Gorbachev Says Nine Dead, 299 Hospitalized from Chernobyl Disaster
MOSCOW (AP) _ Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev said Wednesday night that casualties from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had risen to nine dead and 299 hospitalized, but declared, ″The worst is behind us.″
He accused the West of telling ″a veritable mountain″ of lies about the accident.
Gorbachev’s 25-minute speech on state television was his first public comment on the explosion and fire April 26 that spewed radioactivity over Europe and forced the evacuation of 92,000 people from the vicinity of the Ukrainian power plant.
He said radiation still was dangerous around the plant, 80 miles north of Kiev.
Gorbachev said the probable cause of the accident, which he repeatedly referred to as ″our misfortune,″ was a power surge and hydrogen explosion.
He also announced that the Soviet Union will extend its moratorium on nuclear testing to Aug. 6 and invited President Reagan meet him in Europe or Hiroshima, Japan, to discuss halting all nuclear tests.
The United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Gorbachev began the Soviets’ testing moratorium last Aug. 6.
″The accident at Chernobyl showed again what an abyss will open if nuclear war befalls mankind, for inherent in the nuclear arsenals stockpiled are thousands upon thousands of disasters far more horrible than the Chernobyl one,″ he said.
The Soviets at first said two people died in the accident, and later official statements said six people died of radiation and burns. It was not clear if the six included the first two deaths.
Previous official statements also said about 200 people were hospitalized. Gorbachev’s total of nine included seven who died in hospitals after the disaster.
The Soviet leader extended the Kremlin’s condolences to the families of victims for the first time and pledged to take care of them.
Speaking calmly and confidently, he proposed greater international cooperation on nuclear power and seemed to go most of the way toward meeting meeting Western demands for swifter reporting of future accidents.
Although the Chernobyl accident occurred in the early hours of April 26, the Soviet Union did not acknowledge it until the night of April 28, after high levels of radiation were detected in Scandinavia.
In his speech Wednesday night, Gorbachev suggested a prompt warning system for accidents, expansion of the U.N.-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency and a conference to discuss accident warning.
″A system of prompt warning and supply of information in the event of accidents and faults at nuclear power stations, specifically when this is accompanied by the escape of radioactivity, should be established in the framework of this regime,″ he said, referring to the international agency.
″Likewise it is necessary to adjust an international mechanism, both on a bilateral and multilateral basis, for the speediest rendering of mutual assistance when dangerous situations emerge.″
He thanked by name two American specialists, Dr. Robert P. Gale and Dr. Paul Terasaki, who are helping perform bone marrow transplants on disaster victims in Moscow hospitals. He did not mention a third U.S. specialist and an Israeli doctor who also are helping.
The Soviet Union is ready to help expand the resources and staff of the IAEA and to increase the role of the World Health Organization and U.N. environmental bodies in nuclear power development, he said.
He responded to Western criticism of the delay in reporting by alleging that U.S. authorities did not notify Congress and other governments of the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania for 10 days.
Plant officials at Three Mile Island notified Pennsylvania state authorities of the accident within hours and confirmed it to the media, although full information was not yet available.
Gorbachev’s unilateral nuclear test ban originally was scheduled to expire Dec. 31. He extended it twice, but on April 11 the Kremlin announced that it no longer would feel bound by the moratorium because of continued U.S. tests.
He invited Reagan on March 29 to meet as soon as possible in Europe to discuss a superpower test ban treaty. The two men agreed at in Geneva last November that their next summit would be held this year in the United States.
Extension of the moratoruim and renewal of the invitation to Reagan appeared designed to regain some of the momentum the Soviets were felt to have lost on the disarmament issue after the Chernobyl accident.
Moscow’s delayed and incomplete reports on the disaster angered not only governments, but many leftist political parties and anti-nuclear groups the Kremlin is courting on disarmament.
The Soviet leader made no direct reference to statements by other officials that Chernobyl plant officials initially underestimated the disaster’s scope, but said the Politburo had taken charge of the investigation and cleanup work.
″The seriousness of the situation was obvious,″ he said. ″It was necessary to evaluate it urgently and competently, and as soon as we received reliable initial information it was made available to Soviet people and sent through diplomatic channels to the governments of foreign countries.″
He did not explain why, if authorities had assessed the disaster as a serious one, they failed to inform the rest of the world for 68 hours.
Gorbachev excoriated the governments, politicians and media of NATO countries, especially the United States, for what he called a ″highly immoral campaign″ of exaggeration for political purposes.
″Generally speaking, we faced a veritable mountain of lies, most dishonest and malicious lies,″ he said.
″Bluntly speaking, certain Western politicians were after very definite aims: to blast the possibilities for balancing international relations, to sow new seeds of mistrust and suspicion toward the socialist countries.′
He mentioned exaggerated reports of thousands of deaths as examples of what he called an ″unbridled anti-Soviet campaign.″
Gorbachev did not specify the news reports. However, United Press International reported on April 29 that it had unconfirmed information that ″the death toll may have reached 2,000.″ The UPI account was attributed to a resident of Kiev.
The Reagan administration on Wednesday rejected Gorbachev’s charge that the West tried to make political capital from the disaster and said it sees little merit in his proposal for a summit to discuss only nuclear arms.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said in a statement that a meeting ″is possible this year if Mr. Gorbachev desires,″ but it should deal with a broader range of issues.