MOSCOW, April 30, 1986 (UPI) - The Soviet government, on the eve of May Day celebrations, denied Wednesday ''gigantic destruction and fires'' in the nuclear plant disaster in the Ukraine but acknowledged 197 people were hospitalized.
In an apparent attempt to stem public concern over the disaster, the nightly television news program Vremya showed the first picture of the damaged station -- a still shot of one section of the building with a charred, caved-in roof at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant 80 miles north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev. No smoke was visible.
''You can see for yourselves that there was no gigantic destruction and fires, as some Western agencies wrote,'' the news commentator said of the picture he said was taken by a worker shortly after the accident. ''Nor are there thousands of dead.''
U.S. intelligence sources said Wednesday fire at the damaged reactor site north of the Soviet city of Kiev still was burning, and a Western diplomat suggested the photograph had been retouched.
The government statement, the third since the disaster first was acknowledged Monday, also denied that thousands of people died in the accident.
Westerners, Soviets and Western intelligence information indicated a high death toll and one unconfirmed report, from a Soviet resident in Kiev, said 2,000 people died.
Westerners said they did not notice anything unusual in Kiev Wednesday. The Soviet tour agency, Intourist, said groups were traveling to the Ukraine as normal.
''There are very many tours there,'' a spokeswoman said. ''All those that have been arranged are still going there, and about 1.5 million Soviet tourists left for holidays in the Ukraine today,'' the eve of the four-day national labor holiday, May Day. The traditional parade was scheduled in Moscow with top Kremlin leaders to attend.
But the Foreign Ministry canceled a trip arranged by the U.S. Embassy and told Western diplomats and journalists they could not travel to the area in the near future.
In Paris, the Soviet ambassador to France said the nuclear disaster had ''stabilized'' and that ''several dozen'' people had been injured.
''Some news agencies in the West are spreading the rumors that thousands of people, allegedly, perished during the accident at the atomic power station,'' the government announcement said. ''It has already been reported that in reality two persons died, that only 197 people were hospitalized, 49 of them were discharged from the hospital after a medical examination.''
The statement also said the air over Kiev ''evokes no concern. The quality of drinking water, as well as the waters, rivers and water reservoirs is in keeping with standards.''
But a Western diplomat said, ''Kiev University students are being told don't drink the water, don't bathe, don't eat fish from the river, don't go near the river.''
In Washington, officials said U.S. intelligence indicates a meltdown may have occurred in a second Soviet nuclear reactor near a burning unit that continued to spew fire and radiation Wednesday.
A Swedish analyst also said satellite photographs indicated two possible meltdowns, although scientists in the West questioned that possibility.
Tuesday, nuclear energy officials in West Germany and Sweden said the Soviets asked for advice on how to put out an atomic fire, which experts say is considered more disastrous than a reactor core meltdown.
''Measurements taken by specialist by means of control equipment show that the chain reaction of fission of nuclear fuel is not taking place, the reactor is shut down,'' the Soviet government announcement said.
''The emanation of radioactive substances has decreased, the radiation levels in the area of the atomic power station and in the settlement at the station lowered,'' the statement said.
But a Western diplomat said the photograph appeared to be retouched and doubted its validity.
''I smell airbrushing,'' he said. ''The Soviets are worried about domestic reaction, if they show a picture of happy peasants around the building people will buy it.''
The United States, Canada, Britain, West Germany, France and Sweden issued travel advisories for the area and warned their nationals to get out of the region. Britain was evacuating more than 100 students from the area.
The Swedish Embassy was flying in iodine tablets as a precaution against contamination for its personnel in Moscow.