The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on 26 April 1986 was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. Hundreds of emergency workers risked their lives in responding to the accident; the more than 330,000 people were evacuated from surrounding areas with little hope of return; thousands of children later contracted thyroid cancer; and the six million people still living in the affected areas of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
The accident was an immense human tragedy. Almost 30 years after the accident, the affected regions are still facing its consequences. In part, they are related to the branding problems and fears associated with radioactive fallout; and in part – to the lack of social and economic opportunities for the people.
In 2002, the Governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine – the three most affected by Chernobyl countries – together with the UN family, enacted new strategy on Chernobyl. It recognized that the biggest challenge to the affected regions was not radiation, but rather a lack of social and economic opportunities. In recognition of this new strategy, in 2006 the UN Secretary-General transferred the UN system-wide coordination on Chernobyl from UN-OCHA to UNDP. The Decade of Recovery and Sustainable Development of the affected regions was proclaimed by the UN for 2006-2016.
In the framework of the Decade, significant efforts and resources were allocated by the three counties, and a number of joint projects in cooperation with UN family were implemented aimed at recovery and development of Chernobyl-affected communities This experience left us with some very important lessons:
1. Human consequences of nuclear emergencies can be deep-rooted and long-lasting. Recovery activities should include psychological support, information provision and counselling in order to ease fears and promote forward-looking attitudes of affected individuals and communities;
2. Following nuclear disaster, the affected territories may become stigmatized, treated as “contaminated”. This negative impact on the livelihoods of the people may require additional efforts, including support to marketing the products, attracting investors, keeping young people in the region, etc.;
3. Priority should be given to involvement of communities in decision-making process, community-based social and economic development, supporting initiatives aimed at improving welfare and encouraging self-reliance;
4. Assistance should be targeted and concentrate on the most affected/vulnerable individuals, communities and territories;
5. International efforts can only be effective if they support, amplify, and act as levers of change in the far larger efforts made by local, regional and national government agencies in cooperation with civil society and with participation of communities;
6. High-level coordinative efforts by the relevant UN agencies as well as joint initiatives on the ground according to the UN agencies’ distinct mandates are of the utmost importance. At the development stage, the UN system-wide coordinative function on the recovery efforts from nuclear disaster can be effectively performed by UNDP;
7. Future activities in the areas of recovery from a nuclear disasters may be distinguished in two ways: actions taken in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear incident, and actions that take a long-term view.
In the short term, besides any humanitarian assistance programmes, it is vital that the affected population gets access to information on the risks and the scale of accident. Such information should be accompanied by reliable data, delivered through trustworthy local sources, and in the easy-to-understand form.
At this stage, and if necessary, the governments can address the issues of social benefits, zoning and resettlement of the people from affected areas.
In the longer term, it is essential that affected communities are supported in their economic, social and livelihoods recovery. The repercussions of a nuclear incident can be contamination of soil, and thus prevent people from returning to their usual employment activities. Thus, the forward-looking initiatives should aim at creating new livelihoods, favourable climate for business, and private sector development as well as improving delivery of social services, and improving the institutional capacity of the national and local governments involved in the recovery efforts.
Application of the community-based approach is most promising. Communities in the affected areas should be encouraged to implement small-scale initiatives, which improve their living conditions, embrace the principle of voluntary action to address local challenges.
At this stage, it will be particularly important to rebuild community structures that were lost in the process of evacuation/resettlement and strengthen social interactions.
Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, together with UN family, gained unique knowledge and experience in recovering from the human consequences of Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Taking note of the existing level of cooperation among relevant actors involved in the whole range of Chernobyl programs and exchange, we are now looking at how these experiences can be used for future technogenic disaster-related work. For instance, since the is no overarching framework for preventing, preparing and responding to technological disasters, existing knowledge and experience (such as Chernobyl) can be put to a good use consolidated under a possible new international platform or framework.