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Remarks of H.E. Yuri Shcherbak, Ambassador of Ukraine to the U.S. on the Tenth Anniversary of Chernobyl, April 26th, 1996

H.E. gave the Keynote Address on the consequences of Chernobyl on April 3, 1992 during our First International Conference on Health and Environment: Global Partners for Global Solutions. The following remarks were given during our Fifth Conference.

As recently as three days ago, Chornobyl again reminded us on how dangerous and unstable the situation remains in this area. You could see on CNN TV network the pictures of burning houses and damage done to nature within the 18 mile exclusion zone around the Chornobyl plant. This smaller fire reminded us of the fire which threatened the whole of Europe ten years ago on April 26, 1986. At that time millions of curies of radioactivity were released into the atmosphere by the fire and explosion of the fourth unit of Chornobyl NPP. The direction of winds became a major political and economic factor for years, determining the peculiarities of radioactivity distribution not only in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, but in Poland, Sweden, Turkey and many others.

Judged by the totality of the its consequences, the accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant was the largest modern disaster, a national calamity which radically changed the destinies of millions of people living on vast territories. This catastrophe has brought the then Soviet Union and the world community at large to the realization of the necessity of solving new and extremely complex, comprehensive and unprecedented problems dealing practically with all spheres of life - political, social, economic, industrial and the state of science and technology, laws, culture and morals.

Chornobyl was not simply another disaster of the sort that humankind has experienced throughout history. It is a global environmental event of a new kind which is characterized by thousands of environmental refugees; long-term contamination of land, water and air; and possibly irreparable damage to ecosystems. In the chain of the worst technogenic disasters of the 20th century, Chornobyl occupies its special place. This is an absolutely new phenomenon of the modern technical civilization which has a number of unprecedented characteristic features.

First, Chornobyl is an alarm signal sent to mankind from the future, a warning about possible destruction of the humankind and the environment whether it is an ethnic or religious one, civil war or invasion by a foreign country. It is also necessary to elaborate an effective mechanism for quick reaction by the UN forces or other international organizations in case of starting armed conflicts on the territories where nuclear plants are located. Chornobyl's experience shows us how dangerous is the destruction of a reactor where, at the time of the explosion, there were over 230 metric tons of nuclear fuel (uranium). According to "official" data, as a result of the accident over 20 million curies of radioactivity were released, although the real figures were much bigger. Even now in the ruins of the fourth reactor (Shelter sarcophagus) there still remains 180 tons of nuclear fuel, including over 2.3 tons of uranium 235 and 700 kg of plutonium with general radioactivity of 200 million curies. I want to remind you that the atomic bomb of the Hiroshima type contained 10 kilograms of plutonium.


Sixth day of Chernobyl. Fallout cloud from the accident taken from satellite by the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

Let me mention a few data on the post-Chornobyl situation in my country. In Ukraine alone 50.5 thousand square kilometers of territory with the population of 2.6 million (including 700,000 children) in 2218 settlements were contaminated. By the mid-August of 1986 there were over 90,000 people from 81 settlements evacuated. From 1990 to 1995, due to the dangerous radiation conditions as well as social and economic implications, 52,000 citizens of Ukraine were resettled. According to some data, all in all about 5 million people were exposed to radiation to greater or less extent.

About 600,000 "liquidators", that is cleanup workers, participated in overcoming the disaster's consequences, 300,000 of them live in Ukraine. The people were sent to the Chernobyl area by various ministries and agencies, including Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Atomic Energy, Ministry of Health and so on. Despite the fact that a relatively small number of people died immediately after the accident (31 persons died of the acute forms of radiation sickness), the long-term consequences are grave and cause great tension in the work of state agencies and medical services of Ukraine. For example, 5,000 people have lost their ability to work. The sickness of 30,000 liquidators is officially attributed to the aftermath of the catastrophe. A group of Kiev researchers have conducted a medical survey of a group of liquidators and have found that the majority of these people had the chronic fatigue syndrome accompanied by depression of a certain subclass of lymphocytes (natural killer cells which have the power to kill the cells of tumors or virus infected cells). The defects of the natural immune system are named "Chornobyl AIDS" which in the near future could cause the increased rate of leukemias and malignant tumors, as well as greater susceptibility to "normal infections" like bronchitis, tonsillitis, pneumonia, etc. which last longer and acquire grave clinical forms.

In contaminated regions of Ukraine and Belarus there was a sharp increase (by 10 times) of thyroid cancer morbidity. Chornobyl has given rise to a psychological syndrome comparable to that suffered by veterans at wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Among children evacuated from the zone there has been a 10 to 15-fold increase in the incidence of neuropsychiatric disorders.

According to data of the Ukrainian Ministry of Health, Greenpeace-Ukraine organization and other NGO's, 8,000 to over 32,000 people died as a result of the accident. The population mortality in the most affected regions increased by 15.7% compared to the pre-accident period.

On Saturday, April 20, 1996, the G-7 summit took place in Moscow with the participation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. President Kuchma has confirmed the political decision of Ukraine to shut down the Chornobyl NPP by the year 2000 under condition of adequate and timely financial and technical assistance by G-7 countries. The President has drawn attention of G-7 leaders to the necessity of combined efforts to upgrade the Shelter (Sarcophagus) safety and rehabilitation of contaminated territories. He highly appreciated the Memorandum of Understanding signed last December between Ukraine, G-7 and the European Commission.

According to the USAID report, the United States has contributed over $100 million worth of humanitarian and medical assistance to Ukraine over the last four years. On the 10th anniversary of the accident, that is tomorrow, USAID expects to distribute some $20 million in humanitarian assistance to victims of Chornobyl and to donate a mobile radiation-measuring unit. The Department of Energy has earmarked approximately $13 million for ongoing nuclear safety improvement projects at Chornobyl.

It must be stressed once again that the issue of decommissioning the Chernobyl NPP is directly related to national security of Ukraine and its independence. As you know, Ukraine is experiencing a severe energy crisis. At this time it is capable of covering only 10% to 15% of its needs by its own oil and gas production, whereas nuclear power plants produce up to 40% of energy, with the Chornobyl NPP accounting for 7% of all electricity generated in the country. Therefore, the problem of the plant's shutdown is directly connected with the restructuring of Ukraine's energy sector and introducing new capacities which compensate for energy losses.

Chornobyl is not the issue to be solved by Ukraine alone. It is a warning to mankind at large and we must learn a dreadful lesson of preparedness if we are to reply on superpowerful and hyperdangerous nuclear technology. Ten years ago we entered a new post-Chornobyl era, and we have yet to comprehend all its consequences.