The head of the Soviet committee for atomic safety was fired today amid new signs that the Soviet nuclear energy program is being called into question in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident.
The terse announcement of the removal of Yevgeny Kulov, 57, as head of the state committee for safety in the atomic power industry was issued tonight by the Soviet news agency Tass, without elaboration.
Kulov's ouster is the first hint that Moscow officials also are being held responsible for the April 26 accident. Public criticism of the handling of the catastrophe in the Ukraine had been limited to local officials.
The plant director and chief engineer were fired, and there have been reports that other local officials were ousted from the Communist Party or reprimanded.
In today's edition of the weekly magazine New Times, a leading Soviet nuclear scientist suggested that the accident will lead to changes in the nuclear program.
"The accident forced us to review once again the concept of the development of nuclear power engineering in the country, the location of nuclear power plants, the level of technical preparedness and the skill of the personnel," said Valery Legasov, first deputy director for the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Power, the country's principal nuclear research institute.
"In other words, everything is being done to rule out a possibility of the recurrence of such accidents," he said.
The Soviet daily newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya reported today that crops in an 18-mile zone immediately around Chernobyl became radioactive during the accident and were unfit for harvesting.
The newspaper said the main problem was to remove from the soil long-life radioactive elements, such as cesium and strontium, which would otherwise move through the roots of the plants into animals and humans.
Legasov's comment is one of the first official signs that any aspects of the Soviet nuclear program are being reexamined.
In public speeches and statements since the Chernobyl accident, Soviet officials have stressed the country's continuing commitment to nuclear power, which is scheduled to more than double its output in the next five years. By 1990, nuclear power is expected to supply the country with 17 percent of its energy needs.
The five-year plan for 1986 to 1990 formally adopted last month showed no changes in the financial commitment to nuclear power in the accident's wake.
But Legasov, while giving full support to nuclear energy, suggested that various policies are now under review, including the location of nuclear power stations. The Soviet Union has concentrated most of its nuclear power stations in the heavily populated European part of the country and often close to urban centers, a policy that has been publicly criticized in the past by Soviet scientists.
Legasov's interview in New Times, a journal that concentrates on international affairs, came as the mid-August deadline nears for a report on the Chernobyl accident by a special government commission. The commission is due to publish a paper on the causes and consequences of the accicent in time for a conference of the International Atomic Energy Association in Vienna.
In an interview in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda yesterday, the Chernobyl plant's new director said new safety requirements were expected from the commission report that will affect "technical and organizational" questions at the plant.
The state committee on safety in the nuclear industry has not been in existence long, according to western diplomats here.
It also has limited authority. At a press conference in Moscow in May, a committee member said the agency did not have authority to release information about the accident two and a half days after it happened.
Legasov said final conclusions on the accident's origins would be provided by the commission. But he noted that the explosion and fire were caused by "a combination of several events, each of them . . . scarcely probable."
Legasov said that "difficult work" still lies ahead. " . . . One cannot say that everything is behind us," he said.
Another nuclear scientist, Yuri Sivintsev, said in the same interview that radiation levels were still too high for workers to get near the center of the damaged fourth reactor. Sivintsev, who described the accident as "the most serious in the history of nuclear power engineering," said entombment of the damaged power unit to seal off radiation would be completed by late fall.
Sivintsev said it was even possible to restore the fourth reactor, but "at a very high price." He added that "after evaluating all the pros and cons, we dropped the idea." Two of the Chernobyl reactors are scheduled to come back on line in October; the third will stay shut down for the near future.
After the construction of concrete walls around the fourth reactor, the unit will remain under "permanent control," he said.