MOSCOW, JUNE 10 -- An official policy of silence exposed thousands of people to needless risk in the early days after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident last year, according to a detailed article published this month in a Soviet magazine.
On the morning of April 26, 1986, several hours after an explosion spewed radiation out of Chernobyl's fourth reactor, local officials in the nearby town of Pripyat ordered that life go on as usual, the article said.
As a result, until an evacuation began the following day, children played in the streets, gardeners went ahead with spring planting and mothers pushed baby carriages along a forest road "already 'glowing' with full-strength radiation," according to eyewitness accounts reported in the June issue of Yunost.
The article in Yunost also included a letter from Chernobyl workers accusing Communist Party leaders in the Ukraine of immediately organizing the evacuation of their own children at a time when local residents were being assured there was no danger.
The accusation is the first official acknowledgment of rumors that swept Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, after the accident. According to the letter, the "chosen" children were sent to rest homes in the Crimea May 1; the first public health warning for the Kiev region came May 5.
The workers demanded an investigation into the "criminal irresponsibility" of officials in Kiev and Pripyat. A criminal trial of the former director, chief engineer and assistant engineer of the Chernobyl plant is scheduled to start July 5.
The Yunost article, first in a two-part series drawn from lengthy interviews, paints a picture of official callousness, lying in the official press and bureaucratic bungling in the first days after the accident -- contrasting these with tales of individual heroism and dedication.
The Soviet press previously has identified specific officials who failed to uphold their duty during the Chernobyl crisis. But the Yunost piece is the first to present a full, personal and unvarnished account of life in the town of Pripyat during and after the accident.
It describes people's incredulity in the face of a major disaster. As one interviewee said, nobody could believe the reactor had blown open, because they thought it "was so well conceived that even if you wanted to blow it up, you couldn't have done it."
The article sharply criticized local officials for withholding information from the 50,000 residents of Pripyat, who were finally evacuated in a caravan of buses 36 hours after the accident.
Author Yuri Shcherbak, who has written frequently about Chernobyl, said officials had no excuse for not informing the local population promptly about the nature of the accident and advising them of health risks.
"From whom did we have to hide this misfortune?" Shcherbak asked. "By what rights, and by what ethical considerations, were the people who took this more-than-questionable decision guided?"
According to Shcherbak, the Communist Party second secretary for the Kiev region, V. Malomuzhem, told a group of organizers in Pripyat on Saturday morning April 26 to act "as if nothing had happened." Schools and shops were to stay open and even weddings were to be held on schedule, he said.
The journalist said that he later met a Pripyat woman lying in a Kiev hospital with radiation burns on her legs because she, "like thousands of others, was working in her garden on that fateful Saturday."
"Who will explain to her why she endured this suffering?" he asked.
Shcherbak also noted that top party officials were slow to show up in Chernobyl after the accident. Vladimir Shcherbitsky, a member of the ruling Politburo and first secretary of the Ukrainian party, did not visit the site until May 2, along with other leaders from Moscow.
The Yunost article includes an interview with Lyubov Kobalevkaya, whose article criticizing the defective materials and undue haste with which Chernobyl's fifth reactor was being built appeared in the Ukrainian press in March 1986. Kobalevkaya described the Chernobyl plant as riddled with nepotism and run in an atmosphere of arrogant carelessness. She described, for instance, seeing operators nonchalantly sitting down on a control room display board -- "right there, where the buttons and levers are."
Shcherbak noted that "by an irony of fate," three days before the accident, the Pripyat school system had held lessons on civil defense. "On the day of the accident, none of these measures -- not even the most simple -- were taken," he said.