Bulgaria, April 1986: The Chernobyl cover-up
She remembers standing at the window in the upper floor of her Plovdiv home, that rainy Easter of 1986, watching the strangely-coloured sky, in eerie shades she had never seen before and has not seen since; and was glad her child was indoors, so ominous did that sky seem. To this day, with hindsight, she believes it had something to do with Chernobyl; but at the time, like most Bulgarians, she had not yet heard of Chernobyl or the accident that had taken place there.
Ask most Bulgarians, in their 30s and older, what they remember of Chernobyl and it is certain that the first reaction – again, with hindsight – will be anger and resentment.
Everyone remembers the rain. Everyone remembers eating spring salads. Most of all, everyone remembers how, like all the years of communism, the concrete coercion of the state that compelled people to parade in the “spontaneous manifestations” in celebration of May 1.
May 1, recorded as one of the days that the fallout from Chernobyl over Bulgaria was at its heaviest.
For every scientist, historian and journalist there is a problem narrating and analysing the story of Chernobyl and its effects within the then-communist bloc. This arises from skepticism about the figures about the extent of the fallout, about what was done by whom and when, and – in the longer term – about the effects on people’s health.
Some say that the final death toll of Chernobyl cannot now be added up because not everyone affected has died yet.
Fallout spreads rapidly
In 1997, three scientists – Pourchet, Velchev and Candaudap – told a seminar in Borovets that the peaks of the fallout from Chernobyl over Bulgaria were on May 1 and 9. In the most contaminated areas, measurements were triple those from the days of decades before when Soviet nuclear weapons testing infested the atmosphere.
In 2010, in a lengthy paper published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, scientists Alexey Nesterenko, Vassily Nesterenko and Alexey Yablokov mention the same two dates as the peaks of fallout. The comprehensively-researched paper, drawing on records hitherto not seen in the West, details the horrific extent of the fallout, as well as the effects on health.
“One nuclear reactor can pollute half the globe. Chernobyl fallout covered the entire Northern Hemisphere.”
They say that no fewer than three billion people live in areas contaminated by Chernobyl’s radionuclides.
“More than 50 per cent of the surface of 13 European countries and 30 per cent of eight other countries have been contaminated by Chernobyl fallout. Given biological and statistical laws, the adverse effects in these areas will be apparent for many generations.”
Some years back, in an article entitled Sofia’s Choice, Stefan Pavlov said that from April 30 until May 2, radioactivity in Bulgaria was at 1000 times above normal. The unceasing rain showered fallout on almost every inch of Bulgarian soil.
“Bulgarian politicians kept quiet but shipped in uncontaminated food from other countries for their families,” Pavlov said.
But for everyone else, word filtered out slowly and confusingly.
Word spreads slowly
A 1988 report by the Bulgarian Veterinary Service is typical of the official line.
It writes of the “stringent testing procedures” to safeguard animal products for home consumption and for export.
Samples of a variety of foodstuffs were taken regularly from April 26 until September 1 1986, according to the report.
“The results obtained showed that the radioactivity of animal products remained within the limits permissible for Bulgaria.”
There were, the report says, 16 cases were norms were exceeded. Five involving lamb meat, seven involving mutton and four involving kashkaval (yellow) cheese.
By the end of May 1987 the radiological situation in Bulgaria had returned to normal.
This contrasts with, for example, a report by the Nuclear Energy Institute which – noting that while a person sitting continuously in front of a television set for a year would get one millirem of radiation, the rate of dosage in Bulgaria after Chernobyl was 76 millirem a year.
In Bulgaria, on April 29 1986, a news brief in communist mouthpiece Работническо дело (Rabotnichesko Delo, “Worker’s Deed”) noted that there had been a fire at Chernobyl. On May 7, to the consternation of many, Bulgarian National Television announced, briefly, that the radiation situation in the country had returned to normal. The reason for the consternation was that no one outside the ruling circle had been told that it had been anything other than normal.
On the same day, the then deputy health minister, Lyubomir Shindarov, appeared on television saying that there was no danger in Bulgaria from radiation.
Of course, word had spread, after some time, in an informal way. Those Bulgarians who had the habit of listening on short-wave radios (the volume discreetly low) to the BBC Bulgarian-language service and to the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe had heard something about Chernobyl.
A Radio Free Europe internal memo written in 1987 says that there had been a “steady stream of telephone calls to Radio Free Europe’s Bulgarian service requesting detailed information and inquiring about the need to persist with precautions and prophylactic measures”.
Bulgarian media reports, post-communism, said that the order for silence had come from long-time dictator Todor Zhivkov. He was, customarily, following the Kremlin line. Even though there was a higher degree of transparency about informing the outside world about what had happened at Chernobyl, then and now some difficulty arose from the fact that details of the damage, fallout, number of workers involved in the attempted clean-up and other facts were declared secrets by the Soviet military.
After all, the original reason for the fatal test at Chernobyl was to see how crucial aspects of the reserve power generator would function in the event of a weapons attack on the nuke plant by the Americans.
For Bulgaria, there were additional reasons for attempting to play down the “incident”.
Sofia did not want to let the full truth to come out for a number of reasons. Interpretations about the priority of these reasons vary, but they include a wish to prevent public panic; to not sour relations with the Soviet Union through Bulgarian public anger; and also not to have public opinion (to the extent this mattered to the communist regime’s masters) turn against the Kozloduy nuclear power station project.
So the army was discreetly put on tinned food and dried milk, rather like the Politburo and others in the upper echelons of power, and for everyone else there were incoherent and muted messages about taking iodine and, less formally, avoiding alcohol – advice contradicted by folk wisdom (revived after the Fukushima disaster in 2011) that the best prophylactic against nuclear radiation is the drinking of red wine. Under other circumstances, there would be some rueful humour in that last point. Anyone who has read in detail about the outcome of Chernobyl and seen the deeply disturbing images of radiation victims, children among them, would be barren of a sense of humour about the tragedy and ensuing cover-up.
Hristina, who was 11 at the time, recalls that her mother – who worked in a radiology department – was among those who was sworn to secrecy but used her resources to try to protect her child. Soon after the incident, her mother took her for checking at the department. Hristina recalls how a favourite pair of red shoes, that she had been wearing that day as she walked through the wet grass, was put under a geiger counter. There was a rapid clicking sound. Hristina does not recall what happened to the shoes. She also recalls seeing foodstuffs at the centre that were there for testing for safety – before they could be served to the communist elite.
For all the attempt to mollify potential public concerns, there were actual implications for Bulgaria. The country lost a fortune in foreign trade as the then-European Economic Community and Arab states – notably Libya and Syria – swiftly banned agricultural imports. At the time, Arab states were important clients in exports of Bulgarian meat, especially lamb.
Tourism suffered too, with an estimated downturn of 30 per cent in Western tourists visiting Bulgaria’s Black Sea resorts in summer 1986.
In April 1987, Shindarov was on television again, being slightly more forthcoming than he had been the previous year, admitting that Bulgaria had been “partly affected” by fallout in April and May 1986, with the detection of radioactive iodine, strontium and caesium. But, he said, the strontium had not been in quantities sufficient to pose a hazard, while the radioactive iodine had returned to normal by the end of June.
At a news conference in Sofia at the end of April 2001, the director of the Bulgarian Academy of Science’s national environmental laboratory, Dr Nesho Chipev, said: “Fifteen years after the disaster, Bulgaria still suffers from the effects – mostly in the form of increased levels in the environment of caesium and strontium. Having once penetrated the ecosystems, they remain for a long time in the food chain. But the quantities and the resulting radioactivity did not exceed the acceptable levels”.
Professor Donka Benova, director of the National Centre for Radiobiology and Radiation Protection, told the same news conference: “No increase in cancer incidence or genetic defects as a result of the Chernobyl accident has been established either in Bulgaria or the rest of Europe outside the former Soviet Union.
“No health impacts of Chernobyl have so far been detected, and we can virtually rule out the likelihood of any ever being detected. The latent period for thyroid cancer, the disease with the most significant health impact, is 10 years, and 15 have already passed.”
Benova admitted that cases of lung cancer, breast cancer and other radiation-related diseases had increased in Bulgaria in recent years, but, she said, there was no evidence that this was related to the Chernobyl disaster.
Others disagree. In the still-lively discussion forums in Bulgarian on the internet about Chernobyl and this country, many relate stories about relatives who got cancer and about families which soon after produced children with serious birth defects.
As in all cases of countries affected by Chernobyl fallout, the point will remain forever disputed. Scientists and medical researchers say, correctly, that one indicator could be a reliable comparison between levels of cancer that could have been expected had there been no Chernobyl, and the actual incidence.
But, as noted, in many Soviet bloc countries – Bulgaria, then a communist state, among them – official records may not be accepted by all researchers as reliable. Either before Chernobyl, or after it.
There was partial retribution in Bulgaria after the end of the Zhivkov era.
In December 1991, Shindarov and former deputy prime minister Grigor Stoichkov were found guilty in the supreme court in Sofia of criminal negligence in misleading the public.
Stoichkov was sentenced to three years in jail and Shindarov to two. In what would be a familiar story, after a lengthy appeal process, three years later their sentences were reduced. Shindarov died in March 2009, aged 88, and like Stoichkov, always insisted that they had been scapegoats in a political stunt.
In 2009, a poll among viewers of Bulgarian National Television resulted in a vote that the Chernobyl cover-up was the “most absurd” event in the country in the 20th century.
And in 2020, as today’s April 26 anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster approached, there was an echo of how it still looms in public consciousness. On April 21, responding to false claims on social networks that a fire near Chernobyl a few days before would dump radioactive matter on Bulgaria, the country’s fire chief, operational HQ chief and a professor held a late-night news conference to reassure the public that no such danger existed. The scramble to get the message out was a sign that however many years pass, the psychological fallout in the public mind in Bulgarian mind lingers, as does the anger about that deception 34 years ago.
(Main photo: Pawel Szubert)
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