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US Experts: Soviet Evacuation Plan Inadequate At Chernobyl

September 3, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Soviet authorities had to scrap their prepared emergency plans and start from scratch to evacuate 135,000 people after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, U.S. experts who attended an international conference said Wednesday.

″None of their emergency plans were adequate to the circumstance ... The plan they looked at first they had to throw out,″ Harold Denton, director of reactor safety for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told the NRC at a briefing on the conference held by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Denton said Soviet delegates to the meeting, which ended last weekend in Vienna, said the major lesson they learned was that ″there is an absolute need for a single coordinating authority ... one person in charge.″

He said a translation of the initial Soviet plan was not yet available for comparison with U.S. emergency plans.

Denton said the direct causes of the accident were ″multiple deliberate violations of procedure″ and design flaws. ″The causes are understood, the sequence is clear, but the details will have to be studied for a long time,″ he said.

Some 1,000 buses were used to evacuate 135,000 people from an 18-mile zone near Chernobyl, the site of an explosion and fire that began April 26 and sent a plume of radiation around the world. Thirty-one people died and hundreds were injured in the catastrophe.

All children in the evacuation zone were sent to summer camp in the country following the accident and apparently were not reunited with their parents until last weekend, said Frank Congel, another NRC official who attended the conference.

Congel, chief of the NRC’s risk assessment branch, said the evacuees have been resettled in two areas near Kiev. He said the Soviets also are establishing a population center near Chernobyl just outside the 18-mile zone for people working on decontamination of the plant and region. No children have been allowed into the area, he said.

Soviet authorities started monitoring radiation in the plant area within hours of the start of the accident, Congel said, and told Pripyat residents to stay inside and close their windows.

He said schools were closed and there was massive distribution of potassium iodide, which prevents accumulation of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland and which the Soviets apparently had on hand for just such an emergency.

When the wind changed the following day, carrying radiation through the town, Congel said, the decision to evacuate was made. The process began at 2 p.m. and was complete three hours later, he said.

″Large amounts of iodine were administered without side effects,″ Denton noted in discussing medical knowledge gleaned so far from the disaster. He said doctors also learned that skin doses of radiation were very significant and surgical intervention not particularly effective.

Experts attending the conference initially projected an additional 25,000 cancer deaths as a result of the Chernobyl accident. But they later downgraded their estimate to about 2,000 over 70 years.

Congel said the initial estimate stemmed from Soviet calculations of cesium exposure through the food chain. He and Denton said the numbers were a worst- case scenario assuming no cautionary steps are taken.

″These crops have not been planted. A lot depends on the future action of the Soviet Union,″ Denton said. ″The doses haven’t occurred so they can take steps to prevent them. A lot of people jumped on them (the exposure estimates) as if they had actually happened.″

Denton and Victor Stello, executive director for NRC operations, said they received much more information than they expected from the Soviets and will be able to complete a factual report on the accident before December. A ″lessons learned″ report will follow, they said.

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