Deadly Meltdown

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The damage to the earth around Chernobyl was probably equally severe. Up to 60 sq. mi. of Soviet farmland is likely to remain severely contaminated for decades, unless steps are taken to remove the tainted topsoil. Reason: cesium 137 and strontium 90, two radioactive particles spewed by the blaze, decay very slowly. It could take decades for the ground to be free of them. Together with the shorter-lived iodine 131, the substances promise to pose short- and long-term problems for people, crops and animals. Says James Warf, a chemistry professor at the University of Southern California: "I wouldn't be surprised if the immediate area has to be evacuated for generations."

Though air currents could bring some radioactivity to North America, U.S. Government sources expressed little worry. "We don't expect any significant health effects in the United States," said Sheldon Meyers, acting director of the Environmental Protection Agency's office of radiation programs. Still, the U.S. is taking no chances. The EPA increased its measurement of airborne particulates from twice a week to daily in order to spot fallout quickly.

From Bali, where they stopped last week on their way to the Tokyo economic summit, Reagan Administration officials had conflicting reactions when news of the Soviet disaster reached them. On the one hand, the White House fears that the mishap could further damage the U.S. nuclear-power industry and even provide fresh ammunition to nuclear-disarmament advocates. On the other, the Reaganauts were eager to seize the opportunity offered by the Soviets' reluctance to disclose the accident and Moscow's refusal to give full details. Said Secretary of State George Shultz: "When an incident has cross-border implications, there's an obligation under international law to inform others and to do it promptly. We don't think they've provided what they should have."

White House Spokesman Larry Speakes tried to deny that anything similar could happen in U.S. atomic plants. Said he: "Ours are quite different from the Soviet system and have a number of redundant safety systems built in." Noted another White House aide: "We don't want the hysteria building around the Soviet accident transferring over to the American power industry."

By week's end, when the traveling White House reached Tokyo, the Administration's anger at Moscow had grown. In his Saturday radio address, Reagan declared, "The Soviets owe the world an explanation. A full accounting of what happened at Chernobyl and what is happening now is the least the world community has a right to expect."

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