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Obituary'We raced against time; Europe could have been wiped out'

Alexander Kalantyrsky, leader in Israel of ‘liquidators’ who battled Chernobyl, dies

Construction engineer volunteered to help build the sarcophagus over the exploded nuclear reactor in 1986, immigrated six years later and led campaign for promised state assistance

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Alexander Kalantyrsky, a construction engineer who helped build the concrete base of the Chernobyl sarcophagus in 1986, at his home in Bat Yam alongside former MK Ksenia Svetlova, June 26, 2019 (ToI staff)
Alexander Kalantyrsky, a construction engineer who helped build the concrete base of the Chernobyl sarcophagus in 1986, at his home in Bat Yam alongside former MK Ksenia Svetlova, June 26, 2019 (ToI staff)

Alexander Kalantyrsky, one of the “liquidators” who worked to contain the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, immigrated to Israel six years later and set up an association that represented the approximately 3,500 liquidators who similarly relocated, died on Wednesday at the age of 80, his family said.

“My father was a man of actions — actions that benefited the world,” his daughter Orly told the Davar news site. “He served as an example that everything is possible — that force of will, hard work and professionalism enable you to make a real contribution in life and leave your mark.”

“At Chernobyl, he battled amid deadly radiation to prevent its devastating spread. And here in Israel, he battled for the rights of liquidators” who had immigrated to Israel, said Ksenia Svetlova, the former Zionist Union MK who worked with Kalantyrsky to secure 2021 legislation that recognized the liquidators’ work and gave them a unique status — but was not implemented.

“He was a modest, noble man, focused on his goals,” said Svetlova, who wrote about Kalantyrsky in a 2019 Times of Israel op-ed. “I hope the government will meet the modest demands of the liquidators in Israel, who are seeking what was promised them by law. Kalantyrsky was a prominent figure among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. It would be appropriate for the state to recognize and honor his legacy,”

Kalantyrsky, who was married with two daughters, was the main interviewee in an extensive 2019 Times of Israel article that focused on the Chernobyl disaster, its aftermath and repercussions, and on the situation of the liquidators who moved to Israel, who have been largely denied promised medical assistance and other essential state aid.

A construction engineer working at Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute, whose director had taken credit for designing the Soviet Union’s inherently unstable RBMK nuclear energy reactors, Kalantyrsky volunteered to help tackle the disaster.

An aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, is seen two to three days after the April 26, 1986, explosion. In front of the chimney is the destroyed 4th reactor. (AP Photo)

He was assigned the job of chief engineer in a unit constructing a reinforced concrete base for a sarcophagus to be erected over the exploded reactor — to finally contain the escaping deadly radioactive stream, and to control the volatile concoction within.

The task of tackling Chernobyl, including decontaminating the area around the plant itself, was described by author Adam Higginbotham in his account of the disaster, “Midnight at Chernobyl,” as a mission “on a scale unprecedented in human history” and one for which nobody had ever thought to prepare. The specific operation of which Kalantyrsky was part — walling in the remains of Reactor 4 — involved “working in one of the most hostile environments mankind had ever encountered,” the writer went on. “The task promised levels of radiation almost beyond imagining, a construction site too dangerous to survey, and an impossible deadline.”

Related: When hubris meets nuclear fission: A Chernobyl liquidator’s warning to humanity

“The overall job was to minimize the damage,” Kalentyrsky told The Times of Israel in the 2019 interview, which was arranged with the help of the Moscow-born Svetlova, who also acted as translator.

“There was an arbitrary 30-kilometer exclusion zone. But I slept 88 kilometers away from the core. There were areas where I was only allowed for up to three minutes. We worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, no holidays,” he said, calmly recalling the unthinkable events.

Chernobyl “liquidator” Alexander Kalantyrsky, a construction engineer who helped build the concrete base of the Chernobyl sarcophagus in 1986, at his home in Bat Yam, June 26, 2019. His computer shows documentation from his period working at Chernobyl. (Times of Israel staff)

“We built the base for the sarcophagus — 12 meters high by 40 meters,” he said, producing sketches and diagrams of the work, some of them bearing figures for radiation levels in different parts of the reactor compound. “We were told not to talk about it.”

Asked whether the liquidators realized the danger they were in and what was at stake, Kalantyrsky offered a wan smile of assent. If they hadn’t built the sarcophagus, he said, “half of Europe could have been wiped out, if not all of Europe. We felt it was a race against time. We felt we had no time.”

1986 documentation for Chernobyl “liquidator” Alexander Kalantyrsky. (Courtesy)

Kalentyrsky was twice hospitalized in the immediate wake of his work, but considered himself to be one of the “lucky” ones, he said in the interview. He had suffered from arrhythmia since 1986, “but I don’t have cancer.” Of the approximately 3,500 liquidators who moved to Israel, most have died, largely of medical conditions believed to be associated with their actions at Chernobyl.

Kalentyrsky made clear that he moved to Israel for Zionist reasons, rather than fleeing the former Soviet Union for which he had risked his life. Many of his family’s peers were similarly immigrating at the time, and his older daughter had told her parents she wanted to be sure to marry somebody Jewish. “We can’t let her go on her own,” he remembered his wife saying.

In this 1986 photo, a Chernobyl nuclear power plant worker holding a dosimeter to measure radiation level is seen against the background of a sarcophagus under construction over the 4th destroyed reactor. (AP Photo/Volodymyr Repik)

Soon after his move, he published an advertisement in a Russian newspaper saying that he was setting up an association for immigrants like him, “liquidators” who had taken part in the post-disaster Chernobyl “neutralization” operation. Precisely 147 responded to his July 1992 ad, and the association grew from there.

The liquidators were guaranteed medical treatment and other assistance in the various republics of the former Soviet Union, whose collapse had been at least partially catalyzed by Chernobyl. And Kalantyrsky’s nascent association pushed for similar treatment for the liquidators here. “All the former Soviet Union countries had laws: housing assistance, retirement ten years early, and so on. We used those laws as the basis for legislation here,” he said.

The Chernobyl sarcophagus at the planning stage (Courtesy Alexander Kalantyrsky)

The late MK Yuri Stern succeeded in getting such a law passed in 2001, by which point many more liquidators had joined Kalantyrsky’s association, but its key provisions were never implemented.

Liquidators in Israel get a small annual grant, and a little help with their rent. But the law provided for a special state-run medical facility to be set up — to monitor and treat the liquidators and, crucially, their children, since illnesses and diseases caused by exposure to radiation at Chernobyl have been documented to have blighted a second generation. And this never happened.

A memorial sign to builders who made the first hastily constructed sarcophagus over the 4th reactor destroyed in the 1986 fatal explosion stands at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine, Friday, April 20, 2018. A reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded on April 26, 1986, leading to an explosion and the subsequent fire spewed a radioactive plume over much of northern Europe. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

“We had [also] hoped there would be a commission to establish disability rights. It was also supposed to look after the kids. None of that happened,” he said.

Israel’s liquidators also can’t get life insurance, he said. “We’re high risk and nobody will insure us. The government makes sure that Dimona workers, for example, can get insurance. But not us. So you can’t buy an apartment except via a relative.”

Chernobyl ‘liquidators’ testify at a Knesset committee meeting. Alexander Kalantyrky is second from right (Ksenia Svetlova)

“In my opinion, we should have a pension equivalent to that for those Red Army veterans who fought the Nazis,” Kalantyrsky said, raising his voice, and only a little, for the only time in the interview.

“They fought the Nazis and saved the world from Nazism. We saved the world from nuclear catastrophe.”

This November 10, 2000, photo shows the shattered remains of the control room for Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

Kalantyrsky said his key conclusion from Chernobyl was that “it was caused by the human factor” and that we humans will inevitably screw up and need fail-safe mechanisms to protect us from ourselves. “France gets 70 percent of its energy from nuclear reactors,” he noted. “Every core has three autonomous protective systems. If one fails or closes down, a second one comes into play. It’s a defense against fools. But even then, there’s no such thing as 100 percent protection.”

Running a nuclear reactor, even one not afflicted by the devastating design and construction faults that made Chernobyl nothing less than inevitable, “you need an experienced team. And you need an experienced oversight team. And an oversight team overseeing the overseers,” he argued.

“If you have all those, then nothing bad should happen. That was anything but the case in Chernobyl.”

The widows of Chernobyl victims hold portraits of their husbands who died following the cleanup operations for the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion, at Chernobyl’s victim monument in Ukraine’s capital Kiev, April 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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