April 11, 2006

Crucial to work with locals after Chernobyl: study

PARIS -- Countries will better cope with fallout from nuclear accidents or radiological terrorist attack if they learn from the Chernobyl disaster and involve local people in dealing with the aftermath, a study said on Tuesday.

Governments needed to tackle the economic impact of such disasters too but local associations and residents could help improve responses and give those hardest-hit a sense of regaining control of shattered lives, it said.

The report by the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) was published 20 years after world's worst civil nuclear accident at the Chernobyl power station in 1986 in Ukraine.

"(These lessons can) assist national governments to be best prepared to address any future large-scale and long-lasting contamination event that could occur, be it from industrial accidents or terrorist attacks," the NEA said in a statement.

The Chernobyl explosion spewed a cloud of radioactive dust over Europe and the Soviet Union. U.N. agencies have said some 4,000 people would die in total because of radiation exposure at the time. Hundreds of thousands were evacuated, or received treatment for various illnesses, particularly thyroid cancer.

Among projects studied was a village in Belarus, where experts encouraged farmers and a teacher to map out grazing areas and measure the different levels of contamination in the milk of cows from different fields.

In another project, mothers were incited to keep close track of all food products fed to their babies, establishing a chart of which products were least contaminated.

"There were real improvements, such as better milk quality, or a reduction in the contamination of children," Jacques Lochard, chairman of an NEA committee which wrote the report, told a news conference.

"But beyond that, people felt they were back in control of the situation and started to re-trust experts and authorities."

He said there were limits to the strategy of involving local people: "It's impossible to engage society... if you are not also addressing the economic context.

"Some people told us 'I'd rather die of contamination than of hunger'."