229. Telegram From the Department of State to Secretary of State Shultz in Manila1

Tosec 80699/148244. For the Secretary From Amb Richard Kennedy. Subject: Blix Readout on Chernobyl Incident.

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1. At 3:00 pm 5/9/86, I received a call from IAEA Director General Hans Blix, who had just returned to Vienna, to give me a readout on his discussions and observations in Moscow, including a flight over the Chernobyl reactor.2 Morris Rosen, a U.S.-national safety expert at the IAEA, who accompanied Blix to the Soviet Union, also participated in the call.

2. Blix noted that he and Rosen, accompanied by A.M. Petrosyants, Chairman of the State Committee on Atomic Energy, actually flew over the reactor site (400 meters in elevation to within 800 meters of the plant itself). Radiation detection equipment on board registered very low radiation levels—nothing in the dangerous range. According to Rosen, the plant is essentially sealed from the top. The Soviets are putting concrete underneath reactor 4 which in essence will create a floor under the reactor. The entire building will be entombed in concrete. They also are pumping gaseous nitrogen in pipes under the reactor for cooling purposes and to assist in the inerting process. The Soviets have infra-red measurements and they say the temperature in reactor 4 is going down, although it is still hot.

Rosen reported the Soviets said that the safety systems at reactor 3 are intact and functioning, and that cooling water is available. The Soviets claim the original accident did not damage reactor 3 operationally. Blix and Rosen reported they saw no activity associated with reactor 3 when they flew over the reactor site.

The Soviets claimed that all units at the reactor site are manned. Whereas normally there would be 150 people on site, now there are 30, enough for shutdown conditions. The Soviets say it is possible for people to be on the site despite radiation levels because there is a “safe room” inside the control room in which properly suited up personnel can function.

Rosen and Blix said the Soviets admit they are dealing with the unknown. Rosen reported one of the Soviets as saying “this is something we have never dealt with or seen before. We don’t really know everything that is going on.” The Soviets cannot describe the present state of the core of the reactor. Rosen said they are taking “heroic measures” at the site.

Blix reported that the Soviets have agreed to give daily radiation readings to the IAEA, and in fact the IAEA has already received the [Page 953] first readings (the readings are apparently taken at 1:00 am each morning Soviet time). There is a monitoring checkpoint 1.68 kilometers from the plant and five points on the Soviet’s western border.

Blix said that in addition to regular readouts of data, the Soviets also agreed to a proposal on a program for early warning systems, to a post-accident analysis, and that there should be developed and proposed increased technical means for safety systems in these reactors. Rosen said his impression is that the “Soviets will agree to almost anything.” Rosen emphasized his impression that the accident was and continues to be an intensely humbling experience for the Soviets.

[Omitted here is material transmitted in error which includes parts of the paragraphs above and below.]

I asked Blix within what time frame he thought the post-accident analysis might take place. He said soon, and that the Soviets have in mind the TMI experience “which they are going to beat.”3 I asked Blix if that suggested the Soviets will be prepared for a post-accident analysis by the June IAEA Board of Governors meeting. He replied he did not know about that, but it should be not long after.

Blix and Rosen reported that life in Kiev seemed reasonably normal for the majority of the population. People are in the streets going about their business. Although some sort of an alert or advisory had been given for people to stay indoors, there seemed to be a lot of vehicles and pedestrians in the streets.

Rosen also said it seems clear that the Soviets are assessing this accident as human error, although they are not going to state this publicly at this time. When they are ready, the Soviets will describe the accident. They are quite confident they know what caused the accident, but want to be absolutely sure before they say it publicly. They do not want to allege failure on anyone’s part until they are absolutely convinced. FYI: Rosen at this point said he had just heard that the Germans were calling for an emergency meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors. We subsequently learned that Kohl had proposed this. End FYI.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D860362–0646. Secret; Immediate. Sent for information to Moscow and UN Mission in Vienna. Drafted by Bisdee; cleared by Negroponte, Pascoe, Harty, and Collins; approved by Kennedy.
  2. Hans Blix, Director General of the IAEA, went to the Soviet Union from May 5 to 9 at the invitation of the Soviet Government to discuss the accident at Chernobyl. Telegram 7868 from Moscow, May 9, reported on Blix’s May 9 press conference at the close of his visit. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D860361–0576) For a summary of post-accident IAEA reviews and reports, see Yearbook of the United Nations, 1986, pp. 584–586.
  3. Reference is to the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear generating station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in March 1979.