Feature Stories

Chernobyl's 700,000 "Liquidators" struggle with psychological and social consequences

Staff Report

August 2005

While the news of the devastating accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant was slowly trickling out to a shocked world, crew after crew of plant employees, fire-fighters, soldiers, construction workers and volunteers descended on the “exclusion zone”, a 30 kilometre radius around the plant itself, to deal with the aftermath of the reactor explosion.

Emergency workers or “liquidators” were drafted into the area and helped to clean up the plant premises and the surrounding area. These workers, generally men aged 20 to 45, were mostly plant employees, Ukrainian fire-fighters plus many soldiers and miners from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and other parts of the then Soviet Union.

Within the first three months, the group known as the “Early Liquidators”, those first on the scene including plant workers, construction workers and local fire-fighters, lost 28 members to Acute Radiation Sickness. Another 106 persons were treated for the same disease and survived. Nineteen additional patients died over the eight years following the accident, although these were not necessarily associated with radiation exposure.

The exact number of liquidators is unknown as no completely accurate records were kept of the people involved in the clean-up. More than 700,000 people involved, on- and off-site, in tackling the accident’s aftermath were eventually granted the status of liquidator, and were provided special government benefits. Their duties varied. They worked on decontamination and major construction projects, including the establishment of settlements and towns for plant workers and evacuees. They also built waste repositories, dams, water filtration systems and the “sarcophagus”, which entombs the entire fourth reactor to contain the remaining radioactive material.

Some 350,000 people involved in the initial clean-up of the plant in 1986-87 received average total body radiation doses of the order of 100 millisieverts (mSv) - a millisievert is a unit of radiation dose equivalent to about 10 general chest x-rays. This dose is about five times the maximum annual dose limit currently permitted for workers in nuclear facilities (20 mSv per year). Average worldwide natural “background” radiation is about 2.4 mSv annually.

The cancer and death rate studies that have been conducted among samples of the recorded liquidators have shown no direct correlation between radiation exposure at Chernobyl and increased cancer or death rates. The correlation between psychological problems and the status of liquidator is more clearly drawn, although the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic troubles in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus may also be factors for psychological stress.

Several studies link the effect of the Chernobyl disaster with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), common among soldiers after combat. Many Americans suffer from this disease as a result of the Gulf and Vietnam wars. A study of Latvian workers measured risk of PTSD by factoring the length of time spent working in a ten-kilometre radius from the plant and time spent working on the damaged reactor roof and clean-up of forested areas.

Social welfare is also considered a major factor in the well being of liquidators, and fears that benefits might be cut are driving them to the streets in protest. Ukraine spends about five per cent of its annual budget on benefits for Chernobyl liquidators, which include a housing subsidy and free public transportation use. Russian benefits are mainly health care related, and include free check-ups and medicines. A proposed bill to cut a part of these benefits was narrowly defeated in late October, 2000 by the Russian Lower House. A similar bill was proposed in Ukraine as well; and liquidators marched in protest in Kiev early last December.

In addition to modest governmental benefits, liquidators are also supported by numerous non-governmental and international organizations, which mainly provide health care. The World Health Organization created the International Programme on the Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident (IPHECA) in 1991. Over the years, WHO has purchased and provided Belarus, Russia and Ukraine with approximately $16 million worth of medical supplies, equipment and specialists. The IAEA itself has assisted with technical activities, environmental and agricultural monitoring and rehabilitation that costs over $15 million. Other United Nations organizations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs have all provided aid to Chernobyl related programmes