UNITED NATIONS – The 30th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster was commemorated during the opening of the 92nd plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on April 26 by Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark, president of the General Assembly, representatives of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and speakers representing other regions of the world.
Mr. Lykketoft said: “Many of us remember the horror and the fear we felt 30 years ago, when the nuclear accident happened at Chornobyl, in what is now Ukraine. The most severe accident in the history of nuclear power industry. The accident caused the huge release of radioactive particles into the atmosphere over large swathes of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine – devastated the region’s mostly rural economy and uprooted more than 300,000 people. Livelihoods of those people 30 years ago have yet to recover fully, and many are still struggling to overcome poverty, exclusion and stigma of contaminated regions.”
He continued: “Today we remember the human cost of the disaster. We remember those who sacrificed their own lives to prevent this disaster from becoming much worse, take stock of the many problems that still linger, and we look ahead to solutions that hold promise for the affected regions. We renew our commitment to a safer future. Let us acknowledge the governments of these three countries that were most affected by the Chornobyl catastrophe – Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation – for working to protect the affected populations from the effects of radiation, to mitigate the consequences of the Chornobyl accident, and to build a better future for the communities.”
The General Assembly and the United Nations Development Program played an important role in coordinating Chornobyl-related activities over the past decade. This year marked the final year of the Decade of Recovery and Sustainable Development for Chornobyl-Affected Regions, and the 30th anniversary of the disaster was the subject of a high-level conference in Minsk that began on Monday, April 25, and a photo exhibit titled “Chernobyl, Tragedy, Lessons, Hope,” that was on display in the Secretariat Building of the U.N. headquarters in New York until April 29.
Edmund Mulet, chief of the Cabinet of the Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, opened the statements made by various ambassadors and high representatives of the international community. “…We are here to mark the 30th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster – the most serious nuclear accident in history. … The disaster led to grave humanitarian, environment, social and economic consequences. It cast a radioactive plume across a wide area of northeastern Europe. And its effects are still being felt in the region and around the world. This anniversary offers an opportunity to take stock of lessons learned, reflect on the recovery process and to appreciate, once again, the superhuman efforts of the first-responders who rushed to the damaged reactor on 26 April, 1986, and sacrificed their health and in many cases their lives to save others.”
“The tragedy of Chornobyl will always be linked to nuclear safety,” he noted. “The accident led to a new awareness of safety issues and major improvements in the regulation of nuclear plants around the world. The Chornobyl disaster also brought the international community together to support the enormous efforts of local, regional and national authorities. I particularly commend the governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine for their joint work. The most visible sign of current international cooperation efforts may be the new safe confinement structure, which is now nearing completion. And the nuclear reactor complex is to make the area stable and environmentally safe for the next 100 years. We all owe gratitude to the governments and international institutions that have contributed to the costs of this record-breaking structure.”
The United Nations, Mr. Mulet added, continues to help the in the areas surrounding Chornobyl through emergency and humanitarian assistance, as well as support for recovery and socio-economic development. Lessons learned from Chornobyl have been applied in the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear emergency in Japan and similar disasters. Mr. Mulet noted the heightened risk of natural events, combining with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear crises. Chornobyl’s long-term recovery must be linked to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals international initiative, he stated.
Adi Roche, founder of Chernobyl Children International, spoke on behalf of the Belarus delegation. It was the first time that a foreign citizen spoke on behalf of a delegation of another U.N. member state during the U.N. General Assembly. Ms. Roche is from Ireland, and Belarus granted the honor to her in order to demonstrate both the global nature of Chornobyl’s consequences as well as the absence of boundaries for multinational cooperation to overcome such disasters and assist the victims.
“A new word – Chornobyl – entered into the history of language, the history of world disasters and the history of the world with deadly and frightful force,” Ms. Roche said. “I have visited and worked in the Chornobyl area for 30 long years and I am still haunted by the stories from people I’ve met over that time. Women like Tanya, from a demolished village in southern Belarus, called Lipa. I remember how she said she was rooted to the earth like a tree, but now she was withering away and dying, and shaking her head in disbelief. She said: ‘We didn’t just lose our village, we lost life. Chornobyl is like a big stone in my heart, always heavy, always present and now the song of this village has come to an end.’ And there was Pavel, head of his family, who remained in that village. And when I asked him why, he knelt on the ground and picked up two fistfuls of earth and with tears running down his face he kissed that earth, and he said, ‘This earth is sacred, it is the earth of my ancestors. This earth is my soul. If you take me from the earth, you take my soul.’”
“Now, 30 years on, Chornobyl may seem like it no longer poses a threat to the world, but the reality is very, very different. Chornobyl is not from the past, Chornobyl is sadly, forever. The impact of that single, shocking nuclear accident cannot be undone, its radioactive footprint is embedded in our world forever. And countless millions of people are still being affected by its deadly legacy,” Ms. Roche underscored.
“Friends, we may never know the full extent of the contamination. We may never be able to prove it as if it were a simple geometry proposition, but the tragedy that is Chornobyl, is very, very real. And three weeks ago I returned to the highly contaminated zones of alienation, zones of exclusion as they are called, that surround the Chornobyl plant and beyond. I was there on a fact-finding mission, and while I was there, I passed by some of the men, who heroically fought for days and months to contain the spreading of that radioactive fire. The men who carried out the evacuations of towns and villages, the men who had to demolish, and bury and burn 2,000 towns and villages. And they asked me to bring to you their voices to this gathering.”
Addressing the U.N., Ms. Roche wore a service medal of former Soviet Army officer Valerii Zaytsyev, 64, one of hundreds of thousands of Chornobyl liquidators who responded to the disaster.
Ms. Roche called for the honor and recognition that is due to the liquidators from the entire international community to be given via a global fund to pay for the liquidators’ medical needs. She also called on the U.N to designate April 26 as U.N Chornobyl Day, to recommit the international community’s efforts and for new initiatives to be considered each year “to alleviate further the suffering of the people in the affected, stricken lands.”
The U.N., she continued, should use its influence to expedite the completion of the containment structure that is being constructed over the Chornobyl reactor, as well as phase two of dismantling and removing the reactor and the radioactive material. She also requested funds for clean food and food monitoring for residents of contaminated areas in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, with regular check-ups, particularly for children and pregnant women, and that radioactive land be kept free of cultivation and repopulation.
“The war waged since 1986 by Chornobyl is a silent, invisible, but nonetheless deadly one. It has no smell, no taste, nothing to forewarn you of danger,” she said. “…It beats in the hearts of every innocent man, woman and child still living. It beats in their rivers, their towns, their streams and their forests – the deadly radiation clicking endlessly, ferociously in geiger counters, into the silent numbness that is and always will be Chornobyl.”
Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the U.N., said, thanked all for attending the solemn event, President Lykketoft for convening the meeting, and the delegation of Belarus for presenting an emotional introduction. “The catastrophic nuclear accident which we recall today, occurred on the 26th of April 1986, at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukrainian town of Prypiat, which at that time was under the direction of the central authorities of the former Soviet Union. As this has proved now, the Chornobyl disaster was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, in terms of cost and casualties.”
“For Ukraine, in its modern history, the scale of the catastrophe could only be compared to the Famine of 1933 (Holodomor), the second world war and Russian aggression in its occupation of Ukraine from 2014 to 2016,” Ambassador Yelchenko noted. “Humanity until that point had not known a catastrophe of such scope and complexity, with such long-term humanitarian, environmental, health, social and economic consequences.”
He explained, “Advancing the impact of the Chornobyl disaster is a matter of national significance for Ukraine. For 30 years, my country has made every effort to improve the well-being of affected communities and revive the afflicted area’s economic potential.”
Mr. Yelchenko said that more than 1 million people had been affected by the Chornobyl accident and that radiation safety requirements need to be met. As part of that process, Mr. Yelchenko noted the new containment structure’s construction. Significant progress has been made in the safe, long-term storage of radioactive materials. “We are entering into the final stage of mitigating the consequences of the nuclear disaster, namely the dismantling of unstable structures, constructing the fuel-containing materials and converting them to make them safe.” Mr. Yelchenko underscored how Chornobyl’s effects are felt by the nuclear industry, and have affected its safety, security practices and regulation standards.
“This year we have reached an important benchmark: the completion of the U.N Action Plan on Chornobyl and the Decade of Recovery and Sustainable Development of Chornobyl-Affected Regions,” he said, adding that there is a clear need for continuous efforts to keep post-Chornobyl recovery high on the inter-agency and international agendas. “It is important to give a stronger voice to the human dimension, of preparedness for and recovery from nuclear emergencies at the United Nations level, and to incorporate that knowledge and experience in the development of nuclear programs worldwide. By all means, the approach to study, mitigate and minimize the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster may serve as a guide in dealing with similar emergencies in the future. The solutions can be applied and replicated in other nuclear disaster situations worldwide. Therefore, the post-2016 international Chornobyl cooperation and news from the United Nations General Assembly should include the goal of broader dissemination of knowledge and expertise for the sake of sustainable technological waste management, disaster prevention, response and recovery.”
Ukraine declared 2016 as a year of remembrance of the liquidators and victims of Chornobyl nuclear disaster, he pointed out. “We believe that goal of international cooperation of all government agencies, non-governmental and international organizations, will not only result in long-term solutions to complex problems triggered by the Chornobyl accident, but will also apply the knowledge gained for the common good, in order to prevent any future nuclear disasters.”
Sergey B. Konuchenko, the deputy permanent representative (economic affairs) from the Russian Federation, highlighted the work of the Russian Federation to alleviate the effects of Chornobyl, including monitoring background radiation levels, providing medical care and other efforts related to agriculture and forests. The representative echoed much from the previous statements regarding the disaster’s health, social, economic and environmental consequences, but underscored that he found it offensive on the anniversary of Chornobyl that the “Ukrainian representative could not refrain from vile insinuations, which are in no way relevant to this very important discussion on this subject.”
Humanity had learned lessons from Chornobyl, and Fukushima had caused the world to evaluate them further, he said. While more cautious about the use of nuclear energy, the world continues to recognize it as unique in terms of efficiency and limited environmental impact, Mr. Kornuchenko noted.
A moment of silence was then observed by the General Assembly in memory of the victims of Chornobyl, after which the commemorative statements continued.
Ambassador Richard Nduhura, the permanent representative of Uganda, speaking for the Group of African States, offered a statement of solidarity with the regions affected by the Chornobyl disaster and spoke in support of strengthening international cooperation to mitigate the consequences of the nuclear disaster.
Ambassador Gholamali Khoshroo, the permanent representative of Iran, who spoke on behalf of the Asia-Pacific Regional Group, noted the achievements in the last 30 years since the Chornobyl event, and its harmful and costly legacy. Important efforts were under way to mitigate the accident’s consequences and rebuild the affected areas by promoting socio-economic development and stressing the importance of continuing international support for those efforts, he said. As Chornobyl and Fukushima remind us that nuclear accidents do not have borders, he urged increased measures for nuclear safety.
Ambassador Andrei Dapkiunas, permanent representative of Belarus to the U.N., speaking on behalf of the Group of Eastern European States, recalled Chornobyl as one of the biggest man-made disasters ever to affect the region. “It had also given rise to the one of the most remarkable examples of comprehensive global cooperation and changed the way in which countries viewed nuclear power by improving safety and security and creating a more cautious approach to technological progress. …The disaster had resulted in the allocation of huge domestic and international resources for development, health care, environmental protection and agriculture in the affected regions.”
“The global community,” he added, “had also gained unique knowledge and mastered best practices and experience in preventing, reacting and resolving the long-term consequences of man-made disasters.”
Ambassador Martin Garcia Moritan, permanent representative of Argentina to the U.N., speaking on behalf of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, noted that the Chornobyl disaster showed there is no guarantee for nuclear safety. The main victims, he said, are remembered in a photo exhibit on display in the U.N. halls. The international community has demonstrated its ability to come together to assist the victims in the recovery and reconstruction of communities, and humanitarian assistance, he said, acknowledging that member states, NGOs and civil society have contributed to this task.
“More than speeches, we need solutions to global threats,” Ambassador Moritan said. “The best tribute we could give to the victims of Chornobyl on this 70th session [of the General Assembly]is to adopt an in-depth, serious approach, one not contaminated by mistrust or small-minded calculations.”
Ambassador Christopher Grima, the permanent representative of Malta to the U.N., speaking for the Group of Western European and Other States, stated: “Thirty years later, people still do not realize the legacy of Chornobyl on the people and the affected regions and beyond. The global community, led by the United Nations, has given millions in the aftermath of the Chornobyl disaster.”
“We cannot ignore the suffering and the needs of those that have been affected and welcome those donors that continue to fund initiatives to address the long-term consequences of the accident, in achieving the sustainable development of the contaminated areas,” he continued. “In this regard, we welcome the work that has already been taken by the United Nations Development Program, the administrative- and United Nations-coordinated international cooperation for Chornobyl, to define missions that utilize international cooperation. Chornobyl has cast a long shadow on new generations and the daily lives of those in the affected areas. We should remain committed to continue to work to ensure the success of efforts to restore the site, improve the environmental situation, and the legacy of medical and social consequences of the Chornobyl accident, and also strive to ensure that accidents of such nature are avoided.“
Ambassador Sarah Mendelson, U.S. representative on the Economic and Social Council at the U.N., recalled how she was a graduate student at Columbia University at the time of the Chornobyl disaster and noted the first-responders, whose heroic sacrifice in the 30-kilometer exclusion zone serve as a powerful reminder that the events of Chornobyl cannot be forgotten. “We join with others as we renew commitments to the response of multi-national efforts, and to secure and return to an environmentally safe and stable condition the site of the Chornobyl nuclear accident. …This 30th anniversary is an occasion for us to consider how the international community can further strengthen its coordination and cooperation and communication in responding effectively in the immediate and long-term to complex humanitarian disasters such as Chornobyl. The United States remains steadfast in its commitment to overcoming the effects of Chornobyl among other measures, will continue to support critical containment efforts in the construction of the interim storage facility at the Chornobyl site, consistent with the commitments made by President [Barack] Obama, and other senior U.S. officials,” she noted.
“The United States is committed to provide significant contributions in addition to the more than $400 million the people of the United States have already provided Ukraine over the years to ensure that the Chornobyl disaster no longer has an impact on future generations.”
Ambassador Ana Silva Rodriguez Abascal, deputy permanent representative of Cuba to the U.N., offered its solidarity on the 30th anniversary of Chornobyl. “[It] changed the course of thousands of lives in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.” Cuba, she pointed out, hosted more than 100 of the children affected by Chornobyl for medical treatment in the initial days. Since then, Cuba has received more than 25,000 patients – mostly from Ukraine. A comprehensive aid program was formed as a result of Chornobyl, and all of the data collected on the children affected by the nuclear accident has taught Cuba much about radiation exposure’s internal effects. This information has been shared through major scientific events and has been used by the agencies of the U.N.
Following the commemorative meeting of the General Assembly, Ambassador Yelchenko invited members and guests to attend the dedication of the photo exhibit “Chornobyl – 30 Years” that was organized by Ukraine’s Mission to the U.N. and with assistance from the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA), and noted that the exhibit would remain on display for 10 days at the U.N. Secretariat Building.
Ambassador Yelchenko was joined by Ukrainian community and religious leaders, as well as scholars, school groups and journalists. He reminded his audience that the aftereffects of Chornobyl will continue for at least a century and that global recognition of April 26 as U.N. Chornobyl Day will aid in Ukraine’s long-term recovery efforts in the exclusion zone and beyond.