“What is the cost of lies?”
Valery Legasov posed this question in his dying declaration, which he recorded and gave to a journalist before committing suicide exactly two years after the explosion causing the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
A nuclear engineer overseeing the USSR’s response to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Legasov witnessed his share of lies. And he told his share, too.
But make no mistake: Legasov was a hero and a whistleblower who saved the world.
At the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) hearing on the Chernobyl disaster in Vienna, held August 25-29, 1986, Legasov and the USSR blamed the incident on operator error, knowing the truth was much more complicated.
Specifically, they said Leonid Toptunov and Aleksandr Akimov caused the reactor to explode by not following protocol during the last-minute safety test that led to the explosion.
Both Toptunov and Akimov died from radiation exposure three weeks after the accident.
With no access to information or witnesses, the IAEA believed the USSR’s explanation of events.
The story the USSR told put the blame on two dead men (and later three of the chief engineers) in order to spare the USSR from the international embarrassment that was their RBMK nuclear energy design - an inherently flawed design that neither Toptunov, 33, nor Akimov, 25, fully understood.
They did not know at the time of the incident that pushing the emergency shut-off button, called AZ-5, would cause a rapid surge in the reactor because of the graphite-covered tips of the control rods. They didn’t know because that information was not allowed to be shared, hidden by officials within the USSR.
General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev lashed out at the engineers of the plant for “covering up dangerous problems with the Soviet nuclear industry for decades” following the discovery of the RBMK design flaws.
But the lies about the cause of the accident were only the beginning.
USSR officials lied about the levels of radiation when asking West Germany to borrow their “Joker” police robot to clear debris on the roof near where the reactor exploded. The robot died immediately and today sits in a radioactive heap of garbage in Pripyat, Ukraine.
Officials lied about the levels of radiation and lied about the reactor exploding when Legasov first came to the site. They lied about the levels of radiation to the people living in Pripyat. They cutoff communication in the city to control the flow of information. They delayed evacuations and did not extend the exclusion zone as far out as they should have.
The USSR hid the explosion from the world until radiation was detected in Sweden - more than 1,000 km away. Then they continued to lie, first denying that an accident had occurred. Later, when Swedish officials threatened to file an alert with the IAEA, USSR officials claimed only a “small accident” had occurred and the issue was taken care of.
Soviet propaganda targeted Americans at the time, claiming Chernobyl was handled and the real threat was incidents like Three Mile Island, a partial nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania seven years before Chernobyl.
They still lie about the death toll and long-term health impacts of those who were exposed to radiation. Officially, only 31 people died because of the world’s worst nuclear accident, when scientific consensus puts the true death toll between 4,000 and 16,000.
If not for Legasov’s brave testimony during the 1987 trials of Anatoly Dyatlov, Nikolai Fomin and Viktor Bryukhanov, USSR nuclear specialists and the world at large would have never known the true cause of the accident. The USSR would have kept using RBMK reactors with no modifications.
Legasov’s tapes prompted the IAEA to reconvene and update their findings in 1992.
Though Legasov’s name was largely unknown or forgotten until the 2019 HBO mini-series “Chernobyl,” Legasov and his fellow engineers likely saved the world in those first weeks in what is modern-day Ukraine.
Misinformation during a crisis
Misinformation arises naturally during a crisis, whether that crisis be an earthquake or a war.
Politicians who weaponize disinformation during crises are especially dangerous.
Tension between internal data and external reporting often creates conflicting narratives, much like what occurred in Florida relating to the safety of reopening the state during the pandemic and later the disinformation about vaccine safety.
In cases like the COVID-19 pandemic and Chernobyl, a perfect storm of extreme conditions and political propaganda exacerbated the situation, and further endangered the public.
Gorbachev once attributed the start of the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Chernobyl disaster.
Honoring the “Heroes who saved the world”
Toptunov and Akimov were awarded the 3rd Degree “Order for Courage '' in 2008 by then-Ukranian President Tushcenko.
Today, Pripyat, Ukraine is a tourist destination where the ghost town and gravesites draw visitors from around the world.