Despite Health Issues, Chernobyl 'Liquidators' in Israel Get Little Help From the State

The workers sent to clean up after the 1986 nuclear reactor accident are consistently denied life insurance and other benefits in Israel.

Alexander Kalantirsky, an immigrant from Chernobyl and chairman of the union of Chernobyl liquidators in Israel, April 24, 2016.
David Bachar

“Facts are facts,” said Alexander Kalantirsky, 75, chairman of the union of Chernobyl liquidators in Israel. “Since 1989, about 4,000 ‘liquidators’ from the Chernobyl disaster have come to Israel. Today, 1,387 are alive. You understand?”

Kalantirsky, a construction engineer, was one of the many professionals — engineers, electricians, doctors, nurses and others — who were sent to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor after its catastrophic accident. They were called “liquidators.” Kalantirsky’s job was to build a giant concrete dome, called a “sarcophagus,” above the leaking reactor to stop the radiation from spreading.

He stayed in Chernobyl for about five months, exposed to huge doses of radiation that have left their mark on him. “There are many health problems,” he told Haaretz on Sunday. “First of all the heart and arteries; there are problems with the stomach, legs and hands. There are many problems. Doctors in Moscow told me it’s all from Chernobyl.”

But in 1992, he moved to Israel with his family, and here, the liquidators were treated very differently. “When I talked about my problems, the doctors told me it’s not a Chernobyl problem. That’s how they took away our immigration. That’s how it is to this day.”

The countries of the former Soviet Union granted many benefits to the Chernobyl liquidators, but people who moved to Israel were stripped of their benefits. In 2001, the Knesset passed a law to help the Chernobyl liquidators, primarily by giving them an annual stipend of about 5,700 shekels ($1,500) and increasing their housing allowance.

“I’m living on my old-age allowance,” Kalantirsky said. “Seventeen years of work weren’t enough for a pension.”

In recent years, he has been fighting to get life insurance for the Chernobyl liquidators. “Today, there isn’t a single liquidator who’s healthy,” he said. “They’re all sick.”

For years the insurance companies have refused to sell the liquidators life insurance. An official letter from the Association of Life Insurance Companies informed Kalantirsky’s organization that they are entitled to deny insurance to people who have “health risks.”

About a year ago, the organization appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was also serving as health minister at the time, over this issue, but received no response. “In Israel, the value of the Chernobyl liquidators’ lives is zero,” Kalantirsky charged.

Not only the liquidators but everyone who lived in the Chernobyl area during and after the accident was exposed to exceptionally high levels of radiation. In total, 113,508 people from the Chernobyl region have immigrated to Israel, according to data from the SPECTR Center of Preventive Medicine in Haifa, which works with Chernobyl survivors.

The center’s chairman, Dr. Semion Shapiro, said that even 30 years later, the accident’s full impact on the survivors still isn’t clear.

“Today, there’s a third generation,” he said. “These are people who came here at a very young age or were born here. The immigration wave began in October 1989, so they were in the Chernobyl region for at least three or three and a half years. And to this day, people continue to come from there. Who knows what they have — even the children who were born here.”

“Based on the data from Hiroshima, the peak of cancer incidence begins 40 years later,” he noted. “We need to monitor these families very intensively, because in the health maintenance organizations, as far as I know, this isn’t standard. People say, ‘that was a long time ago.’”