Latvians and the Chernobyl disaster

Medal for Chernobyl disaster liquidators

Last month 25th anniversary was marked by infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The meltdown of the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear plant was the largest man-made disaster in XX century. It was also a big nail in the coffin of collapsing Soviet Union. The scale of the disaster was so large that the Soviet government was forced to use large masses of people to clear the damage left by the disaster. These were so-called liquidators men and woman sent from all parts of the Soviet Union to assist rescue operation. They were sent to work in life threatening conditions with no chance to return home back to normal. It was a war against invisible force the radiation that was beyond the power of every man. A force that should not never been released.  6 thousand Latvian citizens were also fighting this war. This article is a story about them.

Today many believe that the Chernobyl disaster was an invertible. There were many reasons for this accident. The concept of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was flawed, with insufficient safety measures.  The NPP staff was irresponsible and badly organized.  Thus they deliberately broke the rules and requirements for power plant operation.

Initial blast released a cloud of radioactive fallout. A vast territory around the reactor of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia was primarily affected, but the radiation went further to Scandinavia where it was first discovered even before Moscow had issued any warnings. A high dose of radiation was discovered in Latvia mainly in towns of Liepaja and Jekabpils. Disaster occurred on the night of  April 26, in the evening of  April 27 Moscow reported of “minor incident”. After the discovery of radiation cloud coming from Chernobyl by Sweden and pressure from Western powers Soviet government finally admitted the seriousness of the accident. This showed that the Soviet government was confused by the disaster and used secrecy to disclose its weakness. On April 27 an evacuation from the nearby town of Pripyat and other villages started.  30 km zone around the reactor turned into “death zone”.

To hold further leak of radioactive fuel and radiation exposure a decision to construct large concrete sarcophagus on damaged reactor was met. It required large workforce. 600-800 people were used in a rescue operation to do various tasks. All of them were exposed to different doses of radiation. Large numbers of them died soon, others became invalids from the dose they received.  It’s not clearly known how much Latvian citizens were involved in the rescue operation. The soviet documents were classified and even destroyed. Experts say that no less than 6 thousand  people from Latvia was present at Chernobyl.

Latvian men serving duty in Soviet army reserves and also from active duty were sent there. The conscription begun on  May 8 and on  May 11 first Latvians reached the 30 km zone. Order to join liquidation service was obligatory and people were not informed about their duties. Also it was common that liquidators did not receive proper safety equipment or training. People were not informed about the dangers and had no information about doses they received. Main tasks were building of sarcophagus, decontamination of buildings, soil and forest. Latvian liquidators took part in building new city for evacuees called Slavutich in Chernigov district, about 1000 Latvians were involved there. It is known that president of Latvia Valdis Zatlers was also involved in the rescue operation as a doctor.

When liquidators returned to Latvia, new issues were faced by local medical services. A special rehabilitation services were introduced for sufferers from the effects of radiation.  After the fall of USSR new Latvian state introduced a special law for liquidators to make social guarantees for them. They receive social transfers and other social reliefs. Not only the physical damage to their health but also the psychological problems they had to suffer. The alcohol abuse is common among them. The liquidators have formed social organization the Latvian Republican Union “Chernobyl lead by Arnolds Vērzemnieks

By the years large numbers of liquidators have become invalids and are unable to work. It’s not known how many have died the liquidators call about 500 casualties.  The damage done by the radiation is inherited by their children who have birth defects and anomalies.  1300 children coming from liquidator families in Latvia need special health care.

The Chernobyl disaster has caused a loss 100 million Lats for Latvia. But the damage to the individual person surviving the war with radiation is more greater. It’s a countless ruined lives at  the expense of human error and a desire to use force that is beyond their control.

Chernobyl veterans

Mould, R,F. (2000) Chernobyl Record: The Definitive History of the Chernobyl Catastrophe. London: Taylor & Francis


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