Chernobyl Liquidators' Health
as a Psycho-Social Trauma
2.2. Chernobyl liquidators
The Chernobyl liquidators are all those who were involved in actions aimed at the mitigation of the Disaster consequences in the Chernobyl zone (e.g., clean-up workers, builders, drivers, militiamen, radiation surveillance men, scientists, officials etc.) and/or supporting the mitigation (e.g., maintenance, various services, mass media) in 1986—1990. The term “liquidators” (originally slang) is a derivative from a formal Soviet name of this group: “participants of the liquidation of consequences of the Disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant”, and now is accepted in the scientific literature and ordinary language. I prefer the term “liquidators” to “the clean-up workers” because the latter carries a wrong idea-image of what the liquidators were busy with in the zone; the term “clean-up workers” seems to be unable in principle to represent the whole — very broad — spectrum of professions, jobs and occupations in the zone (see below).
The defining features of the liquidator are:
• Performing a work in the Chernobyl zone (with high levels of radiation, and particular psychological and social environment);
• Receiving an irradiation dose substantially exceeding normal, background one.
The liquidators first came up at the moment of explosion of reactor 4, which in one instant turned the NPP personnel of the night shift on 25/26th of April, 1986 into the first liquidators. The last liquidators worked in 1990: in 1991 a specialised enterprise was organised, and further work in the zone, with already substantially reduced radiation levels, was done on professional basis.
What I have seen in the zone in the summer of 1986, could be compared only with an enormous construction works' site, with extreme tension of work and concentration of people, machinery, materials, with dangerous conditions of work. Behind it there stood a huge social machine of mitigation, which was supposed to — and did perform — all functions inherent to social entity, and was defined by the aims of mitigation, as they were understood at that time by the authorities, along with the aims of its own.
Hence, an enormous variety of work the liquidators did in the zone, and diverse professional groups of the liquidators:
• the workers of the NPP,
• pilots of the military helicopters (they bombarded the broken unit with the sand, clay, dolomite, boron compounds, lead since April 27 (Chernobyl'skaya katastrofa 1995: 144), sprayed a latex solution to produce a latex film preventing from formation of the dust),
• builders/construction workers (who could be builders of the Sarcophagus, working at the radiation (RA-) levels of 10—100's R/h, or builders of roads and dormitories for the shifts of the NPP personnel at Zelenyj Mys settlement, with RA-levels of 1's milliR/h),
• those working at one of the “cascade” of PUSO (Punkt Spetsial'noy Obrabotki; vehicle decontamination depot),
• radiation reconnaissance men,
• experts from nuclear industry,
• scientists from different areas (from nuclear physics, chemistry — to sociology),
• medical doctors,
• media correspondents,
• KGB and Ministry of Interior officers, who investigated the causes of the explosion, and maintained the regime of secrecy later,
• militiamen, who regulated traffic (quite intense) at the roads within the zone, and guarded “dead” (evacuated) settlements,
• military men: from ordinary soldiers drafted from reserve — to regular military prosecution officers and generals,
• clerks, barbers, sellers (e.g., those who worked in the Chernobyl-town), etc.
It is amazing, how little information about the liquidators is available:
1. Until now the exact total number of the liquidators is unclear. Different sources give different estimations:
— approximately equal to 600,000 (Burlakova 1993: 10; with reference to “the available official data”);
— more than 600,000 during 4-year's period of 1986—1989 (Chernobyl'skaya katastrofa 1995: 393; with reference to “some estimates”);
— more than 800,000 (Nyagu and Laganovsky 1997);
— 600,000 — 900,000 (Yablokov 1997: 104).
Partial estimations give:
— almost 200,000 — a total number of Chernobyl liquidators in Russia (Mozgovaya 1997);
— 340,000 of military liquidators (and — important! — only less than 10% of them (24,000) were regulars) (Chernobyl'skaya katastrofa 1995: 33).
One can conclude that the partial estimations are in good qualitative correspondence with the figures of total population of the liquidators.
Thus, speaking about liquidators, one should remember that the Chernobyl liquidators are a very vast group, embracing hundreds of thousands of people, most probably more than 0.5 million and less then 1 million. — “... there has never before been such a large population of workers exposed to radiation” (Goldsmith et al. 1997: 52; emphasis added).
2. We don't know how the liquidators were “distributed” in time and space, i.e.: How many people worked in this or that period of the disaster? How many people worked at different areas of the contaminated zone? — Nothing (or almost nothing) can be established with certainty about these essential facts; at least no such data are published in the most comprehensive sources on the disaster (e.g., Chernobyl'skaya katastrofa 1995).
3. We don't know how many men and women were liquidators. It is obvious that men were an absolute majority. I can speculate, basing upon my experience in the zone, that the share of women among those noticeably irradiated (i.e., working at the NPP and its vicinity; at least during summer of 1986) was extremely small. Women worked mostly at the areas located at dozen-kilometres' and farther distances from the NPP, with the radiation levels of maximum 10's mR/h. They worked as medical personnel, construction workers, cooks, barbers, clerks, sellers etc.
Concluding this subchapter that outlines the notion of liquidators, I want to point out that the results and conclusions concerning the Chernobyl liquidators seem to be important for several essential reasons:
1. This group of the affected is quite large, and arguably the most radiation-affected (the latter statement will be discussed further).
2. This group seems to be a model, “simplest” case of the Chernobyl-affected (though nevertheless, the one complicated enough), as compared to the evacuated/resettled populations and the inhabitants of the contaminated areas. Indeed, a person-liquidator was just extracted from normal life, brought to work in the Chernobyl zone — and then returned back to his/her environment. Thus, the liquidators avoided effects of the harmful factors associated with the loss of native places, resettlements, fears for the children and family, prolonged life with family in the areas with elevated levels of radionuclides, change of usual way of life and/or (agricultural) work etc.
3. Finally, a detailed analysis of the harmful factors of different nature, affecting this group, will possibly result in better understanding of the whole phenomenon of the Chernobyl Disaster.
Design by: M.Opalev
Studio ARWIS Kharkov, 2001