225. Telegram From the Department of State to Secretary of State Shultz in Tokyo1

Tosec 80421/140146. Subject: Soviet Nuclear Accident.

To: The Secretary

From: S/PRichard H. Solomon

Subject: Information Memorandum: Soviet Nuclear Accident: A Strategy for U.S. Response—S/S 86140222

1. Summary: The nuclear accident at Chernobyl has left the Soviet Union in a weakened position—at home and abroad. We can benefit from these Soviet difficulties, but we must proceed with some caution, lest we open ourselves to charges of self-righteousness when current European anger at the Soviets cools. The memorandum that follows outlines the strategy to guide our reaction to the Chernobyl disaster in a way which maximizes Western interest. End summary

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2. Soviet and U.S. Vulnerabilities

3. Thus far we have responded to the Chernobyl accident with the right mixture of concern, sympathy and generosity.3 We have offered our assistance to the victims and shown reserve in pointing the finger of blame at Soviet behavior, leaving the Europeans most directly affected to carry the main burden of complaining about Soviet failure to provide adequate information.

4. Analyses by INR and other sources indicate that the physical impact of the Soviet nuclear accident is considerably less than that originally assumed in the West. At the same time, it is considerably more than the Soviets would lead the world to believe. This would seem to leave the Soviets and us vulnerable in the following areas:

A) Gorbachev’s leadership style and credibility domestically, in the Warsaw Pact, and in the West is further undermined.

B) The combined impact on Soviet agriculture, energy production and exports is likely to slow the Soviet economy, but to a degree difficult to estimate at this time.

C) Soviet mastery of and reliance on nuclear technology will be under intense scrutiny throughout the world.

D) From the U.S. perspective, we are vulnerable to being accused of exaggerating and exploiting the Soviet disaster for our own purposes. Our democratic society may actually cause us to take even more severe steps to limit nuclear technology than the Soviets take. Public opinion may also put even heavier pressure on us to make concessions on limiting nuclear arms than it does on the Soviets.

E) The environmentalists and Greens in England and West Germany and perhaps other parts of Western Europe will be greatly strengthened. This could be bad news for conservatives like Helmut Kohl (facing elections next January) and Margaret Thatcher.

5. What Should We Do?

A) Rebuild confidence in the West’s peaceful uses of atomic energy and emphasize Soviet shortcomings and the differences between our nuclear programs.

—We should prepare a series of concrete proposals for strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency to institutionalize safety standards for nuclear plants and to strengthen provisions for disclosure of information on nuclear accidents. We should call on the Soviets and others to enter international arrangements calling for the obligatory [Page 942] reporting of nuclear incidents. Our goal should be a much strengthened agreement on these and related issues to which all nations would be asked to subscribe. While the Soviets may be reluctant to join such an international arrangement they would suffer costs in failure to subscribe to international standards including a probable substantial decline in their export market for nuclear-related technology.

B) Be forthcoming in offering our assistance to the Soviets and East Europeans in treating both the short-term and the long-term effects of the disaster.

—This includes offers of medical assistance, and help in assessing the safety of their nuclear plants as well as food sales where appropriate.

C) In arms control talks, we should press harder now on the issue of verifiability.

—The accident is also likely to fuel European and American public support for controlling and reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons, as well as banning or limiting nuclear tests. This mood will present an opportune time for U.S. NST negotiators to demonstrate our willingness to move forward and to press the Soviets to adopt more realistic positions.

D) In the area of regional conflicts, we may be able to make some headway by looking for means to increase the costs to the Soviets of supporting their clients in a time of economic vulnerability.

E) On the propaganda front we need to proceed with great care.

—The concerns of Eastern and Western Europeans are already high. The impact of the accident on their relations with the USSR may be greater by letting them reach their own conclusions without making this an East-West issue and a loyalty test to the Soviet Union. We need to take positive measures such as the IAEA and aid initiatives mentioned above. We need to demonstrate by contrast how we and the Soviets deal with nuclear accidents, particularly with respect to timely disclosure. Then let the record speak for itself.

—We must be careful not to “rub the Soviets’ noses in the dirt” and instead continue to encourage the small but significant changes in their behavior, such as permitting an Embassy officer to testify at a congressional office.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D860343–0808. Secret; Immediate; Stadis; Exdis. Drafted by Khalilzad; cleared by McKinley, Talcott, and Bleakley; approved by Solomon.
  2. The information memorandum was drafted by Khalilzad, cleared by Parris and Negroponte, and approved by Solomon.
  3. On May 1, the White House issued a second statement on the Chernobyl accident. For the full text of the statement, see Public Papers: Reagan, 1986, Book I, pp. 539–540. See also Document 221.