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What makes news in the Soviet Union. Tradition of secrecy may block Gorbachev's goal of `openness'

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The Chernobyl atomic disaster has presented Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with one of his biggest challenges. It is a challenge to live up to the vow he made only two months ago to promote public openness in Soviet society. ``It is fundamental for us to increase public openness,'' Mr. Gorbachev told the Communist Party Congress in a policy-setting speech on Feb. 25. ``Sometimes, when it is a question of public openness, one hears calls for greater caution in talking about our shortcomings and deficiencies. There can be only one answer to this: Communists always need the truth.'' He went on in this vein, returning to the topic at three different times in the speech and winning prolonged applause.

Yet, when fire in a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant spread radiation last week, the Gorbachev regime first concealed the news for two days. Then, after the fallout was detected in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe, alerting the outside world, Gorbachev's spokesmen minimized the damage and evaded inquiries.

The cover-up has forfeited prestige abroad. If Gorbachev continues to evade disclosure of the extent of the disaster -- and as facts about the calamity begin to seep in from Western sources and rumor magnifies them -- he risks a more dangerous erosion of faith among his followers at home.

However, if Gorbachev tries belatedly to live up to his advocacy of openness, he confronts likely resistance from colleagues in his 12-man Politburo. Although he heads this ruling body, he does not necessarily control it.

As at Three Mile Island, local bureaucrats and power industry officials may have been responsible for withholding information in the very beginning, perhaps from the leadership itself.

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