A West German official urged the Soviet Union to shut down all nuclear power plants like the damaged Chernobyl station as anger mounted in European countries over Moscow's delay in warning about what appears to be the world's worst nuclear accident.
The suggestion was made by Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who was attending a meeting in Venice of the West European Union.
The West German government joined the United States in calling on the Soviets to allow an international team of experts to enter the stricken plant, about 60 miles north of Kiev.
Officials at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said today that the Soviet Union finally had reported the accident but failed to respond to offers of emergency on-site help in coping with the disaster. The IAEA has a team of technical experts waiting to go to the Unkraine to give advice and assistance once Moscow approves the move, officials said.
An IAEA spokesman said the Soviet Union informed the agency today that "partial destruction of a reactor and some leakage of radioactivity" had occurred at the Chernobyl plant. The Soviet authorities confirmed that two persons had died and that the plant's three other generators had been shut down as repair efforts continued under the supervision of a special Soviet commission of nuclear scientists and technicians.
The Soviet message to the IAEA said three neighboring communities had been evacuated but that the radioactivity dangers at the plant and the surrounding area had "stabilized."
A similar report was given to the Bonn government by Soviet Ambassador Yuli Kvitsinsky. He told Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann, who is serving as acting chancellor while West German leader Helmut Kohl is abroad, that radiation had contaminated areas north, south and west of the plant and forced the authorities to evacuate people nearby.
Ministry officials quoted Kvitsinsky as saying, however, that radioactivity around the Chernobyl plant was "not considerably higher than normal and so further measures to protect the population are not necessary."
The ambassador offered no information on when the accident took place, how many people may have been exposed to radiation and whether the graphite fire at the plant was still burning.
Zimmermann reportedly expressed dismay at Moscow's failure to notify countries within range of the cloud of radioactivity about what had happened at the Chernobyl plant so precautions could be taken to protect their populations.
At the Venice meeting, where foreign ministers were discussing terrorism and other issues, British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe told reporters, "there is deep concern at the Soviet Union's failure to give early warning of this . . . . It is a serious lapse in European good neighborliness."
West German officials said the serious nature of the accident could inflict incalculable ecological damage to the northern region of Ukraine, whose fertile farmlands are known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. The water supply for Kiev's 2.5 million inhabitants has probably been contaminated because it is drawn from the Kievskoye reservoir near the stricken Chernobyl plant, officials here said.
Nuclear experts at the IAEA and in West Germany said the fact that Soviet diplomats had sought advice in how to extinguish a graphite fire at the plant almost certainly meant that a meltdown of the reactor core had occurred and spilled vast amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere.
The agency's director, Hans Blix, said he had requested information from the Soviets so the IAEA could provide a more accurate assessment of how to fight the fire and handle the radiation leak. He declared that while Scandinavian and other countries had registered higher levels of radioactivity, there was "no cause for alarm with respect to trans-boundary effects at the present time."
Austria and parts of southern Germany have registered slightly higher radiation levels. Mothers in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia were advised to keep babies indoors, and pharmacists in West Germany have reported massive purchases of iodine tablets, which are recommended to counter ill-effects of radiation.
But Environment Ministry officials in Bonn said that even if winds changed and blew more heavily toward the west the distance from the plant is so great that other countries were not likely to suffer serious dangers from the radiation.
Some academic specialists disputed the government's sanguine forecast. Jens Scheer, an expert on the Soviet nuclear program from Bremen University, said the full extent of the disaster would only be known when the burning reactor had expunged all radioactivity into the air. It would then depend on wind patterns to determine how countries outside the Soviet Union would be affected.
Lothar Hahn, a nuclear scientist at the Freiburg Ecological Institute, said the blaze at the Chernobyl plant could last for several weeks because as much as 100 tons of graphite could be burning in a self-sustaining situation.
Soviet diplomats sought West German advice yesterday on how to cope with the graphite fire, but government officials said that Bonn received no follow-up requests for further assistance today.
Karl-Heinz Lindackers, a Cologne-based expert in nuclear accidents, said he was approached by two Soviet diplomats for his suggestions in putting out the blaze. He said that he had advised the Soviets to use helicopters to dump wet sand on the burning reactor because water alone would prove useless in such an intensely hot fire.
Washington Post London correspondent Karen DeYoung reported:
Britons have been advised not to travel to the western part of the Soviet Union or to northeastern Poland, Foreign Office Minister Timothy Eggar said. British students in the Soviet cities of Kiev and Minsk have been advised to leave, he said, and Soviet authorities have pledged to help in their repatriation.