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18 Years After Chernobyl Disaster; Millions Still Suffer - 2004-02-08

A senior United Nations official says millions of victims of Chernobyl, the world's biggest peacetime nuclear disaster, remain forgotten and neglected. Radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine, which exploded on April 26, 1986, contaminated vast areas of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

The United Nations estimates that more than seven million people still suffer from the effects of Chernobyl, nearly 18 years after the nuclear power accident occurred. It notes 23 percent of Belarus, the hardest hit area, is still contaminated by radiation and will remain so for hundreds of years to come. Huge tracts of forests and once-fertile agricultural land have been abandoned.

U.N. Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egelund has just returned to Geneva from the region. He says at least 200 villages have been deserted.

"These are ghost towns. Nobody lives there," he said. "Just hundreds of abandoned buildings where there were communities. Some of these villages which survived Vikings and Napoleon and Hitler, but was really evacuated by the Chernobyl disaster."

Mr. Egelund says in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, radiation poisoning has caused a large increase in thyroid cancer among children, other forms of cancer in the general population and long-term genetic effects. He says many people also suffer from psychological disorders.

The U.N. humanitarian official says the contaminated area is bigger than some European countries. And as yet, only a few small places have been decontaminated. He says the richer western world is ignoring this problem at its peril.

"A big forest fire or a big flood could mean contamination way into Western Europe again, because it would emit a lot of the isotopes and the radioactivity which has been around these areas and which are now in the trees, for example, in these vast forests," explained Mr. Egelund.

Mr. Egelund says wealthy countries have contributed $750 million to build a sarcophagus around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor so it can withstand any natural disaster. But he says donors have given only a tiny fraction of what is needed to help rehabilitate the people and the contaminated lands.