More nuclear accidents likely - UN chief

2011-04-21 11:01

Kiev - The world must prepare for more nuclear accidents on the scale of Chernobyl and Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, the UN chief warns, saying that grim reality will demand sharp improvements in international co-operation.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and others portrayed the growth of nuclear power plants as inevitable in an energy-hungry world as they spoke at a Kiev conference on Wednesday commemorating the explosion of a reactor at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear reactor 25 years ago.

"To many, nuclear energy looks to be a relatively clean and logical choice in an era of increasing resource scarcity. Yet the record requires us to ask painful questions: Have we correctly calculated its risks and costs? Are we doing all we can to keep the world's people safe?" Ban said. "The unfortunate truth is that we are likely to see more such disasters."

During a brief visit to the explosion site 100km north of the Ukrainian capital earlier in the day, Ban proposed a strategy for improving nuclear energy security worldwide, including strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and devoting more attention to "the new nexus between natural disasters and nuclear safety".

The ongoing crisis at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was triggered by last month's huge earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that flooded the plant.

"Climate change means more incidents of freak weather," Ban said in Kiev. "Our vulnerability will only grow."

New shelter to last 100 years

IAEA head Yukiya Amano, who accompanied Ban on the trip to Chernobyl, echoed those sentiments.

"Many countries will continue to find nuclear power an important option in the future, and that is why we have to do our utmost to ensure safety," he said, speaking a few hundred metres from the exploded reactor, which is now covered by a hastily erected sarcophagus.

The sarcophagus has gone past its expected service life and work has begun to build an enormous shelter that will be rolled over the reactor building. The new shelter, designed to last 100 years, is expected to be in place by 2015, but a substantial amount of money for the project is still lacking.

An international donors' conference on Tuesday in Kiev sought to raise $1.1bn for the shelter and a storage facility for the spent fuel at the plant's other decommissioned reactors. But in the face of global economic problems, some countries held back from making funding promises and the pledges only came to $798m.

The Chernobyl explosion on April 26 1986, spewed a cloud of radioactive fallout over much of Europe and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in the most heavily hit areas. A 30km area radiating from the plant remains uninhabited except for some plant workers who rotate in and several hundred local people who returned to their homes despite official warnings.

Zsuzsanna Jacab of the UN's World Health Organisation told the Kiev conference that about 6 000 cases of thyroid cancer had been diagnosed among people who were children and teens when exposed to the fallout. She said more cases are expected although "the magnitude is difficult to quantify".

Need for improved communication

Among the 600 000 people most heavily exposed to radiation - which apparently include the estimated 240 000 who worked on the first and most dangerous phase of the plant repair and clean-up - Jacab expects 4 000 more cancer deaths than average to be eventually found.

The UN figures have been criticised by the environmental group Greenpeace and others as severely understating Chernobyl's consequences. Even the lower figures represent "an unacceptable price paid by the affected communities", Jacab said.

Ban and others said the Chernobyl and Japan accidents highlighted the need for improved communication between countries about their nuclear programmes. And Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, drew a political lesson from the crises.

"The more complex technologies become, the more complex societies become, the more important it is to involve civil societies, to have democratic institutions, a free press," he said.

Soviet authorities kept the Chernobyl disaster unreported for several days, and Japanese authorities have been criticised for initially providing insufficient information.

  • gertie - 2011-04-21 12:23

    "Among the 600 000 people ... include the estimated 240 000 who worked on the first and most dangerous phase ... Jacab expects 4 000 more cancer deaths" That is 0.6% over the 600 000 or 1.7% over the 240 000. Was this supposed to sound scary? Or if you add the 6 000 Thyroid cancer patients to the 4 000 that is " to be eventually found" over the 600 000 - that is 1.6% Compare that to the environmental impact of fossil fuel burning power plants... It is still cleaner... and once they've managed to get the "Fast neutron reactors" going they can re-use the spent fuel from other nuclear plants.

  • beicime - 2011-04-21 23:18

    Accidents do happen. The longer we go without an accident the closer we are of one.

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