Journalist Reflects On Covering Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

Journalist Gary Lee was the Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post when the Chernobyl disaster happened 25 years ago. Journalists found it difficult to report on the nuclear disaster as officials from the former Soviet Union tried to stem the flow of information. Lee speaks with host Michel Martin about how he and other international journalists pressed to get a clearer picture of what was really happening at Chernobyl.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We want to turn now to journalist Gary Lee. He was the Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post when Chernobyl happened 25 years ago today. He covered the disaster and its aftermath. And he's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. GARY LEE (Journalist): Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you just heard Yuryi Litvinov, and what I heard is that even all these years later, he still isn't sure how to feel about the way particularly the government responded. He's not sure whether it's that they really didn't know how bad it was or that they were deliberately lying to cover things up. And I just wanted to ask, is that a typical feeling from the people you know who were involved and affected by the disaster?

Mr. LEE: It is a typical feeling, and just to take us back a little bit to that period of time, it was the Soviet period, so we were in the middle of the Cold War. And the Soviet regime was very well known for giving as little information as they possibly could about even minor things.

So here you had a major incident, and so of course they were very tight-lipped. The information that was coming out was very meager. When I reflect on it myself, looking back, I think that there was probably a combination of them just not wanting to give any information and of them deliberately misleading people about the effects of it. I could talk more about that.

MARTIN: Well, I want to read just the lead from one of your pieces from April 30, 1986: The Soviet Union said today that only - only - and you have that in quotes - only 197 people were hospitalized, unquote, as a result of the nuclear power plant accident near Kiev over the weekend, apart from the two reported killed. It also said that radiation levels in the area were dropping and a cleanup was underway. While Soviet officials attempted to portray the situation at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as under control and returning to normal, Western embassies here remain skeptical of the official statements and several advised their citizens working or visiting in the area to leave.

As you reported here, the skepticism on the part of the West was there from the beginning. I wanted to just ask, how did you find out about it and why was there that immediate skepticism?

Mr. LEE: Right. Well, I - like much of the American press corps - was in St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, reporting on the return of Vladimir Horowitz, the concert pianist doing his first debut return after, I think, 40 years away from Russia. And when I got back to my hotel to file the story about that, I had a telex from my bureau, the Moscow bureau of The Washington Post, saying that in short, it actually was short, that there had been a minor nuclear accident in the western(ph) Ukraine. It said there were some casualties.

And it didn't say much more than that. And by that time I'd been in Soviet Russia for long enough to know that if they said that, if they said that little bit, then it was a major incident that took place and that it should require my direct attention - and it did, for about three months.

Now, again, because the Soviet regime was so tight-lipped about everything, and also was famous for giving information that was misleading, we knew - I knew right away to be skeptical about anything that they said.

MARTIN: We need to pause for just a minute, but when we come back we'll continue our conversation with Gary Lee. He's a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. He reported on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. We're talking about it on this, the 25th anniversary of that disaster.

Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Back to our discussion on Chernobyl. Twenty-five years ago today, an explosion at a power plant there ignited a fire that burned for more than a week, causing the worst nuclear disaster in history.

We're back with Gary Lee. He's a journalist, former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, and he covered the disaster. Before the break we were talking about how - sort of the political context there at the time and how it was just assumed that the Soviet government was not going to be forthcoming.

I wanted to ask you about the aftermath of that. What effect do you think that the disaster had on those citizens and their relationship to their government in the aftermath?

Mr. LEE: Well, at the same time, Michel, that there was this tight-lipped policy, there was also this policy of glasnost introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the leader. And glasnost means open (unintelligible) transparency. So they were - this was one of the major first tests of that glasnost policy. Was it going to work or was it not going to work? And it didn't work very well in that case.

And because it didn't work and people gradually became aware that it was a much major problem, that they were being misled, that there were serious consequences that they were not being protected from by the government, I'm certain that it led to a great deal of further distrust, further than it already was, between the population certainly surrounding that area, and in general in the Soviet Union towards to government.

And I would even wager, in giving it some thought, that as time went on, it probably - that distrust probably even contributed to some extent to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, I'm just wondering what you think, what goes through your mind when you think about what's happening in Japan now. I talked to Yuryi a little about this and obviously it's not the same order of magnitude, two different societies, two different sets of facts. But what goes through your mind now based on what you know about Chernobyl and what happened then?

Mr. LEE: Well, that's a good question, Michel. One of the things that I was thinking when I listened to news reports coming out of Japan and read them is, at first when I heard that the Japanese government was giving a different estimation of the dangers than other governments were giving, I thought here we go again.

But on the other hand, I think that Japan is obviously much more conscientious about protecting its citizens and their health. And I think that probably they if they were not as forthcoming as they could have been, it was in the interest of not wanting to bring about wide-scale panic. So that's how I would compare those two situations.

MARTIN: Gary Lee is a journalist. He's a former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post. He covered the Chernobyl disaster and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Gary, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. LEE: Thank you, Michel.

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