224. Telegram From the Department of State to Secretary of State Shultz in Bali1

Tosec 80174/134125. Subject: Information Memo: Soviet Nuclear Accident as of 1800 GMT 29 Apr 86 S/S 8613570.

To: The Secretary

From: INRMorton I. Abramowitz

Subject: Information Memo: Soviet Nuclear Accident as of 1800 GMT 29 Apr 86.

1. Damage Assessment:

An accident occurred at reactor #4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power station probably last Friday or at the latest early Saturday morning.2 The Chernobyl nuclear power station consists of four operating reactors conjoined with generator halls in a single building. Reactor #4 is a 1000 MW RBMK type reactor. It is graphite-moderated, light-water cooled, and low enriched uranium fueled (the fuel is not contained in a steel [Page 939] vessel as is used in US reactors); it went into operation in 1983 and has a number of safety systems including a “containment building.”

Preliminary analysis of imagery of April 29 shows that:

—Reactor building #4 and the adjacent generator halls have sustained extensive damage, probably the result of an explosion. There is a large hole in the roof of the reactor building; severely distorted roof support members; debris along the north side of the reactor building; numerous missing roof panels on the adjacent generator hall and smoke/vapor emitting from the reactor building all of which attest to the severity of the accident. Additionally, all cooling-water pumping activity has ceased and some reactor cooling water may have been diverted to adjacent overflow basins. Reactors 1, 2 and 3 all do not appear to be operating.

—In related activity, command and control and damage assessment operations are in progress. Numerous pieces of emergency equipment are in the area, including fire trucks, armored vehicles and mobile satellite communications vehicles. A Halo heavy-lift helicopter is in flight over the destroyed reactor building.

[1 paragraph (5 lines) not declassified]

2. Cause of the Accident:

[7½ lines not declassified] The fire will continue to spread radioactive fallout as long as it burns. Firefighting efforts will be extremely difficult because the radiation level in the reactor hall is well above lethal levels. A further concern is the possibility that water used to extinguish the fire could cause another nuclear reaction.

A DOE analyst commented that only the British have the experience to cope with this problem. The accident can only be brought under control by smothering the fire—such as covering with sand or earth—and taking measures to “poison” the nuclear reaction by using material containing boron. This entire process still presents a tremendous problem in terms of actually getting equipment and personnel close enough to the reactor.

Soviet State radio has characterized the accident as a “disaster.” TASS admitted today that two people had died in the accident. However, there is an unconfirmed press report (CNN cable news) that 2,000 people were killed.

3. Evacuation of Population:

The reactors are located in the town of Pripyat, which was built near Chernobyl in the 1970s specifically to house the reactor complex. Although April 29 press reports claim the Pripyat population is between 25,000 and 30,000, [2 lines not declassified].

[3½ lines not declassified] Press reports have said that buses have been commandeered from Kiev for the evacuation at the site. [1½ lines [Page 940] not declassified] there are logistical problems, as Kiev is 133 km south of the accident. [1½ lines not declassified]

5. Outlook:

[1 paragraph (7½ lines) not declassified]

AFTAC will fly an air sampling mission against the contaminated air mass off the Norway coast today. Results are expected in two days. In addition, stationary samplers on the periphery of the USSR will be looking for increased concentrations of radioactive gases such as tritium and xenon. Huge concentrations of radioactive xenon are expected to be detected in Stockholm and eventually in Japan. Finnish atomic energy experts have said that the radioactivity in their region was diminishing because of wind shifts. The winds are fairly light at present, increasing the hazard to the local population.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D860330–0613. Secret; Immediate; Noforn; Wnintel. Drafted by Siegel (INR/SFA); approved by Lowenthal (INR/SFA).
  2. On April 30, White House Press Secretary Speakes issued an official statement on the Chernobyl accident from the Bali Sol Hotel in Bali, Indonesia, announcing that Reagan had “ordered the establishment of an interagency task force” to “coordinate the government’s response to the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl.” The statement provided information on the accident and on U.S. diplomatic contacts with the Soviets to offer “humanitarian and technical assistance.” For the full text of the statement, see Public Papers: Reagan, 1986, Book I, pp. 536–537. Reagan, who was in Bali, wrote in his personal diary: “This was to be a day off like in Hawaii. It was interrupted by a briefing on the nuclear plant emergency in Chernobyl Russia. As usual the Russians wont put out any facts but it is evident that a radioactive cloud is spreading beyond the Soviet border.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, vol. II: November 1985–January 1989, p. 594)