Chernobyl and the search for truth

Published 25 October 2019 in:

Photo: Jan Hoogeveen/Flickr

The dramatic events surrounding the reactor breakdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant kept television viewers glued to their screens this summer.

Diplomat Mats Åberg experienced the events in real life. This is his story about working at the Embassy of Sweden in Moscow right in the middle of the unfolding Chernobyl disaster, when Sweden played a crucial role.

On Monday 28 April 1986, things were getting a bit hectic at the Embassy of Sweden in Moscow. The highlight of the day was the ice hockey world championship final that evening, and I had managed to get tickets.

But my boss, Ambassador Torsten Örn, was hosting a reception and concert at his residence, which was located right next to the Embassy offices. As third in command at a major Embassy, I was also expected to attend.

However, that morning another complication cropped up.

There was news from Sweden that high radiation values had been recorded at the nuclear power plant in Forsmark. A localised leak was suspected, and the source was being frantically sought. But because high values were soon also noted at Barsebäck, and because of wind strength and direction, and the fact that the isotopes could not have originated from nuclear weapons – from a submarine torpedo for example – it was concluded that the fallout must have come from a nuclear power plant somewhere in the southern Soviet Union.

To obtain information from the closed Soviet society, the Swedish Government had to use official channels. Since the formation of the Soviet Union, all foreign contacts were to go via official diplomatic channels. Direct contacts were eschewed. Fear of the uncontrolled exchange of information ran deep.

This meant that the Swedish Government, via the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, had to place a question with the Embassy of Sweden in Moscow, which forwarded it to the Soviet foreign ministry, which in turn contacted the relevant authorities.

But on 28 April 1986, this complicated and time-consuming process had to be bypassed.

The Embassy’s head of department for technology and science, Peo Sjöstedt, had worked up a broad and useful network in Moscow, thanks to his technical expertise and ability to speak excellent Russian. One of his friends back in Sweden was Olof Hörmander, who was head of the Swedish Nuclear Power Inspectorate.

Olof Hörmander was of course one of the first people to be informed about the frightening measurements around the Swedish nuclear power plants. By lunchtime, he had already picked up the phone to Peo Sjöstedt in the Soviet capital. He gave an account of that morning’s concerns in Sweden, and told him about what was suspected there and what questions needed to be answered.

The value of previous diplomatic footwork now became clear. In the circle of representatives of Soviet technical and scientific institutions, there were at least three people who must have been aware of what could have happened in the southern Soviet Union. They were based at the ministry responsible for atomic energy and in two state committees, one responsible for production of atomic energy and one for its supervision.

Peo Sjöstedt set about contacting them. The replies he received were vague, evasive and scant. It was clear that the Soviets were not willing to even say whether anything had happened.

But the ball had been set in motion.

At around 17.00 in Moscow (15.00 in Sweden), Sweden went public with its suspicions. The Soviet leadership was therefore well aware that the West in general, and Sweden in particular, were onto the truth. This had to be dealt with.

Peo Sjöstedt felt that there would soon be a crack in the wall of silence. Just before 19.00, he phoned Ambassador Torsten Örn, who was receiving the concert guests at the time, and urged him to keep an eye on the news.

I took on the task of monitoring the news, which I did by occasionally leaving the reception and crossing the courtyard to the office, where there was a television set. At 21.00, the daily news programme Vremya began as usual. Half an hour of relatively uninteresting news was read out.

But then…just before the weather forecast, which was normally broadcast after 21.30, the newsreader read out a final short message:

From the USSR Council of Ministers:

An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl atomic powered electricity power station, which has damaged one of the nuclear reactors. Measures are now being undertaken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. The necessary medical aid is being given to those affected. A government commission has been appointed.

At exactly the same time, the text was released via the TASS news agency.

The Russian word avariya is normally used for an accident, such as a car crash, but it can also mean a breakdown. Considering the unremarkable tone of the announcement, I am convinced that most people believed it to be a minor accident and not a breakdown, or even a meltdown. And – as would become clear – this was also the intention.

I had no idea where Chernobyl was located, so I hurried to look at the huge, detailed map of the Soviet Union that was hanging on the wall upstairs in the Embassy. Because of the things I had heard that afternoon, I looked in the area surrounding Kiev and found a place with that name just north of the Ukraine capital.

Peo Sjöstedt had also been watching Vremya. He of course knew that Sweden had gone public with its suspicions. But not that his name had been associated with the reports.

He was soon to find out. His home telephone started to ring. The global press wanted a comment from the person who had most actively pursued information in Moscow. As soon as one call ended, the telephone rang again. And so it continued for several hours.

Because the telephone was so outmoded, even by the standards of the time, it was not possible to disconnect it. Later that night, the telephone had to be packed in cushions to dampen the sound so the family could get some sleep.

The next day it turned out that the Embassy of Sweden in general, and Peo Sjöstedt in particular, were being seen as heroes in the eyes of the diplomatic corps and the international media.

However, this was far from the case on the official Soviet side, which wanted to put a lid on the information.

Sending firefighters to the scene without any protective equipment was not due to a cynical attitude in the knowledge that the required equipment was lacking, but because few people apart from the nuclear power plant bosses knew how serious and life-threatening the situation was. People knew that nuclear weapons were dangerous, but wholesome and peaceful Soviet nuclear power was said to be so risk-free that you could, according to the Communist Party, “place a nuclear power plant in Red Square”.

The line taken by the Communist Party leadership internally, and right through the hierarchy, was that the events were to be toned down “to avoid panic”.

No real information about the actual event or how to protect yourself was ever issued. General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, the Communist Party and the authorities kept silent. Apparently, they didn’t want to spoil the coming 1 May celebrations.

It was not until Sunday 4 May, nine days after the disaster, that General Secretary Gorbachev raised the issue. He said the situation was under control and that there was nothing to worry about. “It was a conflagration, a fire quite simply. Nothing special … people live and work there.”

And sure, it was a conflagration. But they said nothing about its scope, despite the fact that a realisation of the risks associated with the disaster were beginning to break through to the political leadership. Books about radiation and closely related subjects disappeared from library shelves.

It was said that the authorities wanted to avoid panic and preserve the population’s peace of mind. The situation was stable after all. However, the people directly affected had a different view.

In her book, ‘Chernobyl Prayer’, Svetlana Alexievich shows that the same state of confusion reigned at Soviet nuclear power institutions on Saturday 26 April as at Forsmark on the Monday two days later. Calls were made to the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania, and it was the same story there. Then calls were made to Chernobyl. But there was no answer.

It is true that the fact that a reactor at Chernobyl had broken down was communicated at 15.35 on the Saturday. This was on the afternoon of the same day that the breakdown had occurred, at 01.23 in the early hours of morning. But the information was only shared with a close circle of people on a strictly need-to-know basis.

Svetlana Alexievich reproduces a number of interviews with bosses in the atomic energy sphere, who had been banging their heads against a brick wall trying to get Communist Party functionaries to take adequate safety measures.

The director of the Institute of Nuclear Energy at the Academy of Sciences of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in Minsk, Vassili Nesterenko, was on a business trip in Moscow when he received information about the breakdown. He immediately telephoned Minsk, but the call was cut off as soon as he mentioned the breakdown.

It was only after several hours that he reached the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Byelorussia, Nikolay Slyunkov, who brushed aside Vassili Nesterenko’s warning. He had already received word about the matter. “They have had a fire there, but it has been put out.”

Vassili Nesterenko said that “it was a deceit, pure deceit”. His analysis was clear: “The reactor burned for 10 days, and for 10 days we should have been taking iodine.” But no one listened to the scientists and the medics. Science served politics and medicine had also been dragged into politics.

Many Soviet citizens had the same feeling of having had the wool pulled over their eyes. This was clear, for example, during a memorable dinner at the home of one of my closest colleagues, Mats Staffansson, who is now an ambassador specialising in eastern and central Europe.

Before joining the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Mats had worked for a large Swedish company in Kiev. A couple of weeks after the Chernobyl disaster, he invited two of his old friends from Kiev to his flat in Moscow. He generously invited me as well, and I was able to experience a classic Russian intellectual dinner. The four of us sat in the kitchen, and were up half the night talking.

The two Russian-Ukrainian guests were doctors and had realised at an early stage that the situation was precarious, even if the winds were fortunately not blowing from Chernobyl towards the major city of Kiev. They had tried to get the authorities to inform the general public and take the necessary protective and precautionary measures, but they were met with a wall of indifference and even hostility.

To a certain extent, this was probably due to ignorance or an inability to understand complicated technical and scientific facts. And this was also the case right at the top of the Communist Party. In his book ‘Memoirs’, Mikhail Gorbachev says that the Politburo were astonished on the first day after the accident to receive the following information from the President of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, Anatoly Alexandrov, and the Minister of Medium Machine Building, Yefim Slavskiy: “Don’t worry, this kind of thing has happened before at industrial reactors, but it sorted itself out…To avoid the radiation, have a few stiff drinks with something to eat and a good sleep.”

But the lack of reliable information was mainly due to the Communist Party and its functionaries having become prisoners of their own rhetoric and propaganda.

The unwillingness to publish inconvenient facts lives on. It is depressing to see that the number of deaths directly related to the breakdown is often given as less than one hundred. It is suggested that the other deaths cannot be firmly and scientifically linked to radiation or other effects of the accident.

In light of this, it can be asserted that Sweden and the Embassy of Sweden in Moscow played an important role on Monday 28 April 1986. This fact was eventually recognised – even in the Soviet Union and later in the Russian Federation. A line from one of the interviewees in ‘Chernobyl Prayer’ sums this up:

Had Sweden kept silent

no one would have said a word.

It could be argued that, in this way, the Embassy of Sweden in Moscow played a minor role in the Soviet Union taking a step towards its own dissolution.

(By the way, I have to confess that when I was monitoring the news, I took the opportunity to take a peek at the ice hockey match. The Soviet Union was leading 2-0, but I was able to see Sweden equalise. However, I was spared having to watch the decisive goal that made the host nation world champions.)


Written by Mats Åberg 

Mats Åberg began his career at the MFA in 1969, as a trainee at the Information Bureau. During his 42 years as a diplomat, he was stationed in places including East Berlin and Moscow. His final posting was as Ambassador in Bucharest.