Seven of the roughly 600,000 reservists charged with performing emergency work at the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster are on hunger strike to protest their paltry disability payments. The reservists -- who were called "liquidators" by the Soviet government -- will end their hunger strike on Wednesday, April 26, the twentieth anniversary of the disaster, when a meltdown in reactor no. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant led to the evacuation of several cities and villages in the Ukraine, as well as to radioactive fallout across Europe.
"It is as if the state wants us to die sooner," 48-year-old Igor Stolbikov told the AP. He stopped eating and drinking on April 20, insisting that it is impossible to live on the 3,000 rubles ($110) he receives every month. Another former liquidator, Sergei Kulish, has been on hunger strike since April 5.
Kulish was 24 and a father of two when he was called up to measure radiation levels in the disaster area and later hose off the streets of Prypiat, the town closest to the reactor complex. At the time, it was thought that Prypiat would be inhabitable again after a few days. Many liquidators removed their respirators as they worked. Later, it was understood that radiation levels in Prypiat were far too high for anyone to live there again. Kulish soon began to suffer from chronic headaches, heart trouble and other health problems. "Chernobyl liquidators keep dying one by one," Kulish told the AP. "They lose their teeth. They mostly cannot work because of their disability. And they get ridiculously low support from the state."
Many of the liquidators were soldiers, workers or coal miners. They were charged with clearing rubble from the area of reactor no. 4 -- which overheated and exploded on April 26, 1986, spewing tons of radioactive rubble into the sky -- as well as with constructing the so-called "sarcophagus," the concrete shell intended to contain radiation around the reactor complex. The liquidators were granted a generous package of benefits in 1991, but that package has been cut back drastically in recent years. Ten of the 25 original benefits were eliminated in 2004, including free health treatment and public transportation.
The hunger strike has received virtually no media attention in Russia. State-controlled TV has focused instead on Russian President Vladimir Putin's awarding of medals to former liquidators on Tuesday. "You not only saw the extent of the catastrophe, not only shared in the suffering, but also fought in difficult circumstances," Putin said, adding that the liquidators' "self-assertion" has saved "a huge number of human lives."
Experts acknowledge that rates of thyroid cancer have skyrocketed since the Chernobyl disaster, particularly among people who were children at the time. Ukrainian studies have also recorded increases in leukemia and other cancers. Radiation contamination is internationally recognized as a cause of cancer, although it is sometimes difficult to prove a definite link between cancer deaths and the Chernobyl disaster, and experts are divided over the disaster's long-term effect on mortality. The UN World Health Organization estimates that about 9,300 people are likely to die of cancers caused by Chernobyl radiation. Greenpeace puts the potential death toll of the disaster about ten times higher. The radiation released during the Chernobyl disaster was about 400 times higher than that released by the US atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima.