230. Memorandum From the Executive Secretary of the Department of State (Platt) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Poindexter)1


  • Gorbachev Speech on Chernobyl

In his first public remarks on Chernobyl Gorbachev blasted U.S. and Western leaders for exploiting the accident to divert attention from Soviet arms control initiatives.2 He thanked American doctors for their assistance (the U.S. was the only nation explicitly singled out for thanks) but said that leading circles in the U.S. and its allies, especially the FRG, were using Chernobyl to put barriers in the way of dialogue and peaceful coexistence. Gorbachev reaffirmed the Soviet nuclear testing moratorium. He talked again about meeting the President in a European capital but did not mention a U.S. summit in 1986. In a particularly gratuitous comment, Gorbachev also said that he would be willing to meet the President at Hiroshima. Implicitly seeking to defend the Soviet record on providing information, Gorbachev (falsely) stated that the U.S. had taken 10 days to inform Congress and over a month to inform the IAEA about the accident at Three Mile Island.

In a more positive vein, Gorbachev proposed a number of steps to increase nuclear reactor safety under the IAEA. Many of these proposals are quite similar to those included in the Tokyo summit communique.3 Specifically, Gorbachev proposed:

—International cooperation on reactor safety to develop systems for providing quick information on nuclear accidents;

—International mechanisms for multilateral and bilateral aid in case of such disasters;

—Upgrade the staff and resources of the IAEA;

—Work through specialized agencies such as the WHO.

Gorbachev added little new information on the accident itself. Claiming that the worst was over, he said that the fire in reactor four was out and the other three reactors at the site had been shut down. He reaffirmed that two people had died during the initial explosion [Page 955] and said that seven of 299 hospitalized with radiation sickness had subsequently died. Gorbachev said that the Politburo had taken the incident under its direct control as soon as it received complete information. For the first time he said that the special commission on the accident is headed by Premier Ryzhkov, a Gorbachev appointee.4 Gorbachev went out of his way to praise Ukrainian officials, perhaps to dampen speculation that he would use the accident to remove Ukrainian party boss Shcherbitskiy.

Gorbachev’s tone throughout the speech was bitter toward the West. He offered not a word of self-criticism or apology to the Western European nations exposed to radiation from the accident. His remarks on testing were a lame effort to divert Western attention from the Soviet performance during the accident.

Nicholas Platt5
Executive Secretary
  1. Source: Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, Chronological File, 1980–1986, Matlock Chron May 1986 (2/4). Confidential.
  2. See Current Digest of the Soviet Press, vol. XXXVIII, no. 20 (Jun 18, 1986), pp. 18–20. Excerpts of the May 14 address are printed in Documents on Disarmament, 1986, pp. 244–246.
  3. For the text of the communiqué, see Public Papers: Reagan, 1986, Book I, p. 558.
  4. In his memoir, Gorbachev described in detail the Soviet response to Chernobyl. He wrote: “The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station was graphic evidence, not only of how obsolete our technology was, but also of the failure of the old system. At the same time, and such is the irony of history, it severely affected our reforms by literally knocking the country off its tracks.” He continued: “Because of the extraordinary nature of the accident, we immediately set up a Politburo Operations Group, headed by Ryzhkov. Beginning on April 29, it operated around the clock. The minutes of its work and its reports have been published.” (Gorbachev, Memoirs, pp. 189–190)
  5. Kenneth Quinn signed for Platt.