UNSCEAR: Still Hot on Radiation´s Trail

Representatives from Germany and India speak with Japan´s Ambassador at an UNSCEAR session. Membership includes 21 countries. (Photo: UNSCEAR)

Just over fifty years ago at the dawn of the nuclear age, concerned scientists advised their governments about the dangers of radioactive fallout. From those talks, a group was born that today stands as the world´s authoritative voice on radiation levels and effects - the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, or UNSCEAR for short.

The Committee marked its golden anniversary in December 2005, though it actually held its first full session 14 - 23 March 1956. A prime focus in the heat of the global arms race was on the fallout from nuclear testing. UNSCEAR´s first two substantive reports submitted to the UN General Assembly, in 1958 and 1962, summed up the state of scientific knowledge on human radiation exposure. Together the reports laid the scientific grounds on which the Partial Test Ban Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapon testing in the atmosphere was negotiated and signed in 1963.

Over the decades, UNSCEAR became the official international authority on the levels and effects of radiation, used for peaceful as well as military purposes and derived from natural as well as artificial (or man-made) sources.

UNSCEAR´s findings and influence include:

  • the recognition that medical diagnostic and therapeutic exposures were a major component of artificial radiation exposure globally, a fact that remains true today. The Committee systematically reviews and evaluates global and regional levels and trends of medical exposure, as well as exposure of the public and workers;
  • periodic published reports that influence the programmes of international bodies such as the IAEA, International Labour Organization, World Health Organization, and International Commission on Radiological Protection;
  • regular evaluations of the evidence for radiation-induced health effects from studies of the survivors of the atomic bombings in Japan in 1945 and other exposed groups. It has also reviewed advances in scientific understanding of the mechanisms by which radiation-induced health effects can occur. These assessments have provided the scientific foundation for global recommendations and standards on radiation protection;
  • assessment and updates of the radiological consequences from the 1986 Chernobyl accident. The Committee also participates in the Chernobyl Forum, which the IAEA and partner organizations launched to document the accident´s health and environmental effects.

UNSCEAR´s work today is taking on added dimensions, notes its Secretary, Malcolm Crick. "Countries are confronting important decisions that involve radiation effects," he says. "They include new medical uses of radiation, environmental restoration, waste disposal and the nuclear power option - all areas in which UNSCEAR is called upon to provide authoritative scientific information."

Over the coming year, the Committee plans reviews of the risks from radon; epidemiological studies of radiation and its cancer and non-cancer effects; and cellular responses to radiation exposure. The next major review for the UN General Assembly is in 2007.

UNSCEAR´s membership today includes 21 countries; its Chair is Dr. Yasuhito Sasaki of Japan. The 54th session of UNSCEAR will be held at the Vienna International Centre 29 May to 2 June 2006.

Last update: 11 November 2014