Alexander Kalantyrsky volunteered to help try to save the world from an ongoing nuclear disaster in May 1986.
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, he had learned about the explosive destruction of Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 just a few hours after it happened on April 26. But he was only informed of it officially 18 days later, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly acknowledged to his nation for the first time that Reactor 4 had blown up and was pumping some of the most dangerous substances known to man into the open skies of the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and ever further across much of the Northern Hemisphere.
“Everybody at the institute volunteered” to help tackle the disaster, recalls Kalantyrsky, who is 78 today and is talking to me in his small ground-floor apartment in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv. “There were 37 people competing for my job.”
That job was as the chief engineer of one of 11 units charged with 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 Soviet Union’s nuclear reactors should have been built with that kind of containment device in the first place, of course. But that would have doubled their cost. And it was the incontrovertible position of the Communist regime that the Soviet Union’s nuclear reactors were so impeccably designed, built and operated, and so technologically reliable, that the disaster that was now unfolding at Chernobyl simply could not take place. And therefore, that the safety measures considered routinely essential in the West weren’t necessary.
As Adam Higginbotham observes in his masterful and devastating new account of the disaster, “Midnight at Chernobyl,” the creation and management of nuclear energy stretches humankind’s capabilities to their limits in the best of circumstances. And the creation and management of nuclear energy in the former Soviet Union was a catastrophic distance from the best of circumstances.
The RBMK design, of which Reactor 4 at Chernobyl was the most advanced model, was profoundly flawed. The RBMK reactors were so vast, Higginbotham writes, “that reactivity in one area of the core often had only a loose relationship to that in another. The operators had to control it as if it were not a single unit but several separate reactors in one. One specialist compared it to a huge apartment building, where a family in one flat might be celebrating a raucous wedding, while next door another was observing a funeral wake.”
At Chernobyl, the author elaborates, the control engineers were having to make “dozens of adjustments every minute” simply to keep the reactor functioning properly during what should have been its routine operation. They were working so hard, indeed, that even the switches governing the control rods that regulated the dizzyingly complex reactive processes “quickly wore out and had to be replaced constantly.”
The Soviet’s own NIKIET energy technology institute had established in 1980 that the RBMK reactor was so unstable that accidents were “not merely possible under rare and improbable conditions but also likely in the course of everyday operation,” Higginbotham notes. And accidents there had already been, including a partial core meltdown in Reactor 1 in 1982 that was covered up.
In addition to the reactors having been incompetently built, with corners cut on materials and assembly, the 1980 NIKIET report listed nine major design failings and thermohydraulic instabilities. Nothing was done to rectify them. Among the ignored failings was what amounted to an apocalyptic design flaw: those control rods, which in a last resort could theoretically all rapidly be extended to full length inside the reactor for an emergency shutdown, were tipped with graphite — a material which would briefly intensify rather than slow the reactivity within. It was this flaw — cataclysmically exacerbated by the higher-ups’ insistence on hiding the very fact of its existence from the reactor operators who most needed to know about it — that played a central role in the Chernobyl catastrophe, a catastrophe that unfolded, with bitter irony, in the course of a spectacularly mishandled safety test.
Attempting the high-risk test in a fog of arrogance, misinformation, and incompetence that blinded the reactor’s operatives and overseers to the devastation they were about to unleash, they blew up their own flawed, misconceived, ill-built and mismanaged reactor, killed and maimed unknown numbers of innocent victims near and far, and bequeathed damage to the planet that will take essentially forever to fully dissipate.
With the world’s attention refocused on Chernobyl in large part thanks to Craig Mazin’s astonishingly powerful and affecting HBO miniseries of the same name, Kalantyrsky’s account of his work in the apocalyptic shadow of the exploded reactor underlines that some of the challenges posed and exposed by the Chernobyl disaster emphatically remain, and that the danger has not passed.
It also provides an overdue opportunity, in these pages, to focus on the unacceptable situation of those rescue workers at Chernobyl, like Kalantyrsky, who later moved to Israel — some 3,500 of them, most of whom have since died, largely of medical conditions believed to be associated with their heroic actions.
Kalantyrsky is one of the “lucky” ones. He’s suffered from arrhythmia since 1986. Since Chernobyl. “But I don’t have cancer,” he says.
‘A race against time’
Alexander Kalantyrsky and his team of fellow volunteers arrived at Chernobyl, with their plans and their equipment, on June 2, and worked to construct the reinforced concrete base of the sarcophagus until October 20.
The overall task of tackling Chernobyl, including decontaminating the area around the plant itself, is described by Higginbotham 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 goes on. “The task promised levels of radiation almost beyond imagining, a construction site too dangerous to survey, and an impossible deadline: Gorbachev… wanted the reactor sealed up by the end of the year.”
The way Kalantyrsky recalls it — in a conversation conducted in Russian and Hebrew, with the Moscow-born former Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova translating — the Soviet premier Nikolai Ryzhkov had been the first senior politician at the scene, and he in turn appointed Boris Scherbina, the deputy head of the Council of Ministers, to oversee the face-off against the disaster.
Firing up his computer, Kalantyrsky — who looks impressively healthy for a man of his age, never mind a man who spent five months in and around the most irradiated place on the planet — shows Svetlova and me photos and sketches of his time at Chernobyl, starting with a drawing of the devastated reactor and ending with a posed picture of men who worked on the base for the sarcophagus at the completion of their mission.
“The overall job was to minimize the damage,” he says, a friendly man retelling unthinkable events slowly and calmly.
“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.”
“We built the base for the sarcophagus — 12 meters high by 40 meters,” he says, showing me more sketches and diagrams, some of them bearing figures for radiation levels in different parts of the reactor compound. “We were told not to talk about it.”
Did they realize the danger they were in? Did they realize what was at stake? Kalantyrsky offers a wan smile of assent. If they hadn’t built the sarcophagus, he says, “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.”
How widespread and devastating could the consequences have been had all four of the side-by-side, interconnected Chernobyl reactors blown up? (A supervisor at the adjacent Reactor 3, which had blazing radioactive debris burning on its roof, and which could potentially have been obliterated in ongoing explosions at Reactor 4, made the decision to shut it down in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, against the orders of his superiors.) “I don’t know about that,” Kalantyrsky demurs.
As it was, an estimated 600,000 people within the former Soviet Union were exposed to high levels of radiation, according to a 2006 World Health Organization report — fatal levels in the case of 4,000. Other estimates put the figure of fatalities at more than 93,000. Tens of millions of people would have been devastatingly affected had the damage not been contained when it was.
Apart from the explosion that sent the radioactive flames, smoke and particles upwards and outwards for day after devastating day, there was also acute concern over a possible meltdown that would send radiation into groundwater, and from there to rivers and seas.
“That was the key worry when I got there,” Kalantyrsky remembers. “The reactor was built with a six-meter reinforced concrete base. But there was a fear of meltdown” — exacerbated by concerns that the huge weight of boron and sand, dropped from above to try to cover the hemorrhaging reactor, would heighten the downward pressure. “Evgeny Velikhov, the deputy head of the Kurchatov Institute, suggested that an underground reinforced concrete layer be constructed, 20 meters thick, with pipes to bring out the radioactive fluids. Miners started work on it. But on June 17, the radioactive reactions stopped,” Kalantyrsky says, “and so the miners did not complete this.” (Higginbotham describes in complex detail the miners’ work to construct what was actually an intricate “heat exchanger” directly beneath the reactor; 400 men labored in horrifying conditions to clear the space for and install the exchanger, but the device was never activated.)
When their work on the base for the sarcophagus was done, “they wanted to send me to a hospital in Kiev. I asked to go to Moscow, to Hospital 6, where the firemen were taken. I was there for a month,” says Kalantyrsky. Then I went back for 10 days: I wasn’t allowed to sign paperwork in Moscow. I had to go back there to sign it. And then I was hospitalized again, until just before the new year.”
The sarcophagus for which Kalantyrsky’s team and 10 others had worked simultaneously to lay a base gradually rose over the following months. It is not clear whether he knew this at the time, but he says now that this construction was designed only to last for 30 years. (A Soviet official, announcing the project, said it would last a century or longer.)
A “terrible edifice of black angles, still and ominous,” as Higginbotham describes it, the completed concrete and steel structure looked “like a medieval fantasy of a prison to hold Satan himself.
The “temporary shelter” Kalantyrsky helped build to encase the destroyed reactor is today itself encased in a “new safe confinement” shelter, completed in 2016, an extraordinary feat of state-of-the-art construction that, nonetheless, is itself only designed to do its job for the next century.
The temptation to look at Chernobyl as a disaster solely in the past tense is false and exceedingly dangerous, Kalantyrsky makes clear. His temporary sarcophagus, and the new, French-overseen confinement shelter use vertical shafts to bring clear air in and, via a complex filtration system, to take toxic gases out. The filters must be regularly changed, and are carefully entombed. The ventilation system is vital: The fuel mass still inside Reactor 4 must be allowed to continue to cool safely, and must be continuously monitored, to guard against any new and catastrophic chain reaction.
Nowadays, Kalantyrsky stresses, everything at Chernobyl is thoroughly checked, there is oversight by the IAEA, and the three other reactors have been shut down (although Reactor 3, astoundingly, was allowed to continue to operate until December 2000). “But if the ventilation fails, or the filters aren’t switched, or the process is otherwise mismanaged,” he cautions. “there could be an explosion.” He repeats: “There is the possibility of a radioactive explosion if it’s not looked after.”
In the land of (uncontaminated) milk and honey
Six years after Chernobyl, on April 28, 1992, Alexander Kalantyrsky, his wife and their two daughters, then aged 23 and 12, made aliya.
This was not exactly a case of fleeing the benighted former Soviet Union — for whose dysfunctional regime he had risked his life — to the Promised Land of uncontaminated milk and honey. It was more like Zionism.
We’re high risk and nobody will insure us
Kalantyrsky says he was treated properly by the Soviet authorities in the wake of his Chernobyl heroics — given medical care and the appropriate assistance. He was back working in Moscow, in the atomic energy industry. Life was not a hardship. “I was quite happy,” he says.
But lots of their peers were now moving to Israel, and his older daughter told her parents she wanted to be sure to marry somebody Jewish. “We can’t let her go on her own,” he remembers his wife saying.
Soon after they moved here, he published an advertisement in a Russian newspaper that he was setting up an association for immigrants like him who had taken part in the post-disaster Chernobyl “neutralization” operation — the so-called Chernobyl liquidators. Some 700,000 liquidators are estimated to have participated; about 3,500 of them are believed to have subsequently moved to Israel. Precisely 147 responded to his July 1992 ad.
We should have a pension equivalent to that for those Red Army veterans who fought the Nazis. They saved the world from Nazism. We saved the world from nuclear catastrophe
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 says.
As detailed in Svetlova’s recent Times of Israel op-ed, 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 have never been implemented.
Liquidators in Israel get an annual grant of some $1,400, 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.
For three years from 2007, the Health Ministry allocated an annual NIS 500,000 (some $135,000) to Haifa’s private Rambam medical center for their care: “We were all invited. We were told to bring blood tests,” recalls Kalantyrsky. “They checked the tests and sent us home. And that was the last thing we heard.
“We complained to the state comptroller. He closed the program because this wasn’t a proper solution. It was supposed to be a state facility, with ongoing testing and care. Many of the medical conditions emerge 10 or 20 years later or more. We had hoped there would be a commission to establish disability rights. It was also supposed to look after the kids. None of that happened.”
Israel’s liquidators also can’t get life insurance, he says. “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.” Svetlova detailed in her op-ed how the Treasury felt unable to intervene because the insurance companies are private operations, and how the Health Ministry brushed off her efforts on the liquidators’ behalf with the appalling excuse that their health ailments could not be definitively linked to their work at Chernobyl.
Of the 3,500 or so liquidators who made aliya, 1,608 are still alive, Kalantyrsky says. “Most of the 2,000 who died,” he says, “died from Chernobyl related illnesses. First, illnesses relating to blood vessels and the heart. And then, number two: cancer.”
Kalantyrsky sighs and looks me in the eye. “In my opinion, we should have a pension equivalent to that for those Red Army veterans who fought the Nazis,” he says, raising his voice, and only a little, for the only time in our conversation. “They fought the Nazis and saved the world from Nazism. We saved the world from nuclear catastrophe.”
Despite everything, Kalantyrsky is most plainly not a bitter man. He is welcoming. He smiles readily. And his aliya story, for all the unfairness and frustration, is a success at the most personal level. His younger daughter is a tech programmer, married with a son and daughter. His older daughter, the one who pushed them here, is a translator, married with two sons. Married, as she had hoped, to a nice Jewish boy, from Lviv.
But he’s also not a sanguine man. He worries both about the abiding medical and environmental dangers posed by the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster itself, and the ever-present dangers whenever and wherever humankind’s hubris and nuclear fission meet.
On the first of these, he recalls that in late 1986, Israel refused a shipment of tea that arrived at Haifa port from Turkey and proved to be dangerously radioactively contaminated by Chernobyl. At the time, Israel also reportedly refused shipments of pistachios, almonds and bay leaves from the same source, for the same reason.
In the first years after Chernobyl, indeed, contaminated foodstuffs were being exported, and in only some cases refused, worldwide. “Meat, dairy products and produce raised on farms from Minsk to Aberdeen and from France to Finland were found laced with strontium and cesium and had to be confiscated and destroyed,” writes Higginbotham. But if that sounds like fading history, “restrictions on the sale of sheep grazed on the hill farms of North Wales would not be lifted until 2012.” And as of 2016, “half of the wild boar shot by hunters in the forests of the Czech Republic were still too radioactive for human consumption.” In an article just last year, the New York Times found that milk in villages up to 140 miles from Chernobyl was still showing radioactivity levels five times above the limit for adults and 12 times the limit for children.
For 20 years after the disaster, notes Higginbotham toward the end of his book, Ukraine and Belarus were constantly expanding their evacuated “exclusion zones” in the wake of Chernobyl — to a staggering 4,700 square kilometers “rendered officially uninhabitable by radiation.”
Kalantyrsky is deeply aggrieved that the promised medical evaluation and monitoring not only of the liquidators in Israel, but also of their children, has never been provided. By definition, it is too early to ascertain whether the effects of their grandfathers’ work at the epicenter of the disaster will also be felt by a third generation and beyond.
Kalantyrsky’s key conclusion from Chernobyl is 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 notes. “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 argues. “If you have all those, then nothing bad should happen. That was anything but the case in Chernobyl.”
Looking at the world now, he alights on North Korea, and its nuclear program, and fears the worst. “What can I tell you? I haven’t been there, but I think it’s dangerous,” he says, almost apologetically.
In the photograph Kalantyrsky showed me of construction workers at the end of their work on the sarcophagus base in Chernobyl, they are together proudly holding up a banner. He translated it for me: “We carried out the mission ordered by the government!”
Their part of the “liquidation” work was over. But Chernobyl still casts an apocalyptic shadow.
Note 1: Eleven percent of the world’s electricity is generated by nuclear energy at some 450 reactors.
Note 2: Given the combination of the scientists’ failed design, their hubris, and the endless potential for human error, “The accident was inevitable,” Soviet Prime Minister Ryzhkov would acknowledge at a Politburo meeting in July 1986. “If it hadn’t happened here and now, it would have happened somewhere else.”
Note 3: In the moments immediately before it exploded, the temperature in Reactor 4 at Chernobyl reached 4,650 degrees centigrade — almost as hot as the surface of the sun. As the reactor disintegrated, that temperature more than doubled.
Note 4: Most of the fuel in Reactor 4 at Chernobyl remains inside the reactor building — a mass of solidified radioactive material considered unlikely to reach a new criticality “for the time being,” but whose possible future behavior remains a cause for concern. At the height of the disaster, this corium, with “a combined weight of at least a thousand tonnes,” had eaten and flowed its way downward through three floors of space beneath the reactor, and had come to rest, writes Higginbotham, “just centimeters away from the foundations separating the building from the earth below.” The fear of a meltdown “had not been so far-fetched after all.”
Note 5: Despite worldwide calls for their decommissioning, 10 RBMK nuclear power reactors, albeit with various safety upgrades, are still in use to this day in Russia.