The nearby city of Pripyat was not immediately evacuated after the incident. The townspeople went about their usual business, completely oblivious to what had just happened. However, within a few hours of the explosion, dozens of people fell ill. Later, they reported severe headaches and metallic tastes in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting.
The general population of the Soviet Union was first informed of the disaster on 28 April, two days after the explosion, with a 20 second announcement in the TV news program Vremya. At that time ABC released its report about the disaster. During that time, all radio broadcasts run by the state were replaced with classical music, which was a common method of preparing the public for an announcement of a tragedy that had taken place. Scientist teams were armed and placed on alert as instructions were awaited.
Only after radiation levels set off alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, over one thousand kilometers from the Chernobyl Plant, did the Soviet Union admit that an accident had occurred. Nevertheless, authorities attempted to conceal the scale of the disaster. For example, after evacuating the city of Pripyat, the following warning message was read on the state TV:There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up. —Vremya, 28 April 1986 (21:00)
A state commission was set up the same day (26 April) and tasked with investigating the accident. It was headed by Valery Legasov, who arrived at Chernobyl in the evening of 26 April. By the time Legasov arrived, two people had already died and 52 were receiving medical attention in hospital. By the night of 26–27 April – more than 24 hours after the explosion – Legasov's committee had ample evidence that extremely high levels of radiation had caused a number of cases of radiation exposure. Based on the evidence at hand, Legasov's committee acknowledged the destruction of the reactor and ordered the evacuation of Pripyat.
The evacuation began at 14:00 on 27 April. An excerpt of the evacuation announcement was translated into English in the program Seconds From Disaster on the National Geographic Channel in 2004. A translation of the rest of the audio follows.For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation. —Evacuation announcement in Pripyat, 27 April 1986 (14:00)
In order to expedite the evacuation, the residents were told to bring only what was necessary, as the authorities had said it would only last approximately three days. As a result, most of the residents left their personal belongings, which are still there today. An exclusion zone of 30 km (19 mi) remains in place today, although its shape has changed and its size has been expanded.
As the plant was run by authorities in Moscow, the government of Ukraine did not receive prompt information on the situation at the site, according to the former chairman of Presidium of Verkhovna Rada of Ukrainian SSR, Valentyna Shevchenko. In her recollections she stated that she was at work when at 09:00 Vasyl Durdynets who performed duties of the Minister of Internal Affairs at the time (as the First Deputy Minister) called in with a report on the recent situation, adding at the end that there was a fire at the Chernobyl AES (AES – an abbreviation for a nuclear power plant), which was extinguished and everything was fine (see Fire containment). When Shevchenko asked "How are the people?", he replied that there was nothing to be concerned with: "some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River".
On 25 April 2011 the President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych awarded Durdynets the "Distinguished Juror of Ukraine" as an advisor of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a participant in the liquidation of consequences of Chernobyl disaster, and a general of Internal Service of Ukraine. After the report Shevchenko called in to Volodymyr Shcherbytsky (Head of the Central Committee of CP(b)U, de facto – a head of state). Shcherbytsky stated that he anticipated a delegation of the state commission headed by the deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers of USSR.
Among the delegation's officials were academic Evgeny Velikhov, a leading nuclear specialist in the Soviet Union; a head of Hydro-Meteorologic Service of USSR Yuriy Izrael; a chief radiologist of the country Leonid Ilyin; and others. From the Boryspil International Airport the delegation drove to the power plant, realised the seriousness of the situation that night, and decided to evacuate the residents of Pripyat. On 26 April 2011 Velikhov was awarded Order of Merit of the III degree from the President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych for his contributions in the liquidation of consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.
By the morning of 27 April, buses arrived in Pripyat to start the evacuation at 11:00. By 15:00, 53,000 people were evacuated to various villages of Kiev region. At first it was decided to evacuate the population temporarily for three days, however later it was postponed permanently. Many took only the most necessary items and their documents leaving all the rest behind. The next day, talks began for evacuating people from the 10 km zone.
Shevchenko was the first of the Ukrainian state top officials to arrive at the disaster site early on 28 April. There she spoke with members of medical staff and people, who were calm and hopeful that they could soon return to their homes. Shevchenko returned home near midnight, stopping at a radiological checkpoint in Vilcha, one of the first that were set up soon after the accident.
There was a notification from Moscow that there was no reason to postpone the 1 May celebrations (including the annual parade), but on 30 April a meeting of the Political bureau of the Central Committee of CP(b)U took place to discuss the plan for the upcoming celebration. Scientists were reporting that the radiological background in Kiev city was normal. At the meeting, which was finished at 18:00, it was decided to shorten celebrations from the regular 3.5–4 to under 2 hours.
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