown, a hard-to-extinguish fire in the graphite moderator--and a release of radioactivity.

Late last week Soviet diplomats began to strike poses of injured innocence. While admitting two dead and a couple of hundred injured--at a time when some Western experts were predicting casualties numbering in the thousands--they suggested that a conspiracy was under way to exaggerate the seriousness of the accident.

For reasons of their own some Westerners downplayed the seriousness of the accident. For example, the Atomic Industrial Forum--a U.S. nuclear industry group that tries to discourage speculation that nuclear power is inherently dangerous--allowed as how the Chernobyl incident might not be as bad as advertised.

It could be true. But if the Soviet authorities wanted to calm jittery neighbors and disprove "exaggerated" reports, they had only to invite outside experts in or, at the minimum, to release precise information on what had happened. A full week after radioactivity began spewing into the air over the Ukraine, they hadn't done it.

The strongest reaction hasn't come from Cold Warriors in Washington, but from concerned European governments.

Communist Poland didn't start giving iodine to kids and ban sales of certain dairy products because of something they heard on the Voice of America, but because their own monitoring stations reported radioactivity levels up to 500 times normal. The Scandinavian countries slapped restraints on food imports from the Soviet Union. The West Germans demanded that all reactors of the Chernobyl type be shut down.European governments collectively demanded scientific information that would enable them to safeguard the health of their populations.

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