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Statement by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Speakes on the Soviet Nuclear Reactor Accident at Chernobyl

May 1, 1986

Soviet authorities are continuing to maintain a close hold on information on the nuclear accident and its consequences. We know that a major accident resulted in explosion and major damage to unit four of the Chernobyl nuclear facility. A fire occurred, and we have indications of a continuing fire at that facility. We cannot confirm press reports of a second nuclear reactor meltdown. Some diplomatic and consulor establishments are advising their citizens to leave the area of Kiev. We have no firm official information on casualties, on evacuation of population.

On Tuesday afternoon, Washington time, Minister Counselor Isakov of the Soviet Union conveyed a message to the United States Government regarding the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The Minister Counselor characterized the message as being from General Secretary Gorbachev to the President. This is in addition to the meeting which Secretary Ridgway had with Mr. Sokolov earlier in the day in which he presented our offer. This message was not characterized by the Soviets as a direct response to our earlier request for information, nor have we received a response to our offer of assistance. We have reiterated to the Soviets that our offer of assistance still stands. We also repeated hope for a more detailed information on the scale and nature of the accident.

The Soviets have confirmed to us that an accident occurred on April 25th -- you will note that is Friday -- in one of the power block rooms at Chernobyl, an atomic power station near Kiev. They say that a leak of radioactive material has required the partial evacuation of the populations in regions immediately adjacent to the accident. They indicate that the radiation situation has been stabilized; and, finally, they note that the dissemination of radioactive contamination in the western, northern, and southern sections has been detected. The message further states that these levels of contamination are somewhat above permissible norms but are not in the extent which would require special measures to protect the population.

The latest available information from the President's interagency special task force on the Soviet reactor incident indicates very little change from yesterday. We do not have any different assessments of casualties from the Soviet Union. You have seen their public announcements. The movement of the radioactive substance in the atmosphere is still unsettled. Releases immediately following the incident moved toward the northwest, toward the Scandinavian countries, then shifted to the south, and the latest day or so have moved to the east. There have been reportings of radioactive fallout in a number of European countries, most specifically and recently the Austrians. The coverage of the cloud is quite large. Estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lead us to think that it is covering a good part of eastern and northern Europe, possibly the northwestern part of the Soviet Union, and may well be extending into the Arctic Basin. As far as the background levels found in Sweden, we have only limited information at this point. But it would appear that the background level has been exceeded by only about 1 millirem over the last several days, and they're continuing to take measurements. To put it in context, the average background level due to all sources on a continuing basis, natural and otherwise, is about 90 to 100 millirem per year, and they have received 1 millirem over the last several days.

We still do not know if the plume might reach the United States. But based on data that we do have at this time, we do not expect any significant health effects if, indeed, it does reach the United States.

In the meantime, we're waiting and assessing the situation. The EPA's National Environmental Radiation Monitoring System is in its usual monitoring mode and, in the case of any detection of increased levels, will speed up the rate at which we take measurements of all types: air, ground, and water.

We're continuing to ask for more information from the Soviets so that we can learn exactly what happened. It is still impossible to learn if there was actually a meltdown at the fourth Chernobyl reactor, but there are indications of it. There was obviously a fire of graphite material surrounding the fuel rods, and there's been a release of various radioactive elements. So far as we know, the fire is still burning. There has been some speculation in public circles regarding a similar incident or fire at the third Chernobyl reactor, but we have no evidence to confirm that. We know from Landsat satellite photos that there is a second heat source; but that can indicate several things, such as buildings or other things burning in the area, but not necessarily the problem with another reactor.

Yesterday we said there were two graphite reactors in the United States. One is the N reactor at Hanford, Washington; the other is a private, electrical-power generating, commercial reactor at Fort St. Vrain, Colorado. It is a graphite-based, gas-cooled, and like all commercial U.S. reactors, has a containment system around the reactor. The Hanford N is a graphite-moderated, liquid-cooled. That is the only similarity with the Chernobyl reactors. At Hanford, if there were a loss of coolant, we would have a separate cooling system to keep it from overheating. That reactor has been operating for 23 years. It produces power and plutonium for weapons programs. It does not have a containment dome but does have a filtered confinement system. The confinement system would filter out 99.9 percent of all particulate emissions. The reactor is also in a heavily reinforced concrete building, whereas the Soviet reactor was in a less secure industrial building.

Yesterday we were asked about the Department of Energy reactors that do not have containment facilities. There are four such reactors at Savannah River, South Carolina, which is south of Aiken. They are all production facilities, heavy water moderated and cooled. Like the Hanford facility, they are confined with filtration systems. Heavy water facilities use an isotope of the standard H2O molecule that results from the presence of deuterium oxide, an isotope of hydrogen with an extra neutron in the nucleus. It tends to moderate the actual fission process created by the U - 235 fuel activation. That moderating loop is closed and separate from the cooling loop. It is also worth pointing out that, unlike conventional, commercial light water reactors, these heavy water reactors operate at only 5 pounds per square inch over normal atmospheric pressure and at temperatures only slightly above 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Commercial reactors operate at very high temperatures and normally in excess of 2,000 pounds per square inch.

Note: Larry M. Speakes read the statement to reporters at 12:22 p.m. in the Bali Room at the Bali Sol Hotel, in Bali, Indonesia. Rozanne L. Ridgway was Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs, and Oleg M. Sokolov was the Soviet Charge d'Affaires in Washington, DC.