Thirty-five years ago today, a Swedish radiology laboratory detected a large and highly concentrated cloud of radioactive material originating from the Soviet Union. This was the first sign to the outside world of the most severe nuclear accident to date — the Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986.
The disaster, which took place in Ukraine, was also only one of two to reach the maximum International Nuclear Event Scale of seven for a nuclear disaster, with the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan the only other one in history.
On the same day as the Chernobyl event, April 27, the Budapest-based Central Physics Research Institute (KFKI) received warning through the international academic network. Although the Western press immediately reported what they knew at the time, KFKI personnel were instructed to treat the information as top secret.
A few rogue scientists, however, made anonymous phone calls from public telephones, warning nursery and kindergarten staff in Budapest and other major cities not to let children play outside “due to unusually high UV radiation levels”. The alerted staff were puzzled: this was the first time ever they received such a warning from a science institute and yet, there was no news about the disaster being reported.
Although this was two years before the end of the 32-year rule of Hungarian communist leader János Kádár and censorship was much less severe towards the end of communism, “sensitive” information regarding events in the Soviet Union and fellow communist nations was still strictly controlled.
The news monitoring service of the official (and only) Hungarian news agency, MTI, was picking up Western press reports and forwarding them to state media, but all reports related to the accident that happened a mere 900 kilometers as the crow flies were flagged as “for internal use only”.
Eventually, on the evening of April 28, the shift leader of the Hungarian Radio newsroom, Iván Bedő — disregarding the official policy to remain silent about the disaster — decided to air the news in the 10:00 p.m. news slot, which amounted to the first admission of what had happened in Chernobyl two days earlier.
The radioactive cloud was eventually detected all across Europe, except the Iberian Peninsula.
Title image: Russian Emergency Ministry Soldiers attend a wreath-laying ceremony at Mitino Memorial to commemorate those who died after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Moscow, Russia, Monday, April 26, 2021, on the 35th anniversary of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. About 600,000 people, often referred to as Chernobyl’s “liquidators,” were sent in to fight the fire at the nuclear plant after an explosion on April 26, 1986. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)