Deadly Meltdown

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The first warning came in Sweden. At 9 a.m. on Monday, April 28, technicians at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant, 60 miles north of Stockholm, noticed disturbing signals blipping across their computer screens. Those signals revealed abnormally high levels of radiation, a sure sign of serious trouble. At first suspecting difficulties in their own reactors, the engineers searched frantically for a leak. When they found nothing, they lined up some 600 workers at the plant and tested them with a Geiger counter. This time the signals were even more alarming: the workers' clothing gave off radiation far above contamination levels. Outside, monitors took Geiger counter readings of the soil and greenery surrounding the plant. The result showed four to five times the normal amount of radioactive emissions. Clearly, something was wrong -- terribly wrong.

Farther to the north and east, rain and gentle spring snow was falling over parts of Finland and Sweden. From there, as well as from points south and west, from Norway and Denmark, came the same disquieting signals. Somewhere, some mysterious source was spewing dangerous radiation into the atmosphere, into the air that people and plants were breathing. By now thoroughly frightened, the Swedes quickly confirmed that the source was not in their country. They immediately turned their suspicions southward, to their powerful neighbor, the Soviet Union.

A glance at prevailing wind patterns confirmed their fear. For several days, currents of air had been whipping up from the Black Sea, across the Ukraine, over the Baltic and into Scandinavia. But when the Swedes and their neighbors demanded an explanation from Moscow, they were met by denials and stony silence. For six hours, as officials throughout Scandinavia insisted that something was dangerously amiss, the Soviets steadfastly maintained that nothing untoward had happened.

Finally, at 9:00 p.m. on Monday, an expressionless TV newscaster on Moscow television read a four-sentence statement from the Council of Ministers that seemed to raise at least as many questions as it answered. The terse, almost grudging announcement said in full: "An accident has taken place at the Chernobyl power station, and one of the reactors was damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Those affected by it are being given assistance. A government commission has been set up." The announcer then picked up another piece of paper and went on to discuss a story on a Soviet peace fund.

Thus began by far the gravest crisis in the troubled, 32-year history of commercial atomic power. A catastrophe had occurred over the weekend at the Chernobyl plant, 80 miles north of Kiev, where a reactor meltdown and explosion caused untold death and suffering and raised the prospect of long- term health and environmental damage on a far greater scale than anything yet unleashed by peaceful nuclear use.

The fallout caused an international uproar against the Soviet Union for its lax safety measures and its concealment of the fact that the dangerous radiation was floating toward neighboring countries. Moreover, the accident seemed certain to put the worldwide use of nuclear power under still sharper attacks. In West Germany, the antinuclear Greens quickly staged protest rallies under banners bearing the slogan CHERNOBYL IS EVERYWHERE.

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