MOSCOW—When the first explosion tore through the Chernobyl nuclear plant, at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, engineer Pyotr Palamarchuk was spun around by a shock wave. The second blast deafened him. Ceiling panels crashed to the floor, and the halls were filled with radioactive vapor. Nearby he found a coworker, Vladimir Shashenok, who had been doused in boiling water and radioactive steam from burst pipes. Palamarchuk carried him out and was burned on his back and arms where their bodies touched.
Shashenok died the same day. Palamarchuk, now 57, received over 800 roentgens of radiation—more than the level considered to be a fatal dose. He survived, though he has had over 15 operations, including skin grafts and a bone marrow transplant. His hair fell out, and his legs are covered in pitted scars.
And today he complains that he and others injured in the accident and subsequent cleanup, when emergency workers entombed the reactor in a concrete sarcophagus, must battle for benefits from the Russian government. They have already been stripped of many, notably the right to free healthcare. "In spite of all that we suffered, the health we sacrificed, the government doesn't deal with us with enough understanding," says Palamarchuk, who has formed a lobbying organization, Our Right.
In the accident, the 1,000-ton lid of Reactor No. 4 was blown off after heat built up unnoticed inside during a safety test. Nearby towns were evacuated, and radioactive material blew across Europe. Over the next four years, around 600,000 so-called liquidators—the catch-all term for the engineers, soldiers, medics, and others who dealt with the catastrophe—worked at the site.
Now, amid fears that the Soviet sarcophagus could collapse, a French construction consortium, Novarka, recently began work on a new shelter, arch-shaped and 30 stories high, that will be slid over the top of the old casing on railway tracks.
Less attention, however, is being lavished on the human victims, plant workers, and liquidators, whose injuries and diseases include deep radiation burns, cancer, strokes, deafness, and blindness. Veterans say that around 3,000 severely disabled workers now live in Moscow. Initially, a 1991 Soviet law generously compensated professionals—engineers, nuclear specialists, medics—with housing, cars, and monthly payments.
In 1993, with growing numbers of people claiming benefits, the Russian government published a list of diseases considered linked to the accident, and for which a sufferer was eligible for free treatment, says Vyacheslav Grishin, a liquidator and head of Union Chernobyl, a veterans' association.
Since then, the list has been steadily whittled down and now includes little except cancer. A 2004 law, which sparked hunger strikes and protests by liquidators across the country, monetized benefits such as free healthcare—liquidators complained that the payments were far too small. Some benefits were ended, such as assistance in buying cars, free transport to and from hospitals, and free treatment at sanatoriums.
Most liquidators also have to go to court to request that their payments be indexed to inflation. According to a law adopted in March, the most seriously injured can expect to receive a baseline of $420 per month for treatment, plus stipends for things like groceries and baby food.
"With price increases and inflation, the benefits aren't enough—my friends and I are forced to find work to lead a normal, dignified life," sighs Vladimir Maleyev, 57, an Army specialist who participated in the cleanup of another of Chernobyl's reactors.
He had a stroke in 1993 after suffering severe headaches and depression. In addition to a small pension, he has received compensation for damage to his health since 2001; he declined to say how much. Meanwhile, a court has just approved Palamarchuk's request to index his benefits to inflation. He expects to have to make the same request next year.
Lawmakers admit that Chernobyl victims have a rough deal. "By comparison with civilized counties, the benefits are rather low," says Sergei Kolesnikov, a member of parliament and deputy of the Duma's healthcare committee. But there's reason to be suspicious of claimants, he adds. "I don't want to offend any of our veterans, but there is a massive amount of falsified documents. People that went into the exclusion zone [around the atomic plant] for 30 minutes are calling themselves Chernobyl liquidators."
Another problem: Chernobyl veterans have difficulty proving their diseases are linked to the meltdown. They accept that some health problems, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer, aren't unusual among aging Russians. "But the combination of cardiovascular diseases with blood diseases or diseases of the arterial system—these combinations are obviously only characteristic of liquidators," argues Grishin, 56, who has been treated for problems with his immune system and has gone partially deaf. He adds that veterans can undergo tests to show chromosome mutations that could be connected with radiation exposure.
While some liquidators are now satisfied with their hard-won payouts, observers see a relic of Soviet indifference to individuals and their suffering in the Russian government's attitude toward them. "The state relates to victims of tragedies with a couldn't-care-less attitude," suggests Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank in Moscow.
Whatever benefits they receive, those involved in the accident are branded by it. Survivors tell terrible stories: of seeing friends so burned they seemed to have been cooked; of meeting the first firemen to enter the reactor building, who vomited repeatedly because of radiation exposure and died soon after.
And they have strange, alluring memories of radiation, which is now killing some of them. Oleg Genrikh, an operator at Chernobyl with burns across his body, would sometimes watch the glowing radioactive fuel when the reactor was dismantled for repairs. "It was like the northern lights," he says dreamily. "It was so beautiful. It cast a spell on you—even if you didn't want to look at it, you couldn't help it."