Almost half a world away, in a remote corner of Ukraine, a routine safety experiment at a nuclear power station went terribly wrong in 1986, resulting in what in human history became universally recognizable by a single word: Chernobyl. Hiroshima and Nagasaki should never be repeated, and it is up to the political leaders of today to ensure that they are not. Chernobyl was an accident, but humankind needs to ensure that it, too, is never repeated.

Sixteen years have passed since that tragic accident, yet a multitude of problems remain, affecting an area that is home to more than 5.5 million people. The three hardest hit countries — Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine — have been shouldering the major burden of helping their citizens over the years, while facing the challenge of building newly independent democratic states and a market economy.

However, the international community has not been idle, either. Much has been done to reduce the chances of repeat of such a tragedy, to provide humanitarian assistance for the victims and to develop research on the effects of large-scale low-level radiation exposure on human health, especially children, and the environment.

The Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation, for example, played an important role in this work. For a number of years after the accident, international and national efforts consisted to a large extent of reactor safety and emergency humanitarian assistance: by encasing the destroyed No. 4 reactor in a shelter, resettling the population away from highly contaminated areas and providing immediate medical, psycho-social and other assistance to the victims. While needs in these areas clearly continue to exist, there has been time to take stock and have a fresh look at the problems.

Last year, the United Nations moved to undertake a fresh assessment of the effects of the Chernobyl accident focusing on its human consequences. One may well ask, why revisit the issue 15 years after the event? There are good reasons. The world needs to know as much as possible about the effects — not only immediate, but also long-term — of such accidents on human health, the environment and the communities affected, if only to be better prepared should there be a next time.

Chernobyl is an issue that can foster wide-ranging cooperation within the international community, among individuals, communities and governments. Most importantly, the international community must not turn its back on the people of Chernobyl — after a decade and a half of involvement and assistance, we must not leave the job half done, when there are still outstanding needs.

In fact, people living in the contaminated areas continue to face the double impact of a depressed economy and of radiation contamination. Many of those in the villages and settlements directly affected are still trapped in a downward spiral of living conditions. The findings of the U.N. report “The Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident — A Strategy for Recovery,” published last February, clearly demonstrate this.

To address these lingering problems affecting the many victims of the accident, young and old, the U.N. advocates the need to shift its strategy from a focus on emergency humanitarian assistance to a new one that stresses a long-term developmental approach and empowerment of individuals and communities. It should target assistance to the most affected people and communities and aim at promoting a return to normalcy.

I took the new strategy to Belarus, Russia and Ukraine for discussion during my visit to the region last April. The three governments welcomed the U.N. report and broadly supported the new approach and a shift in the focus of international cooperation on Chernobyl. They agree that it could best be achieved through a nationally driven process, which would include some of their own policy changes and the creation of conditions for sustainable economic activity. This could also have a broader developmental impact for the three countries still struggling with transition to market economies.

A number of initiatives are already under way to support this process. A new, Swiss-funded international Chernobyl Web site (www.chernobyl.info), operated with the cooperation of the U.N., has been launched recently and is expected to serve as an independent, credible information tool — a prerequisite for increased donor interest and support.

Also, several new pilot projects for community development and the creation of favorable environment for investment are being developed by the U.N. agencies in the affected countries and they will be presented to donors in late autumn. The idea of an International Chernobyl Research Network to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the long-term effects of radiation is being actively explored by experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, linking international and national research institutions working on these problems.

Hopefully, the new strategy will lead to renewed donor interest and participation, backed by a healthy combination of compassion and enlightened self-interest. Today there are close to 400 nuclear reactors in operation around the world. Experts consider that the possibility of a major accident is very small. Future designs will no doubt be safer, but even the best designs can never assure absolute safety from accident or other events. We will work closely with the three governments, the donor community and all interested international organizations and other actors. We will seek partnerships to strengthen the focus on the human dimensions of the Chernobyl accident.

Japan is uniquely positioned to help. Notably, its public- and private-sector contribution to the cause of Chernobyl over the past few years total $100 million, including support from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the area of radiology and related sciences. We must not turn our back on the people of Chernobyl with the job half finished. Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Chernobyl are very different tragedies but common experiences bring them together. None of them should be forgotten.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.