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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S., Israel Give Shelter To 'Chernobyl Diaspora'

SESTROYETSK, North Russia -- Eight years after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant, thousands of the most severely contaminated victims have fled the Soviet Union for Israel and the United States, in what one researcher has dubbed the "Chernobyl diaspora." Dr. Armin Weinberg, director of the Center for Cancer Control Research in Houston, Texas, conducted a preliminary survey in March that suggested about 5,200 Soviet immigrants to the U.S. were among the "liquidators" -- the unfortunate term for the soldiers and technicians who were called out to fight the fire, bury the reactor in cement and sand bags and otherwise "liquidate" the catastrophe. "Those liquidators are our citizens now, they're Texans and New Yorkers, and we have to think about that," said Armin, speaking during a break Friday in a conference at this Gulf of Finland resort town, about 30 miles west of St. Petersburg. "If the U.S. has 5,000-plus liquidators, that puts us in a category with Azerbaijan or Lithuania." Weinberg, who coined the term "Chernobyl diaspora," said his survey of 270 Soviet immigrants found seven Chernobyl liquidators. Extrapolating from that very rough number, Weinberg came up with a figure of 5,200 throughout the U.S. and -- assuming similar percentages for Israel -- about 13,000 there. Dr. Leon Epstein of the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem put out similar figures. Of 500,000 Soviet emigrants to Israel since 1988, Epstein said, about 20 percent had been exposed to increased radiation by the Chernobyl accident. "How many were liquidators, however, we don't know. At least a few hundred, quite possibly a few thousand." What that means for Israel and America is still uncertain, but researchers from both countries agreed it was worth pondering. Many liquidators expect to fall ill sometime in the next few years, and so left in hopes that the Israeli or American health-care systems would take better care of them. But as Weinberg said, the U.S. "health-care system is not prepared, for we have never had so many people with potentially significant doses of radiation. How will we respond?" Estimates of the number of liquidators worldwide range from 300,000 to 800,000. The vast majority are still in the former Soviet Union, especially in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The higher estimates often include the family members of soldiers, who many doctors argue are just as much at risk -- not from radiation contamination, but from stress- and anxiety-related ailments caused by the role of husbands or fathers in the Chernobyl clean-up.