Making the first visit by a United Nations Secretary-General to Chernobyl, the site of the April 1986 nuclear accident, Ban Ki-moon today paid tribute to the many victims of the disaster and called for a “new chapter” to begin in the areas still affected.
“It is one thing to read and hear about Chernobyl, and it is a completely different story to see for myself,” Mr. Ban told a conference in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, after his “extremely moving” visit to the site accompanied by President Viktor Yanukovych.
He recalled the sacrifice of the firefighters “who lost their lives, quite literally, saving the world” in the wake of the accident, as well as the 6,000 children who developed thyroid cancer and the hundreds of thousands of people who had to leave their homes or who served as recovery workers.
Mr. Ban said the suffering went beyond the estimated 6 million people who still live in affected communities in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia to “countless others haunted by fears of their health, their livelihoods, and their family’s future. We honour their pain.”
The Secretary-General said it was important to try to overcome perceptions that the affected region in the three countries “is poisoned forever” and to instead start a “new chapter, with new understanding.
“Science has shown that normal life is fully possible for most people living in area affected by the Chernobyl disaster. What these areas need most is recovery and development: new jobs, fresh investment, the restoration of a sense of community.”
Mr. Ban told the conference – whose theme was “25 years After Chernobyl Catastrophe: Safety for the Future” – that the UN Action Plan on Chernobyl reflected the world body’s commitment to shared principles and priorities to address recovery in affected areas, as well as to lessons learned from Chernobyl and other nuclear accidents.
“Together, we are working with officials, local communities, and other partners to improve infrastructure, promote small businesses, improve health systems, and spur job creation.”
Echoing his address to the Kiev Summit on the Safe and Innovative Use of Nuclear Energy yesterday, the Secretary-General emphasized the need for better international standards for the construction of nuclear power plants, agreed guarantees on public safety and full transparency and information-sharing.
“Nuclear accidents respect no borders. We owe it to our citizens and the world to practice the highest standards of emergency preparedness and response, from the design of new facilities through construction and operation to their eventual decommissioning.”
He said he was impressed by the Chernobyl Command Centre and the ongoing work of building a new shelter for the damaged nuclear reactor.
Speaking also to reporters in Kiev, Mr. Ban said that the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi in Japan, which was badly damaged by the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March, had sent a strong message to the world on the need to upgrade safe standards.
“We have to strengthen these nuclear safety standards both at national and international levels,” he said, noting that the Director General of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, will convene a ministerial meeting on the issue in June.
The UN chief, for his part, will hold a high-level meeting with world leaders in September to discuss in depth the strengthening of nuclear safety at both the national and international levels.