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The Enduring Lessons of Chernobyl

Vienna Austria

The April 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant remains a defining moment in the history of nuclear energy. The lessons of this tragedy are interwoven with a recurrent theme: namely, the importance of international cooperation. With its recently released document — entitled "Chernobyl’s Legacy" — the Chernobyl Forum has solidly reinforced that theme. For the next few minutes, therefore, I would like to use the topic of international cooperation as a lens through which to view the major impacts of the accident, the progress made since that time, and — in keeping with the title of this conference — our outlook for the future.

Major Impacts of the Chernobyl Accident

The major impacts of Chernobyl fall into three categories: the physical impacts, in terms of health and environmental effects; the psychological and social impacts on the affected populations; and the influence of the accident on the nuclear industry worldwide.

The physical impacts mark Chernobyl as the site of the most serious nuclear accident in history. The explosions that destroyed the Unit 4 reactor core released a cloud of radionuclides that contaminated large areas of Europe and, in particular, Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to substantial radiation doses, including workers from all three of these countries who participated in efforts to mitigate the consequences of the accident.

The definitive numbers compiled in the Chernobyl Forum report are sobering: the 50 emergency rescue workers who died from acute radiation syndrome and related illnesses; the 4000 children and adolescents who contracted thyroid cancer — 9 of whom also died; and the hundreds of thousands of hectares of cropland, forests, rivers and urban centres that were contaminated by environmental fallout. But as severe as these impacts were, the situation was made even worse by conflicting information and vast exaggerations — in press coverage and pseudo-scientific accounts of the accident — reporting, for example, fatalities in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

The psychological and social impacts were also devastating. Over 100 000 people were immediately evacuated, and the total number of evacuees from contaminated areas eventually reached 350 000. While some of these resettlements were essential to reduce the collective dose of radiation, the experience was of course deeply traumatic for those involved.

Studies have found that exposed populations had anxiety levels twice as high as normal, with a greater incidence of depression and stress symptoms. Despite enormous relief efforts by the affected governments and outside organizations, these populations came to regard themselves not as ‘survivors’, but as victims, helpless, weak and lacking control over their futures. Their circumstances were exacerbated by severe economic hardship, the exodus of skilled workers (especially young people), the difficulty in delivering social services, and the prevalence of misconceptions and myths regarding health risks.

As a result, poverty, mental health problems, and lifestyle diseases have come to pose a far greater threat to affected communities than radiation exposure.

The third impact I mentioned is the enormous influence of the Chernobyl accident on the nuclear industry. A decade earlier, the accident at Three Mile Island had already cast doubt on the ability of nuclear power plant operators to prevent severe accidents. Chernobyl had far greater impact; the accident imprinted itself on public consciousness as proof that nuclear safety was an oxymoron. Some countries decided to reduce or terminate further construction of nuclear facilities, and the expansion of nuclear capacity came to a near standstill. It has taken nearly two decades of strong safety performance to repair the industry’s reputation.

But a key point in understanding each of these impacts is their relationship to the effectiveness of international cooperation.

The first lesson that emerged from Chernobyl was the direct relevance of international cooperation to nuclear safety. The accident revealed a sharp disparity in nuclear design and operational safety standards. It also made clear that nuclear and radiological risks transcend national borders — that "an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere."

Since that time, international cooperation has become a hallmark of nuclear safety, resulting in innumerable peer reviews, safety upgrades, bilateral and multilateral assistance efforts, safety conventions, and the body of globally recognized IAEA safety standards. In short, what might be considered one of the few positive aspects of “Chernobyl’s Legacy” is today’s global nuclear safety regime.

But it was also a lack of coordination of international efforts, in the months and years that followed the Chernobyl accident, that helped to exacerbate the social effects of the disaster. To be sure, there was an outpouring of assistance from governments and international aid organizations, with many positive remedial results. But as the Chernobyl Forum report pointed out, inadequate analysis and conflicting views regarding the health and environmental risks to affected populations led to substantial unnecessary resettlement, greater economic disruption, and widespread distrust of ‘official’ information — including, notably, among the affected populations.

It was to correct this situation — to set the record straight on Chernobyl, through clear scientific consensus — that the IAEA called for the establishment of the Chernobyl Forum. And once again, international cooperation has been a key factor in its success. The joint contributions of hundreds of scientists, economists and health experts — supported by eight specialized United Nations agencies, together with the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine — are what grant this compilation of research its authority. The IAEA, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Development Programme have launched a joint press campaign — coinciding with this conference — to highlight this effort, and to publicize the conclusions of the Forum report. This type of cooperation will continue to be essential as we look to the future.

In the nearly 20 years since the accident, nature has healed many of the effects. Near the closed down Chernobyl nuclear power plant, a new forest has matured where the so-called ‘red forest’ stood in 1986. Human exposure levels in contaminated areas have dropped substantially, and will continue to decline. Nevertheless, large areas of land remain substantially contaminated, radionuclide concentrations in crops and animals remain elevated, and affected human populations still require regular monitoring and, in some cases, continued intervention and treatment. These effects will remain for decades to come.

From the time of the accident, the IAEA has been continuously involved in technical cooperation and research projects to mitigate the environmental and health consequences in affected areas. Since 1990, we have spent more than $15 million on health care and monitoring, the development of new crops and agricultural guidelines, and other projects — often in cooperation with the organizations represented here today. But these efforts have not done nearly enough to address the human needs of the most affected populations.

The Agency is committed to the “UN Strategy for Recovery”, and we agree with the recommendations of the Chernobyl Forum report. In particular, we stand ready to assist with the development of new initiatives that would help local populations regain control over their own livelihoods — through assistance with safe food production techniques, improved primary health care, and encouragement of private sector investment and development.

In closing, I would like to thank all of the organizations and countries that have contributed to the achievements to date of the Chernobyl Forum. I cannot begin to introduce individually the dozens of scientists, experts and leaders present today whose inputs have been central to these reports — but it is your collective effort that has made, and will continue to make, the Chernobyl Forum an example of effective international cooperation. An accurate assessment of the results of the accident is the first step. We must be just as united in addressing the human needs that remain.

I wish you every success in the conference we are opening today.

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Last update: 9 March 2017