Chernobyl - fifteen years unpunished

Chernobyl NPP Unit 3 Sub-Reactor Region - Component S

With the safety of Temelin in the headlines, there is a certain irony in the fact that this Thursday is the fifteenth anniversary of the most serious nuclear accident in history. The ill-fated nuclear plant in Chernobyl lay just a few hundred miles from Czechoslovakia's eastern border. After the huge explosion at Chernobyl's fourth reactor on the 26th April 1986, Czechoslovakia was in the front line as a cloud of radiation spread across Europe. While the western media were full of news of the disaster and warnings of its effects, the Czechoslovak communist authorities kept silent and then deliberately misinformed the public about the impact of the accident. As David Vaughan reports, all attempts to bring to justice those responsible for such blatant deception have so far failed.

It took Czechoslovakia's communist authorities no less than three days before they even acknowledged that the Chernobyl accident had occurred. The government statement eventually printed by the Czechoslovak News Agency on the 29th April, gave the impression that there was no danger.

"Radiation levels are being constantly monitored on the territory of Czechoslovakia, and for this entire period, no exceptional levels of radiation have been recorded."

The information in this statement was quite simply untrue. In fact, the authorities had not yet even begun measuring radiation levels. After the fall of communism, it was this proven act of deception that led the Office for the Investigation of Communist Crimes to launch an investigation in 1995 to find out precisely who was responsible. Jan Srb is the office's spokesman.

"We recommended that charges be brought against the then Prime Minister, Lubomir Strougal, because of the government statement which was proven to be untrue. An investigation was also launched into the then Czechoslovak consul in Kiev, because he deliberately ignored the well-being of Czechoslovak students in the city, and thirdly an investigation began into the then head of the Czechoslovak Sports Union - although he knew of the situation here and in Ukraine - he sent a cycling team to Kiev to take part in an international race, knowingly risking their health."

The Office for the Investigation of Communist Crimes gathered a huge volume of evidence, but all proved to be in vain. The entire investigation was suspended, ironically partly thanks to President Havel himself. Jan Srb again.

"The main reason was because, by the time we began the investigation, the five-year statute of limitations had already expired, determined by a law of 1989. Secondly the crimes were covered by the general amnesty granted by President Havel in 1990. And in the case of the head of the Sports Union - he had already died some time before."

This left no alternative than to drop charges. Nobody knows how many people in Czechoslovakia were directly affected by Chernobyl. What is known is that in the months after the disaster there was an increase in the number of children born with deformities. There was also a rise in the number of abortions: as panic began to spread among a completely uninformed public, many pregnant women preferred not to take the risk of having a child.

Those responsible for such misinformation could still be brought to justice, but only if it could be proven that someone died or suffered serious health problems as a direct result of their actions. But no doctor has yet been willing or able to draw a direct link between Chernobyl and cases of cancer in this country.

What all this means today is that fifteen years after the event, it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever have to face the consequences for openly and cynically lying to the people of this country.