The broadcast of HBO’s historical drama telling the story of the 1986 Chernobyl power plant disaster has drawn attention to immigrants to Israel from the Ukraine and elsewhere in the Former Soviet Union who suffered the consequences of being caught up in the worst nuclear disaster in history.
On April 26, 1986, the No. 4 nuclear reactor at Chernobyl overheated and ruptured in a steam explosion, followed by an open-air reactor fire. Large amounts of radiation were released into the atmosphere, contaminating surrounding areas including the water supply to the city of Kiev. Estimates vary on the number of victims, and while dozens were killed in the initial disaster, thousands more are believed to have died due to health issues brought on by exposure to the radiation.
Soviet authorities drafted in hundreds of thousands of people, dubbed “liquidators,” to assist in efforts to contain the disaster, while not immediately ordering evacuations of affected communities. The spreading radiation was so great it set off alarms across Europe, including at a nuclear power plant 1,000 kilometers away in Sweden. The reactor building was eventually sealed off inside a giant steel and concrete sarcophagus.
Many thousands of those who lived in affected areas later immigrated to Israel. Among them were an estimated 5,000 people who were recognized as Chernobyl Disaster Neutralizers — the “liquidators” who helped to deal with the emergency and contain the reactor. Of them, some 1,300-1,500 are still alive.
Lev Klotz, 52, who now lives in Moshav Givati, was 18 years old at the time and a young soldier, recently drafted, and serving in the combat engineers. Along with the rest of his unit he was sent to Chernobyl six days after the disaster to work at clearing away debris.
He spent about a month at the site. He told Israel’s Channel 12 news in an interview on Thursday that although they were stationed some 30 kilometers from the plant, they spent four hours a day at the devastated plant inside armored vehicles, deploying robots and using “other techniques.”
Although they were given protective clothing and masks, “I don’t know how much good they did,” he said.
Klotz said he lost his hair and all his teeth fell out when he was 22. He said the authorities “had no Plan A and no Plan B… We were learning what to do as we went along.”
In later years, when he read more and discovered what had happened, Klotz realized that authorities had lied about what was going on at the time, but said was not surprised. “Anyone who was once a Soviet man knows: We lived inside a lie.”
In an interview with the Haaretz daily, Klotz said that at the end of their mission, officials formally estimated that his unit had absorbed 25 rems — the maximum amount of radiation permitted by authorities. Klotz, however, said that they had in fact absorbed many times that amount.
Klotz received two medals for his service at Chernobyl, one of them for an act of bravery. He said he saved two of his comrades — one of whom died shortly after completing his army service and another 10 years later. “A horrible death, a lot of suffering,” Klotz said. “I think that maybe if I hadn’t saved them then, they would have died immediately, without suffering so much.”
A few years after the disaster he moved to Israel where he needed considerable medical treatment including multiple blood transfusions.
He told Channel 12 he also did “a great deal of reserves service” in the Israeli army, and that there was no comparison between the two. In the former Soviet Union, he said, “a soldier’s life, a man’s life, is not taken into consideration. It’s very different.”
Klotz described the HBO series as “excellent” and said he was surprised by the accuracy of even minor details in the American-made drama. “I didn’t believe the Americans could get even the little things right,” he said.
Yelena Artyomenko, who was living in Kiev with her family at the time of the disaster, and had a daughter aged 12 and a baby boy, told Haaretz that she was still haunted by the “stress, fear, and terror that doesn’t let you rest.”
Artyomenko, who now lives in Haifa, recalled that days after the April 26, 1986 disaster, although a fire was being reported at Chernobyl, health officials assured residents they could still go outside with children. On May 1, International Worker’s Day, demonstrations went ahead despite the high contamination of radiation in the streets.
Surviving liquidators are entitled to an annual stipend of about NIS 5,700 ($1,590), Haaretz reported.
In 2001, Israel legislated recognition of the Chernobyl liquidators, passing a law which granted them the right to public housing, a one-time grant, and treatment as a special medical facility which was supposed to have been set up for that purpose.
According to former member of Knesset Ksenia Svetlova, however, the law has not been implemented. On December 17, 2018, the High Court of Justice ruled that the government must provide “liquidators” with the medical facility and other legislated rights, but there has been no further progress due to elections in April, and then the dissolution of the Knesset and the scheduling of fresh elections for September 17 after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition.
In a Times of Israel op-ed on Thursday, Svetlova wrote that “In contrast to the characters in the TV series, the Chernobyl disaster liquidators are real people, flesh and blood. I can only hope that the renewed interest in the greatest ecological disaster of the twentieth century will eventually lead the media to focus not only on the horror stories of the two-headed chickens and the prematurely lost teeth, but also on the actual lives of 1,500 Israelis who live here.” As their right, she concluded, “they require and deserve our practical help with homes and medical treatment.”
“Chernobyl” the TV miniseries is being shown in Israel on Yes, Hot, and Cellcom TV.