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Chernobyl reveals contradictions of Soviet system. Mistakes are being admitted but defensiveness continues

Soviet workers are still struggling to keep radiation from leaking from the stricken Chernobyl nuclear reactor and entomb the reactor compartment in concrete. But while the reactor is being buried, some of the complex, often contradictory workings of this country's government and society are coming to the surface.

Mistakes are slowly being admitted, yet at the same time there is continued defensiveness and criticism of the outside world. Pride and relief at having risen to a huge challenge are mingled with deep anguish that it arose in the first place.

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Belatedly, and only after outside pressure, the extent of the disaster is now being acknowledged.

Yesterday, 17 days after the accident occurred, the Soviet government met with ambassadors of neighboring countries and Western powers -- including the United States -- to give what the Soviet news agency Tass called ``detailed explanations'' of what happened at Chernobyl, and what's being done in the aftermath.

The move came as more details of the seriousness of the accident were printed in the state-controlled press.

It has now been revealed, for example, that while the Soviet government was reassuring the world that the situation at Chernobyl had ``stabilized,'' it was secretly struggling to prevent a meltdown of the reactor core, and all the while lashing out at the Western news media for overplaying the disaster.

The belated admissions of the seriousness of the situation are causing a series of aftershocks here.

One example is the remark by one of the plant's designers that it will be centuries before the concrete coffin in which the plant's reactor compartment is being encased can be opened.

Ivan Yemilianov, deputy chief of the agency that builds Soviet reactors, told Western reporters yesterday that it will take ``hundreds of years'' before radioactive materials in the sealed-up reactor core decay.

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Nevertheless, Mr. Yemilianov defended the design of the Chernobyl plant, insisting that it had adequate safety systems, and predicted that similar plants would be built in this country in the future.

The number of evacuees from around Chernobyl now stands at 92,000. And radiation is still escaping from the reactor, according to Pravda, the official Communist Party daily. Ivan Silayev, a deputy prime minister, told Pravda, ``The reactor has not yet been made harmless.'' And, he said, the cleanup would take months.

Casualty figures from the accident have risen, now standing at eight dead and 35 in ``grave condition.'' That is nearly double the number of people listed in serious condition in the previous official announcement.

While such information is coming out, it is still incomplete. And its release is apparently calculated to minimize official embarrassment.

The new casualty figures, for example, came only at the end of an official government statement that first gave upbeat assurances that in the region around the reactor ``agricultural work is proceeding, factories are functioning, and tourist tours [are] being conducted. . . .''

Soviet citizens have yet to be told that the Chernobyl accident is by far the most serious in the history of civilian nuclear-power production. Remarks confirming that, made by Hans Blix, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, have been pointedly edited out of television and print reports.

Instead, the Soviet press continues to dwell on the danger of nuclear plants in the West. Foreign criticism of Moscow's handling of the Chernobyl accident is not mentioned.

Still, some of the reports now coming out in the state-controlled press here are remarkably straight-forward, at least by Soviet standards. But it's unclear how much would be coming out in the absence of outside pressure. One newspaper said the policy of openness was adopted to avoid rumors which ``play into the hands of our enemies.''

Meanwhile, cables and letters of sympathy, donations of money and supplies, and offers of voluntary assistance are flooding into Chernobyl, according to press reports.

``The disaster of Chernobyl,'' says Pravda, ``has touched all Soviet people.''

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