The event known as the accident at Chernobyl will be remembered by history for the scarcity of contemporary information about it in the world at large, a degree of ignorance far more remarkable than the event itself. The event, after all, was diagnosed as an accident, which made it interesting to the antinuclear left; was it not to their advantage to obtain accurate reports on the scope of the disaster, or perhaps even exaggerate its magnitude? As a catastrophe on Soviet territory, the event was of interest to the country club center; after all, was this not a major industrial failing, symptomatic of the decrepitude of the Soviet technological, and hence military, potential? By procuring more data, the left might have been able to influence Western atomic energy programs as well as nuclear defense strategies, while the center’s argument might have helped to convince the right that increased defense spending, unlike good Bourbon, is unnecessary.

But—unbelievably(?)—none of this has taken place. Neither the left nor the center has unearthed any facts beyond what the Soviet reports contained, and even on the right speculation was only slightly ahead of Soviet misinformation. While not as complacent as the center’s, the attitude of the right revealed that it had fallen into an ancient Soviet trap. To make the mistake of distinguishing between the civil and the military in Soviet Russia would mean admitting that the failure was civil and thus of no real importance to the West; not distinguishing between the two would mean that the failure was a sign of Soviet military-industrial decrepitude, and hence Western fear of Soviet might was exaggerated.

Yet is it really possible to come to wrong conclusions concerning Soviet military-industrial might in the face of all available information? If the “civil” nature of Soviet atomic power can mislead the West into accepting Soviet representations at face value, what about such “civil” projects as space exploration? Is it surprising that, until its strategic relevance was impressed upon the public mind by the SDI controversy, the West had all but forgotten about space?

On May 15, the Soviet rocket “Energia” took off from Tyuratam, beginning a new era in space technology. Two hundred feet tall, it can lift nine times as much as the American space shuttle, up to 270 tons. Its 170 million horsepower engines, according to European experts, are far more sophisticated than any Western competitor. It can launch a space station 78 times higher than any satellite ever launched before, 22,500 miles. According to Alan Bond, head of space propulsion at Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority in picturesque Culham, near Oxford, “My colleagues and I are convinced that the Russians are now years ahead along the path of space industrialization and poised to gain benefits which would give them economic leadership of the world.” In 1986, the year of Chernobyl, 103 missions from all nations reached Earth orbit. Ninety-one of them were Soviet.

On July 25, “Cosmos 1870,” a bussized platform weighing 18 tons, was successfully put into orbit. It is much larger than a similar platform planned by the U.S. for 1996. Circling the earth every 90 minutes, the craft can, for example, take pictures of astonishing accuracy. A Soviet official, quoted in the Times of London, explained the advantages from an appropriately civil point of view, comparing the “cartographic” equipment with its U.S. and French competitors: “On Landsat data you can see a steamship. Spot would reveal the ship’s deck, but with Soviet data you can see the lifeboats.” Mr. Bond, Britain’s leading expert in the field, has made the following statement to the press, which says it all: “From the launch of the first Sputnik in 1957, every rocket and engine the Soviets have developed has been state-of-the-art and ahead of everything else in the world.”

But let us return to Chernobyl. The starting point for any detached speculation about the whole affair is the known fact that the affected reactor, one of the 27 such reactors in operation on Soviet territory, was an RMBK-1000, a uranium-graphite “canal-type” reactor used for breeding plutonium. This explains the Soviet motive and places the April 25, 1986, event in a proper context. The explosion took place in a military facility— one of the plutonium farms where nuclear warhead material is harvested—that is, one of those 27 camouflaged as “civil,” industrial reactors. This is clear if only because Soviet engineers know as well as anyone that in reactors of this kind the complex labyrinth of zirconium steel tubing drastically increases the number of control points and the attendant risks of failure. But the plutonium is, quite simply, worth it.

I have before me an unpublished article written on the subject by Igor Gerashchenko, a Soviet physicist who was in Kiev in 1986. I dispense with the technical side of his analysis (referring the reader to monographs like Thermal Radiation Heat Transfer by Robert Siegel and John Howell) and cite his conclusions.

The April 25 explosion ejected into the atmosphere “no less than 152 tons of radioactive material,” eight times the mass of the Hiroshima bomb. The Soviets say that 31 people have died, not 70,000 as in Hiroshima or eight times that many. Yet 116,000 were evacuated, while the average Soviet life expectancy is 65. It follows that of the evacuees alone, over the next 14 months, 2,080 people died of some causes. How many more died a “natural” death under the conditions of forced evacuation? Here the magnitude of the Soviet lie is a modest 1:100.

Radiation levels measured by Dr. Gerashchenko in Kiev at the end of May enable him to calculate it for the affected area as a whole. His conclusion: 15,000 dead and hundreds of thousands terminally ill. These figures, America’s right, left, and center should know, represent Soviet ability to sacrifice civil concerns for the sake of military objectives. They represent resolve, not decrepitude. A milligram of plutonium for the life of an average man is a good deal, and, if anything, the West’s inability to understand this is a measure of its own decrepitude.