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  • The widows of Chernobyl victims hold portraits of their husbands who died following the clean-up operations for the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion, at Chernobyl's victim monument in Ukraine's capital Kiev, Saturday, April 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
    The widows of Chernobyl victims hold portraits of their husbands who died following the clean-up operations for the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear explosion, at Chernobyl's victim monument in Ukraine's capital Kiev, Saturday, April 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
  • Workers who constructed the base for a cement sarcophagus to cover Chernobyl's exploded Reactor 4 pose, in front of the still-exposed destroyed reactor building, with a poster reading: "We carried out the mission ordered by the government". (AP Photo/ Volodymyr Repik)
    Workers who constructed the base for a cement sarcophagus to cover Chernobyl's exploded Reactor 4 pose, in front of the still-exposed destroyed reactor building, with a poster reading: "We carried out the mission ordered by the government". (AP Photo/ Volodymyr Repik)
  • A monument to the victims of the Chernobyl tragedy in front of the "safe confinement shelter" installed over the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Chernobyl, Ukraine, Nov. 29, 2016. The newly completed shelter was one of the most ambitious engineering projects in the world. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
    A monument to the victims of the Chernobyl tragedy in front of the "safe confinement shelter" installed over the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Chernobyl, Ukraine, Nov. 29, 2016. The newly completed shelter was one of the most ambitious engineering projects in the world. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
  • Alexander Kalentyrsky, 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 Kalentyrsky, 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)
  • 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)
    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)
  • Chernobyl "liquidator" Alexander Kalentyrsky, 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. (ToI staff)
    Chernobyl "liquidator" Alexander Kalentyrsky, 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. (ToI staff)
'Europe could've been wiped out. It was a race against time'

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

In 1986, Alexander Kalantyrsky volunteered to help build the sarcophagus over the exploded reactor. 6 years later, he made aliya. His life story holds lessons for us all

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 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.

This 1986 aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear plant shows damage from an explosion and fire in reactor four on April 26, 1986, that sent large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Only three Tass photographers were allowed in — Volodymyr Repik, who took this photograph, Igor Kostin and Valery Zufarov. Repik and Zufarov later died of radiation-related illnesses and Kostin suffered from the effects for decades before dying in a car accident in 2015. (AP Photo/Volodymyr Repik)

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.”

Portraits of Soviet leaders are covered by radioactive dust in a club in the dead town of Pripyat, April 10, 2006. The portraits were prepared for a 1986 May Day rally in Pripyat — the town that housed the Chernobyl nuclear power plant workers — but the residents were evacuated after the radioactive explosion in the fourth reactor on April 26, 1986. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukstaky)

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.

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)

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.

Actors Stellan Skarsgard, from left, Emily Watson, Jared Harris, creator/writer Craig Mazin, actress Jessie Buckley and director/executive producer Johan Renck attend the screening for “Chernobyl” during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival at Spring Studios, April 26, 2019, in New York. (Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP)

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.

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)

‘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.”

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

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.

Chernobyl “liquidator” Alexander Kalentyrsky, 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)

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.

Alexander Kalentyrsky, 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 (Times of Israel staff)

“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.”

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)

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.

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

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.

A Soviet technician checks toddler Katya Litvinova, during a radiation inspection of residents of the village of Kopylovo, near Kiev, May 9, 1986. People are checked after the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident April 26, 1986 (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko)

“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.)

A 1996 photo shows the sarcophagus around the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl, Ukraine, nuclear facility. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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.”

In this Nov.10, 2000 photo, contaminated vehicles lie dormant near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Some 1,350 Soviet military helicopters, buses, bulldozers, tankers, transporters, fire engines and ambulances were used while tackling the April 26, 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. All were irradiated during the cleanup operation. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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.

Construction crews, wearing masks and special protective suits, work April 10, 2006, in high radiation levels to strengthen the crumbling sarcophagus that covers the Chernobyl nuclear power station’s damaged Reactor No. 4. The crews can only work from four to 15 minutes because of the high level of radiation still emanating from the reactor. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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.

Workers leave the Chernobyl nuclear plant at the end of their shift, April 20, 2018. The new “safe confinement shelter” that covers the sarcophagus over the 4th destroyed reactor in seen in the background. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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.

Soviet-era graffiti on the wall of a military base depicts a Red Army soldier asking “Have you enlisted as a volunteer?” in Chernobyl, Ukraine, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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 this Dec. 3, 1999 photo, engineers at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, carry out their routine work inside the still-operating third reactor, which was finally closed a year later. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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.

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

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.

In this photo taken on April 5, 2016, children wait to be checked by a pediatrician for radioactive elements in a hospital in Ivankiv, Ukraine — a consequence of the April 26, 1986 Chernobyl explosion and fire, which spewed radioactive fallout over much of Ukraine. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

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.

In this file photo taken on Wednesday, March 19, 1996, five-year-old Alek Zhloba, who suffers from leukemia, is held by his doctor in the children’s cancer ward of the Gomel Regional Hospital, in Gomel, Belarus. There are tracks from medical procedures on his head. Much of the nuclear fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster fell on Belarus. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky File)

“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.

Candles and flowers are placed in front of the memorial to Chernobyl workers and firefighters in the town of Slavutych, Ukraine, early Friday, April 26, 2019, on the 33rd anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The city of Slavutych was built following the evacuation of Pripyat, the town of the Chernobyl plant workers, which was just 1.5 kilometers (about one mile) away from the plant. Some 50,000 Pripyat residents were evacuated after the disaster, taking only a few belongings. They never returned, and workers and their families now live in Slavutych. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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.”

Abiding danger

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.

In this photo taken on April 7, 2016, a radiation dosimeter measures radiation, showing slightly increased levels, in an abandoned cow shed near Zalyshany, Ukraine. The April 26, 1986 Chernobyl explosion and fire spewed radioactive fallout over much of Ukraine. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

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.

In this photo taken on April 5, 2016, Viktoria Vetrova, with her children, Bogdan, center, and Kolya, right, goes home after milking a cow in Zalyshany, 53 km (32 miles) southwest of the destroyed reactor of the Chernobyl plant, Ukraine. Viktoria Vetrova, a housewife, keeps two cows in order to help feed her four children. Vetrova’s 8-year-old son Bogdan suffers from an enlarged thyroid, a condition which studies have linked to radioactivity. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

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.”

In this photo taken Wednesday, April 5, 2017, a radioactivity sign stands in the ground, outside Chernobyl, Ukraine. 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)

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.

This image made from video of an undated still image broadcast in a news bulletin by North Korea’s KRT on Monday, May 15, 2017, shows leader Kim Jong Un at what was said to be a missile test site at an undisclosed location in North Korea. North Korea on Monday, May 15, 2017, boasted of a successful weekend launch of a new type of “medium long-range” ballistic rocket that can carry a heavy nuclear warhead. (KRT via AP Video)

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.

Workers who constructed the base for a cement sarcophagus to cover Chernobyl’s exploded Reactor 4 pose, in front of the still-exposed destroyed reactor building, with a poster reading: “We carried out the mission ordered by the government!”. (AP Photo/ Volodymyr Repik)
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