Surviving Chernobyl

For 1,200 people living in Israel, the concept of a nuclear threat is not an abstract idea. They were there - inside the Chernobyl nuclear reactor - immediately after the April 1986 explosion. They can confirm that while you can't smell radiation, you can taste it. Even today, after having made a new life in Israel, the metallic taste remains in their mouths, which, in many cases, are toothless.

Their teeth fell out in Chernobyl, while other serious problems began developing during the months they spent trying to "neutralize" the nuclear power plant, although they were unprepared and defenseless. They were called liquidators, a term embracing a variety of professionals - engineers, electricians, physicians and nurses - sent to neutralize the seething nuclear reactor.

The Soviet authorities assured them that everything would be fine and that they had nothing to worry about. Today, 23 years after Chernobyl, when asked how they are, they reply, "Surviving, so far." Alexander Kalantirsky, 68, chairman of Israel's union of Chernobyl liquidators, estimates that 150 to 200 of them have died, all below age 75.

But what really worries them is not lifespan, but quality of life. They suffer from various ailments - damaged thyroid glands, eaten-away livers, twisted bones - and they are all afraid. Some of them decided not to have children after taking into consideration the genetic implications of what they had undergone.

"My wife is scared," Michael Studman says sadly. A soldier in the Soviet army, he was sent to handle electricity problems after the blast and remained at the reactor for six months.

A construction engineer, Kalantirsky spent months at Chernobyl building the sarcophagus - a reinforced concrete structure intended to seal the reactor after the explosion. Kalantirsky recently appeared at a conference organized by the United Nations, where he told his personal story and listened to reports on the long-range ramifications of radiation by physicians and scientists, some of whom were Russian.

Although he had already amassed considerable information on Chernobyl, he was still shocked by the data on morbidity and mortality rates. Last year, diplomats from countries directly affected - Russia, Ukraine and Belarus - took part in a similar gathering. Although it has the fourth largest concentration of liquidators, Israel sent no representative. This year's conference was attended by Israeli diplomats.

This is what happens when the Iranian nuclear issue becomes key in formulating Israeli policy and when the Israeli liquidators have been transformed from a burden to an asset. "I oppose nuclear armament and war with Iran," Kalantirsky says angrily. "All those who underwent the Chernobyl experience think like me."

From his modest Bat Yam apartment, Kalantirsky and his colleagues are waging a battle to restore rights they were once granted for setting off to neutralize the reactor. Although initially abandoned, the liquidators were later pampered by the Soviet Union, which lauded them as national heroes, granting them generous allowances, treatment sessions and holiday packages.

That ended when they moved to Israel. Over the years, they have pushed through Israel's parliament two laws guaranteeing them, as Israelis, a NIS 5,000 annual grant. Now they are stubbornly waging a war to restore rights conferred on them before they emigrated.

The explosion occurred not long after midnight on April 26, 1986. Five days later, Soviet citizens marked the May Day workers' holiday. Massive crowds celebrated in the streets - in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Nobody told them they should stay indoors. They had no idea that they were breathing radiation-soaked air or eating meat and drinking milk from animals that grazed in radiation-contaminated pastures.

According to data compiled by the SPECTR center of preventive medicine and Chernobyl-related services, which closely collaborates with Haifa's Carmel Medical Center, 350,000 people immigrated to Israel from regions contaminated by radioactive radiation. Thus, a quarter of recently arrived new immigrants, constituting 5 percent of Israel's population, were exposed to varying levels of radiation. The data is disputed by some experts and it varies depending on the method used to measure the distance from the stricken area. In any event, the reality is grim.

The database of an organization known as the Chernobyl Project contains the names of 103,000 immigrants from the contaminated areas. Since 1993, the Chernobyl Project has operated a hotline providing callers with information and support on medical, psychological and legal issues. Some 100,000 people have called the hotline; many of them phone in to report a dead relative or ask when their turn is due.

The number of callers increased dramatically during the Second Lebanon War, which stirred old fears. The project operates in cooperation with the World Health Organization, the health ministries of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and the Chernobyl Project.

Dr. Semion Shapiro, SPECTR's chairman, directly experienced the Chernobyl event. The day after the blast, he was summoned from the hospital he was running and was sent, wearing only a light shirt, to head a mission of doctors tasked with evacuating the villages near the nuclear plant. "Something has happened" was the most precise piece of information Shapiro received when he set out for Chernobyl. This was more than what the authorities told the people living nearby, who had no desire to leave.

In 1991, Shapiro moved to Israel. Although the data in SPECTR's presentation is chilling, he sounds optimistic and relaxed. Some 65 percent of the families who have come to Israel from the stricken areas are still concerned about their health and the health of their young children. These people are 1.5 times more likely to suffer from depression than typical members of the immigrant population. The difference is even greater when considering rates of diseases such as breast cancer, colon cancer, thyroid cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Around 19,000 people exposed to radiation in childhood are registered in SPECTR's database, and another 6,000 have been born to parents from radiation-contaminated areas. "There are problems in this group," notes Shapiro, "but not exceptional ones." Today he is mainly worried about the third generation: the children of those exposed to radiation as children. "Although we do not have figures yet, we are still concerned," he says. "The genetic results appear only in the third generation."

According to research conducted by SPECTR, the morbidity rate for hereditary diseases will continue to grow. The more disturbing news, Shapiro says, is that radiation-induced cancer will peak 50 years after Chernobyl. Although he describes himself as someone who does not panic, he admits he is worried.