Fall-Guy found for November panic over Balakovo Nuclear Power Station

Publish date: February 3, 2005

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Saratov Regional Prosecutors have brought charges against the author of an anonymously posted web site for spreading what the criminal code defines as disseminating false information about an industrial accident at the Balakovo Nuclear Power Plant (NPP),
fixing guilt for the panic - that was spread in the wake of a mishap in November - on one person.

Saratov prosecutors have meanwhile declined to file similar charges against the plant itself, which did nothing to mollify fears of hundreds of local residents and issued dozens of contradictory statements about the state of the plant. A leaking pipe in the plant’s coolant system in reactor no. 2 was eventually established to have triggered an emergency shutdown of the plant’s second reactor unit.

Authorities and the defendant’s former employer have declined to identify him in full. Prosecutors said only that he was a 23-year-old information technologist from the Samara based information laboratory Wenses. His former co workers at Wenses, when contacted by Bellona Web, would identify him only as “Sergei.”

The information posted by Sergei gave a completely unclear and dubious picture of the situation developing at the plant, but in the hours following the emergency, his site accidentally emerged to fill the vacuum of deafening official silence.

The emergency shut-down at the Balakovo plant – situated some 700 kilometers southwest of Moscow – occurred during the early morning hours of November 4th around 1 a.m. The malfunction caused wide-spread panic among residents of nearby cities and villages.

Many residents, with Chernobyl fresh in the memory, refused to believe the contradictory offical information that was eventually issued and, according to local press reports, awaited the shadow of a radioactive cloud from the Balakovo plant. Emergency workers were evidentially unprepared for what may or may not have been about to happen and authorities at all levels clashed on how to handle the situation.

People identifying themselves as being from the Civil Defence (CD) and Emergency Services (EC), called schools, universities and other institutions, saying people should take iodine. It’s still unclear, whether they really were emergency officials but in the lack of information following the Balakovo incident, it is possible that even officials did not have reliable information and thus overcompensated by suggesting what emergency measures to take.

Residents, meanwhile, flooded drug stores and cleared shelves of iodine as a prophylactic measure against an initial influx of radiation poison, but had little information – both from emergency officials or nuclear authorities about how to correctly use the potentially dangerous substance. As a result, several local suffered iodine overdoses.

The panic continued late into the night until Presidential Plenipotentiary for the Povolzhsky Federal District Sergei Kiriyenko was shown on television gripping the repaired pipe with his hands.

By November 5, the Saratov Region had already filed criminal charges under Article 207 of the Russian criminal code “On Spreading False Information about an Act of Terrorism”. As Nina Gellert, public relations secretary for the Saratov Regional Prosecutors’ office explained to Bellona Web, the article deals not only with terrorism, but also with any false information about situations that could endanger significant numbers of people.


The media
Anton Nossik, a well-known Russian Internet analyst and activist said: “The blame lay not with those anonymous page, but with those members of the media who re-broadcast the information without having any foundation to believe it.”

Nosik said that Article 57 of the Law on Media covers various circumstances when the media are free from liability for misreporting news. One is if the source of information was an official, or an information agency so proven to be so by the media. The notion of anonymous web pages is not covered by the law. Likewise, the law does not say that the media are exonerated from liability if they get information from an unknown source.

According to Gorshkov, the prosecutors’ office does not intend to file charges against any media outlets that used Sergei’s web site a source because those media “were not the source of the information.”

“The site was opened on November 5th, but the wide-spread panic had already begun on November 4th,” said Greenpeace’s Chuprov.

“The state is simply looking for a patsy, regardless of whether the reason for the information failure was systematic. Why do we need the government that you can frighten with one amateur web site?” he added.

Ecologists say that the reason for the panic was precisely the fault of the information vacuum surrounding the events at the Balakovo NPP on in the pre-dawn hours of November 4th. Nossik thinks the same. That Internet forum users began to pass this information to one another, and then that the media published the address of this site is a rare stroke of luck, said Nossik.

“It is doubtful that any anonymous page on any anonymous hosting site would cause a fall in the stock market or a flight of the population from radiation,” said Nossik in an interview with Bellona Web.

Amidst this, Nossik wrote in one of his recent columns on the Internet-based, that “the declarations of ministers, mayors, governors, deputies, senators and special services generals, made during 2004 about the growing, pointed necessity of boosting government control over the Internet, its servers and users and the materials put on it sound threatening.”

The status of the Internet in Russia
Currently developing practice shows that the internets is, in point of fact, a self regulating field beyond the reach of government. Strictly speaking, one can consider “official” only those sites that announce themselves as media sites – and none of them supply any information that might run contrary to their authenticity – and official sites of the authorities and organisations. The remaining information is just snippet of personal conversation.

One web master from a division of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who asked not to be named in this article, said that “all the words about information on, say, livejournal or on is public just because it is accessible to an unlimited circle of people is nuts. That’s what people who have poor perception of the Internet think.”

“By the same logic, one could say that an ‘unlimited circle of people’ can come into my apartment. Or that a conversation between two acquaintances via walkie-talkies is public just because someone else may be on the same frequency.”

The this sources opinion, “bringing criminal charges for amateur use is the same as Stalin-era surveillance of personal conversations.”

The Skovorodnikov affair
Recently, Andrei Skovorodnikov of the Central Siberia city of Krasnoyarsk was sentenced to six months of community service. Because of his membership in the fringe National-Bolshevik party he was accused of creating a web site that contained an obscene play on words involving President Vladimir Putin’s last name.

In an interview with Bellona Web, Skovorodnikov said that the site he was accused of creating was put up on the free where members can situate personal web pages. As it turns out, a web search including the obscene phase used by Skovorodnikov on his page returns 401 other web pages containing the same phrase.

Control over the Internet?
“It is stupid and unjustified to accuse the Internet of creating panic. The Internetisation of the Russian population is low, people here don’t have wide-scale access to the Internet,” said Slivyak.

“Russia has very few Internet users. In this sense, Russia cannot even compete with, say, Egypt, which I visited recently. There, they have a lot of cyber-cafes, practically one in every building on the ground floor… even very poor people can be seen in them, smoking hookahs, surfing online and looking at the news.”

Shohdi Naguib, a famous figure on the Russian Internet, who holds dual citizenship with Russia and Egypt, said in an interview with Bellona Web that Skovorodnikov’s case is very similar to his own: In 2002, Naguib was found guilty by an Egyptian court of posting a satirical poem written by his father on a server that was pysically located in the United States.

“The only difference my case and that of Skovorodnikov is that I was not even on trial for the publication of my own opinion, but for a poem written by my father 30 years previous. I am in absolute solidarity with this young man,” he said.

In Naguib’s opinion, in conditions of virtual absence of any political freedoms in Russia and of the arbitrary rule of bureaucrats, electronic sources of information become the only uncontrollable space, which is what makes it so difficult for the ruling classes to demolish Perestroika’s last big achievement – Glasnost.

“This is why any incursion by the authorities into cyberspace must be met with aggressive opposition, even in a case where the authorities decide suddenly to start a crack-down on spam,” he said.