WASHINGTON, May 1, 1986 (UPI) - A Soviet Embassy official, in a rare appearance before Congress, insisted Thursday the Soviet nuclear accident ''is not out of hand'' but suggested the damaged reactor core was still ablaze, spewing radiation.
Vitaly Churkin, an arms control expert and second secretary at the Kremlin's Embassy in Washington, added little to the skimpy store of information about the disaster during his session with a House subcommittee, largely reading from statements previously issued by his government.
Although he professed to know none of the technical details of the accident and none of what the Soviet Union is telling its neighbors, he said, ''We don't want to hide any information which might be helpful to other countries.''
Churkin was invited to testify by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the energy subcommittee, who called the Soviet official about an hour before the hearing and asked him to appear. Markey said later he was disappointed with some of Churkin's responses and planned to ask Soviet officials to appear at subsequent hearings.
Since announcing the accident Monday after Sweden detected unusual radiation levels, the Soviets have released little information, but have said the situation was under control at the four-reactor plant at Chernobyl, 80 miles north of Kiev.
Churkin, peppered with questions about the accident, often responded, ''I don't know.''
He took note of the testy tone of some of the questioning from members -- at one point he was told the lack of quick notification ''violates every standard of decency, religious faith and compassion'' - and said, ''This is not the tone of voice to talk to us in. Forget it.''
Asked several times about whether the fire in the graphite core of the damaged reactor had been extinquished, Churkin referred to his previous statements and then added, ''I don't know. ... You'll have to analyze the statements. I don't think it's been stated the fire has been put out.''
''We have not told other countries, 'Everything is OK,' and they can relax now. The problem is getting better. It is not out of hand, but unfortunately it is not over,'' he said.
He also thanked the United States for its offer for help but said it was not necessary.
Although the appearance was a rarity, it was not unprecedented. According to the Senate Library, a Soviet trade official testified before a Joint Economic Committee meeting in 1982.
Churkin, who often deflected questions with circuitous answers, said the accident ''has not been liquidated yet'' and may still pose some threats.
''It was something no one thought could happen. ... Every precaution was taken,'' he said.
He got in a testy exchange with Rep. Ron Wydon, D-Ore., who asked if he could explain in layman's terms what happened.
''Can you tell me in layman's terms why the Challenger (shuttle explosion) happened? Not to be polemic, but it's a technical problem,'' Churkin said, involving issues he could not address.
''We deal with our problems in this country in the open,'' Wydon shot back. ''That's what we'd like to see from the Soviet Union, openness and disclosure.''
In his description of what transpired, Churkin stuck by government claims of two deaths, with 18 of the total 197 injured hospitalized in serious condition. He rejected reports of a higher death toll.
He defended his lack of knowledge on specifics by telling one lawmaker, ''In this particular case we are really talking about a situation ... neither of us know anything about.''
Churkin ducked a question on permitting an international inspection of the site, saying the problem is not that but ''doing everything possible to prevent it from happening again. ... I'm sure we will be willing to do whatever's necessary'' to the plant.
Markey, who said radiation ''knows no international boundaries,'' urged the official to see that all information on the accident is made public.
''It'll make it possible for the world to get up to speed,'' he said, adding that providing the data will ''ease the world's anxiety level. World peace will be served by full, candid and honest disclosure.''
Markey quipped at one point: ''You should not have been celebrating May Day, but radioing 'Mayday.''
Immediately after he ended his testimony, Churkin was descended upon by representatives of network evening news shows, each tugging at him asking for an appearance and calling out their air times to help him juggle his schedule.