Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, called on Tuesday for new world rules to be drawn up on safety at nuclear plants.
Medvedev, standing alongside Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich at a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear accident, said the disaster had taught states that they must tell the whole truth to their people.
The Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was then a part, held back news of the full scale of the Chernobyl accident for several days.
“The duty of a state is to tell the truth to its people. It must be acknowledged that the (Soviet) state did not always behave correctly,” Medvedev said.
His words took on added poignancy amid Japan’s efforts to control the crisis at its Fukushima nuclear plant, which was damaged by an earthquake and tsunami last month.
Medvedev, echoing words by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said events in Japan and Chernobyl made it vital to draw up new standards for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
“Today, I sent proposals to (world) leaders … aimed at guaranteeing the necessary development of nuclear energy in the world while at the same time preventing catastrophic global consequences,” he said.
On April 26, 1986, the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl plant exploded and caught fire after a safety test experiment went badly wrong. The blast sent radiation billowing across Europe.
Tens of thousands of inhabitants were evacuated from Prypyat, the town closest to the site, never to return. A 30 km (19 mile) exclusion zone is still in place around the town.
A total of 31 people died immediately and many more died later of radiation-related sicknesses such as cancer, many of them in what is today Belarus.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog said the Fukushima accident in Japan did not signal the end of atomic power, but vowed to conduct an extensive evaluation of safety measures.
“That’s what we want to do quickly at the IAEA,” Yukiya Amano, general director of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, said in an interview with Le Figaro newspaper.
“It is … absolutely necessary to proceed with an analysis and a detailed evaluation of security measures and existing security norms.”
Studies of the effects on health have been “numerous but uncoordinated and not comprehensive,” the International Agency for Research on Cancer said in a statement in Lyon, France, calling for a long-term international research plan.
Apart from 28 deaths due to bone marrow failure within the first two months among workers dealing with the blast, studies have concentrated on the several thousand cases of thyroid cancer developed in children due to radiation exposure.
This has diverted attention from other possible effects, including reported increases in other cancers, inherited genetic alterations, cataracts and other non-cancer diseases, according to the IARC, which is part of the World Health Organisation.
Comprehensive studies of Chernobyl would help exposed populations to receive “reliable rather than speculative estimates of the consequences,” it said.
Last week the world community, spurred by the crisis in Japan, pledged 550 million euros (US$780 million) to help build a new 110-metre-high containment shell over the stricken reactor to replace a makeshift one that has begun to leak radiation, as well as a new storage facility for spent fuel.
“For a long time, Ukraine was alone with this calamity, but happily we are not alone now,” Ukraine’s Yanukovich said in a statement.
In Chernobyl, he thanked Medvedev for Russia’s donation of 45 million euros (US$65 million). In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko also toured areas affected by the disaster.
Local memories are still raw of the disaster and the firefighters and other ‘liquidators’ who risked their lives fighting to control the blazing reactor.
“This is a day of mourning for us,” said Gennady Pikul, 50. “We are in mourning for the people who 25 years ago fought to protect us. We will do everything we can so that this is never repeated.”
The anniversary triggered anti-nuclear protests in several European countries. On Monday, about 120,000 people took part in anti-nuclear rallies at 12 plants across Germany.
In Romania, scores of protesters, some wearing protective suits and gas masks, gathered near government headquarters to urge authorities to cancel plans to build new reactors.