Primary Sources

U.S. Reaction to the Chernobyl Explosion


On April 26, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine led to the radioactive contamination of the surrounding countryside and to radioactive fallout throughout Eastern and Western Europe. In a test of the new Soviet policy of glasnost' (openness), Soviet authorities acknowledged the disaster, though only after Western countries had traced the radiation source to Ukraine. This statement by President Ronald Reagan's Deputy Press Secretary, Larry Speakes, illustrates the official U.S. reaction to the disaster. Within four days, the United States had specialized knowledge of the equipment involved, radiation levels, and difficulties for ending the continuing fires at the Chernobyl plant. In addition to promising aid to the Soviet government, this statement also increased the pressure on Gorbachev to continue to support glasnost' by becoming more open with communications with the West. The Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear disaster in history, forced change upon the Soviet government as it was not possible to disguise the damage.


Larry Speakes, "Statement by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Speakes on the Soviet Nuclear Reactor Accident at Chernobyl," Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public Papers, Reagan Library (accessed 18 April 2007).

Primary Source—Excerpt

. . . Based on the latest data that has been gathered since we learned of the accident, it appears that the radioactive air mass from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in the Soviet Union is currently moving over the Soviet Union. During the next few days, it is expected that the air mass will be dispersed by normal atmospheric activity. It is too early to determine whether any portion of the radioactive air mass will reach the continental United States. However, from the latest information we now have, should any radiation reach the United States, it is highly unlikely that it would be a level that would pose any threat to public health. This is because of the dispersion which would take place in the atmosphere. The Environmental Protection Agency, which maintains the Nation's radiation monitoring network, has increased its sampling frequency to a daily basis for airborne radioactivity.

Information available to us indicates that the Soviet reactor accident occurred in the fourth and newest reactor at the Chernobyl Power Station. . . . The reactor suffered a major accident which included a fire at the graphite core. Given the amount and extent of the radiation released, the fire has destroyed most of the reactor's core. The reactor core contains approximately 200 tons of uranium interspersed with 1,700 tons of graphite. . . .

The United States is prepared to make available to the Soviet Union humanitarian and technical assistance dealing with this accident. We are seeking additional information on the accident and request the closest possible coordinated effort among all concerned countries. To minimize the danger, we hope the Soviet Union will fulfill its international obligations to provide information on the accident in a timely manner. . . .

How to Cite this Source

Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes, "U.S. Reaction to the Chernobyl Explosion," Making the History of 1989, Item #174, (accessed October 24 2021, 9:37 pm).

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