Irish embassy in Moscow concerned about ‘food safety’ in wake of Chernobyl

State papers 1986: Ambassador wrote that Russian authorities treated disaster as ‘violation of party rules’

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident in April 1986. Photograph: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky/File

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident in April 1986. Photograph: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky/File

 

In the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in April 1986, the Irish embassy in Moscow sourced its food from Finland, State papers show.

The documents show the then Irish ambassador in Moscow, Tadhg O’Sullivan, said Pravda treated the disaster as “a violation of party rules”.

In the early hours of April 26th, the world’s largest ever nuclear disaster occurred at Chernobyl in Ukraine, when an explosion destroyed reactor four at the nuclear plant.

Fallout spewed high into the atmosphere and spread widely across the then USSR and Europe. Territory in parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are still contaminated.

A combination of design faults and human error triggered the meltdown and an estimated 30 people died in the immediate aftermath of the event. But there are no agreed figures on the long-term death toll. The World Health Organisation recognises a “dramatic increase in thyroid cancer . . . among those exposed at a young age” to the fallout, and “some indication of increased leukaemia and cataract incidence among workers” in the clean-up operation.

Other groups, including Greenpeace, predict that tens of thousands of people will die as a result of health issues linked to radiation released by the disaster.

A letter from Mr O’Sullivan, dated June 18th, 1986, raised concerns about food safety in the capital.

He said German embassy monitoring had brought to light a localised high radiation level, 10 times the normal level, in a patch of ground on the embassy premises and a soil sample had been sent to Bonn for analysis.

“EC ambassadors at their last meeting had a lengthy discussion on whether to bring findings of contaminated food to the attention of the Soviet authorities,” he said.

“It was concluded that the reaction of the latter would be unfavourable, for political reasons, and it was decided that any such findings should be reported to the presidency capital for appropriate action . . .”

Purchase of meat

Mr O’Sullivan said he’d read a newspaper report saying the British embassy circular had advised against the purchase of meat in local markets, and he would try to get a copy of the circular.

“So far as this embassy is concerned, food supplies are being ordered from Stockmann’s of Helsinki. and the first consignment of beef has arrived from Ireland, ” he said.

He also asked that to enable the embassy “cope with food shortages and to ensure food safety”, allowances in future should be “related to Helsinki” and the cost of transport of fresh food supplies should be reimbursed by the department.

In a letter of July 23rd, Mr O’Sullivan said a report from the Shcherbina Commission, tasked with investigating the Chernobyl disaster, had been discussed by the Politburo and state organisation Pravda had reported on that meeting.

Pravda describes the cause of the accident as “a whole series of gross violations of the operating rules by the staff of the station”, and its account basically consists of the punishments and disciplinary measures meted out to these,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

“The disaster at Chernobyl is thus treated by Pravda in terms of a violation of party rules, for which those concerned are to be punished, and as a lesson in the need for strict observance of party discipline in the future.”

He said the approach was typical of Soviet methods of explaining failures in public policy.

“There is no criticism of the system, nor any challenge to the party leadership,” he said. It was noteworthy, Mr O’Sullivan said, that the manager of the nuclear power station, who was expelled from the party, had repeatedly drawn attention to defects in the design of the reactor.

“To pick out scapegoats is a classic Soviet way of dealing with such situations, but it is unlikely to satisfy the international community in its concern over safety standards in the nuclear industry in this country,” he concluded.