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Kremlin Trys To Reassure Soviets During Crisis

May 2, 1986

MOSCOW (AP) _ The Kremlin has been doling out information on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in carefully measured statements that reveal little and seem intended to reassure the Soviet people.

The terse and infrequent Soviet government statements also appear designed to relieve foreign pressure for news about the accident.

The government and its controlled media also have launched their own public relations campaign, claiming Western media had published ″rumors″ about thousands of casualties at Chernobyl and accusing the Western media of spreading misinformation.

Western news about the Chernobyl nuclear accident, including reports of more casualties than the Soviets acknowledge, are reaching up to 29 million radio listeners in the Soviet Union, a Voice of America spokesman said Thursday in Washington.

In London, a spokesman for the World Services of the British Broadcasting Corp. said its six hours of Russian language broadcasts daily were reaching up to 14 million Soviets. ″A substantial part of the (BBC) news and current affairs programs have been devoted to the disaster,″ Phil Bosley told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Three days after the first word of a major accident at the four-reactor Chernobyl complex 80 miles north of Kiev, the government had yet to say when the disaster occurred.

Four formal government statements have been published, the sum total of Soviet press coverage thus far. They have not described the accident, explained how it happened and how much radiation was released, or detailed the extent or nature of injuries.

The approach is typical of Soviet media, which give little coverage to natural or man-made disasters unless they occur abroad.

The handling of the Chernobyl accident seems to contradict Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s repeated calls for more openness in the media.

That campaign, however, doesn’t conform to the Western notion of open press coverage but rather to the Soviet concept of using the state press to further the aims of the Communist Party and to spotlight carefully chosen political and economic problems.

Still, the Gorbachev Kremlin seems more responsive to public relations concerns than previous leaderships and that is reflected in the Chernobyl case.

Some neighboring countries have complained that they weren’t informed of the radiation leak until contaminated air had already crossed their borders.

On Thursday, the Soviets said they informed the International Atomic Energy Agency of cleanup operations and the Ukrainian delegate to the U.N. General Assembly also spoke about the disaster.

But in both cases, the reports offered no information beyond what was in the official government statements, distributed by the news agency Tass, read over national television and printed in the major newspapers.

Ambassadors or charges d’affaires from five embassies were briefed at the Soviet Foreign Ministry, but diplomats said the meetings produced no new information.

In addition to outside pressure, the Soviets are responding to Western news reports filtering in through the shortwave radios that are widespread in the Soviet Union.

These have provided more details than Soviet reports, although they are unconfirmed and vary widely in assessing casualties and consequences of the nuclear accident.

A government statement issued Wednesday night specifically denied a report that thousands were killed.

Subsequent Radio Moscow news bulletins have focused on that denial, and Foreign Ministry press spokesman Vladimir Lomeiko called the report ″an absurdity.″

In an ABC-TV interview, Lomeiko accused Western media of using a tragedy to create ″an image of the lying Russians.″

Newspapers have run the government statements on inside pages and focused instead on May Day celebrations.

The official reports paint a vague and confusing picture of what happened at the reactor.

On Wednesday, for example, the Soviets said that 197 people were injured and that the damaged reactor had been shut down. They said radiation levels were subsiding and a cleanup was under way.

But there was no mention of reports of a fire and an explosion and no details on the radiation released. The statement said water and air in Kiev were within Soviet standards, but not what those were.

A TV program showed a photograph of the plant and a commentator said it was taken immediately after the accident. He said there was ″no gigantic destruction or fire″ visible, but didn’t say whether there had been an explosion.

The picture showed extensive damage to a reactor housing that seemed caused either by a fire or an explosion.

The low-key approach seemed to be effective, with many Soviets apparently more concerned with the May Day holiday than the accident.

An exchange overheard in a Moscow park indicated how confused some Soviets are:

″What went wrong with the plant,″ a man asked a woman.

″It was the reactor of course. I guess,″ she replied.

″But is there radiation here?″

″Who knows?″

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