Saturday, April 30, 2016

Chernobyl and the Quality of Partnership

The Damage at Chernobyl
Aside from the being the worst nuclear disaster up to that point and an international cautionary tale, creating a humanitarian crisis in the Ukrainian SSR and derailing nuclear power plans throughout Europe for decades, Chernobyl was also a demonstration of how little regard the USSR had for its allies. In its efforts both to deal with the situation while covering up failings of the Soviet system as much as possible, during the first critical week following the accident Moscow failed to provide even basic information to its affected allies that could inform their own responses. The repeated queries of the Romanian leadership to Soviet officials posted to their country and back in the USSR were met with stony silence. Not content to wait on the Kremlin’s convenience in the developing crisis, and receiving no response to their requests for information and expert assistance, Romania took the unprecedented step of turning to the Americans.

Keeping An Eye On The Bear

Given the fairly consistent nature of Soviet-Romanian tensions, both sides watched their common border and monitored each other’s communications with a fair degree of rigor. Bucharest had been doing so since 1968 when, in the aftermath of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, the communist leadership removed the interdiction on military intelligence gather against the Soviet target.[1] Soviet military intelligence – the GRU – had been monitoring the border and operating over it since the founding of the Bolshevik Russian state, although with particularly close scrutiny since 1963, when Romania ripped a whole in the electronic curtain protecting the USSR from Western broadcasts. Monitoring was consistently redoubled as Soviet authorities in Moscow and Chisinau (and Kiev) grew increasingly fearful of the impact of Romanian broadcasts and literature on their co-ethnics in the Moldavian and Ukrainian Soviet Republics (as well as on other populations).[2]

Figure 1: The Zones of Radioactive Contamination[3]

Consequently, Bucharest knew that something had gone badly wrong in Chernobyl within hours of the accident on April 26, 1986. During the first 48 hours Bucharest limited itself to expressing general condolences for the fact of the accident to the Soviet embassy, awaiting an official briefing on the situation that it knew would surely follow in short order. However, by the third day it began asking questions, but its repeated inquiries to Soviet authorities as to the nature of the problem were either left unanswered or met with denial.

Romanian Military Intelligence on the Disaster

            On April 30, 1986, Defense Minister General Vasile Milea reported that, as of April 26, the interception of Soviet military radio transmissions revealed that the radioactive cloud of Cesium 137 and Iodine 31 created by the Chernobyl disaster had reached the territories of Finland, Sweden, Norway and northern Poland. Soviet authorities – Milea further reported – “had taken measures for the evacuation of   approximately 30,000 inhabitants for a distance of 30 kilometers around the nuclear facility and the decontamination of the population from the area.” Meanwhile, the general noted, the United States “had ordered the constitution of an interministerial group to inform the public and proposed that an International Commission be constituted to study the effects of the nuclear accident.”[4]
An annex subsequently added to the report noted that “an analysis of the current and probable meteorological situation at the ground and at altitude indicates that the circulation of air will become favorable for the transport and dispersal of radioactive contaminants towards the territory of our country” over the next few days, although not in life-endangering quantities.[5]

The Winds Change: May 1, 1986
Figure 2: The Direction and Speed of the Wind – 1 May 1986, 0003 hours

The very next morning Ceausescu reported in the meeting of the Political Executive Committee that the feared and predicted wind change had indeed occurred, and that airborne radiation levels had abruptly increased beyond the alarm threshold in Suceava, Iasi, Tulcea, Targu Mures and Galati.[6]
The military alone had 127 permanent monitoring stations measuring possible radioactive contamination at ground level throughout the country. To this was added the resources of the Institute for Nuclear Research at Pitesti and those of the Atomic Physics Institute at Magurele – some 40 mobile stations – also being deployed to the threatened areas.[7]

Figure 3: Military Network for Monitoring Radioactive Contamination

Monitoring Station at Toaca Summit, Piatra Neamt

Comrades, regarding the necessary measures, in the areas in which the levels of radioactivity have surpassed acceptable values, do we dispose of all that is required to deal with the problem? Or is this a case in which we should request some help from the Soviets, since they are better acquainted with it as they have had other accidents – not only now, with the same sort of damage?
Nicolae Ceausescu

Non-Existent Soviet Assistance

Faced with this lack of any Soviet response, Ceausescu asked the committee whether there was sufficient equipment and expertise in country to assess and deal with the crisis by themselves, or whether this was a “case in which we should request some help from the Soviets because they are better acquainted with the problem since they had other accidents” resulting in “the same sort of damage.”[8]
Ion Ursu
The Romanians were clearly at a loss as to how to handle dangerous levels of contamination, especially given their lack of certainty as to whether more was still being produced by the burning nuclear facility at Chernobyl (or even whether it was still burning at all).[9] But their repeated attempts to extract information and elicit expertise from Moscow were left unanswered. 
After reporting that his requests to the Soviet ambassador had gone unanswered, Ion Ursu, the de facto head of Romania’s nuclear program, stated the belief that “for the moment, we have everything necessary.”[10] In a last effort to compel a response and obtain necessary expertise from Moscow, Ceausescu ordered a direct approach from the Romanian Party leadership to the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party.[11]

We should immediately call in the Soviet Ambassador and draw his attention to the situation that has been created as a result of their accident, underscoring that we must take measures as well. In light of this, we request that the Soviet specialists should make immediate contact with us so that we might receive some details regarding what must be done.
Communicate to the Soviet Ambassador that this request comes from the party leadership and should be communicated directly to his party’s leadership, and not sent along specialist lines.
Nicolae Ceausescu

Calling in the US “Cavalry”

            By this point, five days from the accident and after the contamination had already reached Romania, Ceausescu and the rest of the leadership held out scant hope that Moscow would be forthcoming either with information about the accident or expert assistance to assess and deal with its impact on territory of their country.       

Shortly after the meeting, the Romanian leadership appealed directly to the United States, requesting that Washington send one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nuclear Emergency Support Teams (NEST), made up of scientists, technicians and engineers, to evaluate the immediate impact of the Chernobyl incident on Romanian territory. In order to accomplish that mission the US team was granted uninhibited access to all facilities and locations throughout the country.
A word of explanation is necessary here because most Romanians and Americans are unaware that despite the very different perspectives on domestic policy, and especially on human and civil rights, that increasingly separated Bucharest and Washington until the final breaking point – following Ceausescu’s unilateral renunciation of its “Most Favored Nation” status in 1988 – the leaderships of both countries often saw eye-to-eye on broader issues of international security and the American-Romanian relationship was much closer than U.S. relations with any other bloc member.
General Vessey
Thus, for example, General John W. Vessey Jr. had been the first Chairman of the U.S. Armed Forces Joint Chiefs of Staff ever to visit a Soviet bloc state one year earlier, in March 1985. General Vessey met with Ceausescu as well as with Milea's predecessor, General Constantin Olteanu. Mircea Raceanu, the head of the North American department in the Romanian foreign ministry at the time, recalls that Vessey's visit was given "great importance" by the Romanian side as representing "the support given by the U.S. to Romanian foreign policy" as well as the "good relations between U.S. and Romanian military leadership." 
Generals Vessey and Olteanu, 3/1985

That appreciation was shared by the Americans. As one U.S. authority reported, “The visit was so successful that General Vessey and Romanian military leaders even discussed hypothetical war scenarios, an unprecedented occurrence between members of the two confronting military alliances.”[12] In December 1985, when Washington re-imposed travel restrictions on Soviet bloc diplomatic and commercial representatives, Romanians were not placed in the same category.
General Milea
Although Romanian Chief of Staff Ion Coman had been hosted at the White House back in mid-1975 (and his American counterpart, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Frederick Weygand, had visited Romania in September 1975), General Milea was the first Warsaw Pact defense minister to visit Washington as an official guest of the Joint Chiefs in October 1986, meeting with them in their “Tank” inside the Pentagon.[13] Admiral William Crowe, Vessey’s successor, with whom Milea had “extensive talks” at the Pentagon, planned to be the second Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to visit Romania in 1987 but was prevented by his overcrowded schedule.                                                                                                                     

Immediate U.S. Response

Therefore, at this point, the Romanian dictator believed that the Americans were no military or security threat to his country, and very much interested in its long-term survival. No mention of the request to the United States was recorded in the transcript of the May 1, 19986 Political Executive Committee meeting. Nor was the U.S. NEST team mission ever mentioned publicly by the Romanians. However, it is quite apparent that Bucharest shared with Washington its frustrations regarding Moscow’s failure to provide even minimal information to assist the Romanians in dealing with a nuclear disaster now threatening their country for which the Soviets bore sole and complete liability.
Amb. Roger Kirk
As Roger Kirk, the American ambassador at the time, recalls, “five days after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster,” in a move that was “highly unusual for a Warsaw Pact member in 1986” and “intriguing” to the United States:           

Ceausescu instructed his ministers to request that a U.S. team come to Romania to monitor the amount of radiation Romania had received, as the Soviets had given the Romanians very little useful information about the nature of the radiation leaks or their effect. The U.S. team arrived within five days of the request and received full access to Romanian monitoring installations. Its conclusion, based on on-site observations, was that the radiation levels were not medically significant.[14]

As with many of the other countries affected by the Chernobyl disaster, Romania subsequently devoted a great deal of its nuclear research attention to the issues related to nuclear safety. Scores, if not hundreds, of these studies and reports, many on Chernobyl itself, can now be found on the website of the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, unlike most of Europe, the Romanians did not veer even briefly from their plans to address current and future energy needs by developing nuclear power capabilities, even if other economic and political constraints - largely of the regime's own making - delayed their projects until after the collapse of communism.

[1] Paper of General Ion Gheorghe, chief of the general staff during 1965-1974, presented to symposium  “The Romanian Army within the Context of the Events of August 1968,” organized by the Alexander Ion Cuza National Union of the Military Staff in Reserve and Retirement” as cited in Mihai Retegan, In the Shadow of the Prague Spring: Romanian Foreign Policy and the Crisis in Czechoslovakia, 1968, Iaşi, Center for Romanian Studies, 2000, p. 191.
[2] Larry L. Watts, A Romanian INTERKIT? Soviet Active Measures and the Warsaw Pact “Maverick” 1965-1989, Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) Working Paper #65, December 2012, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C.,  See also Larry Watts, The Soviet-Romanian Clash Over History, Identity and Dominion, Cold War International History Project e-Dossier No. 29, March 2012,
[3] Annex No. 1 entitled: “The Zones of Radioactive Contamination As A Result of The Accident At The Chernobyl Nuclear Plant” identified (1) “Zone Radioactively Infected as of 04.30,1986”; (2) “Zones of Probable Radioactive Infection in the Following Days”; and (3) “Zone Most Powerfully Infected from Where The Population Has Been Evacuated.” It was annexed to the defense minister’s Report No. M.1922, ANR, Fond C.C. al P.C.R. Sectia Politico-Administrativ, dosar 42/1986, f. 11-13.
[4] Report No. M.1922 from Colonel General Vasile Milea, Ministry of National Defense, to Comrade Nicolae Ceausescu, General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party and President of the Socialist Republic of Romania, Bucharest, April 30, 1986, Ibid.
[5] The annex entitled “The Direction and Speed of the Wind Based on Observation Data from May 1, 1986, 0300 hours,” illustrated the probable path of air currents at altitudes of 1500, 3000 and 5500 meters. ANR, Fond C.C. al P.C.R. Sectia Politico-Administrativ, dosar 42/1986, f. 13.
[6] Transcript of Meeting of the Political Executive Committee of the C.C. of the R.C.P., Bucharest, May 1, 1986, ANR, Fond C.C. al P.C.R., Secţia Cancelarie, dosar 40/1986, f. 1-7.
[7] A map of the military’s radioactive contamination monitoring system was included as Annex No. 2: “System of Radioactive Contamination Observation and Warning of the Army of the S. R. of Romania (127 Observation Stations)” which notes that “The System Measures Levels of Radiation from 0.05 Milliroentgens per Hour (mR/hr) to 3000 Milliroentgens/Hour” in ANR, Fond C.C. al P.C.R. Sectia Politico-Administrativ, dosar 42/1986.
[8] Transcript of Meeting of the Political Executive Committee, May 1, 1986, ANR, Fond C.C. al P.C.R., Secţia Cancelarie, dosar 40/1986, f. 6.
[9] Ibid, f. 6-9.
[10] Ibid, f. 6.
[11] Ibid. f. 9.
[12] Raymond L. Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War, Washington, D.C., Brookings Institute, 1994, p. 582.
[13] Roger Kirk and Mircea Raceanu, Romania Versus The United States: Diplomacy of the Absurd, 1985-1989, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1994, p. 94. The U.S. press noted that “Milea was welcomed to the Pentagon with military honors in a highly unusual visit,” held “extensive talks with U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. William Crowe” and “met with Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and other leaders.” Los Angeles Times and Detroit Free Press, October 31, 1986.
[14] Kirk and Raceanu (1994), p. 81.