April 26th, 2016 Sections: Disaster and Crisis management, Society, Soviet Union
Badges of honour ... awarded to the Chernobyl Liquidators

Badges of honour … awarded to the Chernobyl Liquidators

There’s a feature of the Social Security legislation here in Kyrgyzstan that always used to surprise me.  As well as Pensions, Health Care and Sickness Benefits, provisions for Invalids, parents of large families, there are special provisions for veterans – of the Great Patriotic War, (World War Two), the Afghan War and for those who participated in the Chernobyl cleanup.

Of course, I knew about the Chernobyl ‘incident’, when, on April 26th 1986, an explosion and subsequent fire at a nuclear power plant caused the release of large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which spread over much of the western USSR and Europe – including Britain(!).  It was the world’s worst nuclear ‘accident’ … and was to have far reaching consequences.

But Chernobyl is in the Ukraine … far away from Kyrgyzstan … and the prevailing winds carried the radioactive materials North and Westwards … far away from Kyrgyzstan.  I presumed that it wouldn’t have had a big impact here and these provisions were probably a hangover from an all Union package implemented across the whole of the Soviet Union at the time … and simply preserved in the system when Kyrgyzstan gained its Independence in 1991.

That might well be true … but then I discovered that, according to the Chernobyl Union of the Kyrgyz Republic, there were some 4500 Kyrgyz citizens who participated in the ‘cleanup operation that followed the incident.

That many not be many out of the estimated 600,000 total, but  it’s still a considerable number … as is 1300 – the number that are still alive … and each one has a story to tell and was severely affected by their experiences.  It is said that of those involved, 90% directly  suffered illness and disability as a result of their efforts … and 15% of the 1650 children they are parents to have also been born sick and disabled.

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, Ukranian firefighters were called in to extinguish the fires … but later work involved evacuation of the population of the nearby city Pripyat and creation of an exclusion zone, removal of debris and creation of a concrete sarcophagus around the reactors, (including initially freezing the ground beneath the reactors by injecting liquid nitrogen into it until concrete could be laid to prevent incredibly hot radioactive material reaching the water table and risking a radioactive steam explosion), and preparing the land so that it could be brought back into agricultural production.

Many, (most? all?) of these liquidators were service personnel, including conscripts who were ordered into the area.  Some people say that they had to work in terrible conditions and were ill informed of the work they were directed to perform, and risks involved … but some of liquidators  have given interviews which cast a different light.  Some of the initial firefighters apparently joked about their chances of survival – or lack of them.  The liquidators were limited to the amount they could work –  seven minutes … although some experts suggest that even this led to over exposure to radiation.

They were apparently well fed – although alcohol was banned (officially, that is, although one news report refers to ‘illegal alcohol’, suggesting that ban was not always effectively enforced … and another interview refers to liquidators drinking cologne because of rumours that this was effective treatment for combating the effects of radiation).

One of the interesting features of these interviews is the way that these liquidators stress that they were not being heroic … they were ‘just doing their duty’.  Somebody had to do it … just as others went off to fight in Afghanistan.

All of this reminded me of the story about President Jimmy Carter … who, led a team of 23 sailors into the nuclear reactor when the Chalk River plant melted down in 1952, in order to clean up that disaster.

In Soviet times, these ‘liquidators’, (as they are called), were given free medicine, health care, and holidays in health resorts and sanatoriums as well as receiving compensation payments from the Social Security system.

The size of those payments depended on a number of factors, including their salary level at the time, and have, of course, been affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the introduction of national currencies, financial crises, inflation and devaluation.

The level of payments vary according to the new republics and the economies that sustain them … and the variations can be considerable … but there seems to be a general trend that their value is decreasing and in most cases they no longer cover the basics – yet alone the expenses incurred as a result of their disability.

According to one source, for example, the average ‘Chernobyl payment’ is between 1000 and 1500 som a month : fifteen to twenty dollars … which is about a tenth of what their Kazakh equivalent receives … Sources vary but I have seen figures for the pensions received by liquidators – including the Chernobyl payment – ranging from 2-3 thousand to 7000 som a month : about USD90.


26th April is an unofficial holiday in many of the republics of the former Soviet Union: the Memorial Day of Radiation Accidents and Catastrophes, and here in Kyrgyzstan the government have been making plans to commemorate this thirtieth anniversary of the incident.

  • There are suggestions to designate a building in one of the resorts on Lake Issyk Kul for use by liquidators … but some USD2 million is still required to provide it with the necessary medical equipment.
  • A monument is planned for Fujik Park
  • Some forty six million som has been allocated for one-off cash payments to be made to liquidators of 20000 and 30000

similar – but smaller – one off payments were also allocated to mark the 10th, 15th, 20th and 25th anniversaries of the incident.


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