26 October 2006
General Assembly
GA/SPD/356

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-first General Assembly

Fourth Committee

17th Meeting (AM)


UNITED NATIONS SCIENTIFIC COMMITTEE, TASKED WITH ASSESSING EFFECTS OF ATOMIC


RADIATION, TELLS FOURTH COMMITTEE OF SIGNIFICANT FUNDING SHORTAGE


Broad Support Emerges for Reinforcing Scientific Committee’s Budget;

Aftermath of Chernobyl Disaster, Nuclear Tests in Marshall Islands Highlighted


A crisis in financing for the esteemed United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) dominated discussion today among Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization Issues) delegates, as they considered the consequences of exposure to atomic radiation on the health of humans and the environment, and heard the introduction of a related draft resolution.


Malcolm Crick, Secretary of the Scientific Committee, the key body tasked with assessing the levels, effects and risks of ionizing radiation, warned that the Committee’s financial crisis was seriously hindering its output.  Funded through the United Nations budget, the Committee was seen as an independent body, the findings of which critically underpinned government programmes.  To restore its health, resources must be increased and a high-level post that had been abolished in the past, reinstated.  He said the creation of a possible trust fund was being discussed by members of the Scientific Committee, but while such a fund would position the body well in the future, addressing the extensive drain on resources must be taken up by the regular budget, he said.


Echoing the call for increased resources, the Scientific Committee’s Chair and representative of Australia, Clare Gatehouse, introduced a draft resolution on the effects of atomic radiation.  Of particular importance, she said, the draft contained a request that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) continue providing support to the Committee and that it take steps to strengthening present funding.


In the ensuing dialogue, many speakers highlighted the Committee’s importance in the context of assessing health risks resulting from radiation exposure, accidental or otherwise.  The Marshall Islands representative said that the effects of atomic radiation were of utmost concern, as the United States had conducted nuclear tests in his country between 1946 and 1958.  The 1954 Bravo test, conducted at Bikini Atoll, was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima, and people still suffered serious long-term health effects.  He emphasized the urgent demand for scientific consensus on the effects of atomic radiation and sought the Scientific Committee’s support for the Marshall Islands’ Changed Circumstances Petition submitted to the United States Congress in 2000.


Similarly, noting the importance of the Scientific Committee’s role in assessing risks from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, the representative of Ukraine said that despite conclusions that the vast majority of its people did not need to fear major health impacts from that disaster, heated discussion persisted about exactly how many deaths were linked to it.  While there was no demonstrated increase in leukaemia or solid cancers in the most affected populations, a dramatic increase in incidences of thyroid cancer had been noted.  On that issue, the Committee had proven helpful in extending the calculation of collective dose of radiation and it had introduced the novel concept of chronic low-level exposures influence on future generations.


Several delegates called for the expansion of the Scientific Committee’s membership.  The representative of Belarus suggested that expanding the Committee would help to energize its activities and ultimately serve the world’s scientific community.  Belarus was also among those countries most affected by the Chernobyl disaster.  It had carried out work at international levels about overcoming the effects of atomic radiation.  That experience must now be applied to the work of the Committee, and her country intended to become a member of that body.


Pakistan’s representative also welcomed the idea of expanding the membership, adding that his country was also interested in joining the Committee.  Enlarging that body would provide an opportunity for non-member countries to contribute their vast expertise to the Committee’s work.  Further, that would increase the level of international cooperation in the field of studying the effects of atomic radiation.


The representatives of Finland (on behalf of the European Union), Cuba, Syria, Japan, Myanmar, and Argentina also participated in today’s debate.


The Fourth Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on Monday, 30 October to continue its consideration of the effects of atomic radiation.  It was also expected to take up the agenda items concerning the University for Peace and the revitalization of the work of the General Assembly.


Background


The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) met this morning to consider the effects of atomic radiation, for which it had before it the report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (document A/61/46 and Corr.1), covering that body’s fifty-fourth session, held in Vienna from 29 May to 2 June.  That session reviewed advanced versions of documents that were last considered at the previous session and scrutinized drafts of other outstanding documents, namely those on exposures of the public and workers to various sources of radiation; exposures from radiation accidents; exposures from medical uses of radiation; and effects of ionizing radiation on non-human biota.  The Committee’s mandate has been to undertake broad reviews of the sources of ionizing radiation and its effects on the health of humans and the environment.


According to the report, the need for the restoration of an operating budget adequate to allow the Committee to fulfil its mandate was now at a critical point.  The Committee reiterated that reliance on a single professional in the secretariat left the Committee “seriously vulnerable”, which, in the past, had hampered the efficient implementation of the approved programme of work.  Funding for the biennium 2008-2009 had to be strengthened pursuant to resolutions 60/98, 59/114, 58/88 and 57/115.  Moreover, no additional resources had as yet been provided in the biennium 2006-2007 to allow the plans endorsed by the General Assembly to be carried out effectively. 


The Committee also called on all Member States, specialized agencies of the United Nations system and other scientific international and national bodies to make available relevant information for its reviews, whose quality and completeness critically depend on such information.  The Committee decided to hold its fifty-fifth session in Vienna from 21 to 25 May 2007.


The report notes that the Committee summarized the main conclusions of five scientific annexes for inclusion in its report, entitled “Epidemiological studies of radiation and cancer”, “Epidemiological evaluation of cardiovascular disease and other non-cancer diseases following radiation exposure”, “Non-targeted and delayed effects of exposure to ionizing radiation”, “Effects of ionizing radiation on the immune system” and “Sources-to-effects assessment for radon in homes and workplaces”.  


[The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) was established by the General Assembly in 1955, with the mandate to assess and report levels of exposure to ionizing radiation and their effects.  According to its website, Governments and organizations throughout the world rely on the Committee's estimates as the scientific basis for evaluating radiation risk, establishing radiation protection and safety standards, and regulating radiation sources.  The Committee comprises scientists from 21 Member States and consults with scientists throughout the world in establishing its databases.  More information about the Committee can be found on www.unscear.com.]


Presentation by Secretary of the Scientific Committee


MALCOLM CRICK, Secretary of UNSCEAR, the body tasked with assessing levels, effects and risks of ionizing radiation, said the Committee’s financial crisis was seriously hindering its output.  The organization, which was funded through the United Nations budget, was seen as an independent body that was efficient in developing global consensus and whose findings critically underpinned government programmes.  To restore its health, resources must be increased and a high-level post that had been abolished in the past, reinstated.  To further address its financial distress, the Committee was discussing the idea of opening a trust fund, through which it could receive contributions.  While that fund would position the body well in the future, addressing the extensive drain on resources must be taken up by the regular budget. 


He said that the Committee’s functions included the early warning of upcoming issues, targeted scientific assessment (including in the 1990s when UNSCEAR demonstrated the increased risks of radiation), and global knowledge management, which focused on the mechanisms by which radiation could give rise to health effects.  He said the Committee should do a better job of communicating to the Fourth Committee and to the public about its findings.


Exposure to radiation included effects such as burns, radiation sickness and death.  Further, there was an increased risk of cancer, which showed itself some 5 to 20 years after exposure.  The higher the radiation dose, the higher the likelihood of cancer appearing in exposed people.  He cautioned, however, that epidemiology, the science of disease, currently could not examine a case of cancer and definitively determine whether it was due to radiation.  Understanding low-dose radiation exposure, which included occupational doses and those associated with radioactive waste, was critical in determining how the Committee developed regulations. 


On non-cancer diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, he said survivors of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who had received high doses of radiation had developed an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.  Whether there was a causal effect at those levels remained the question.  In lower doses, there was no clear evidence that could directly link radiation to an increase in cardiovascular disease. 


Addressing the non-targeted effects of radiation, which looked at the mechanisms by which radiation could cause cancers, there was an explosion of information, particularly in new investigation techniques, which allowed scientists to examine single tracks of radiation on the genome.  Because of the importance of regulation, that area would be studied closely in the future.


Introduction of draft resolution


Tabling a draft resolution on the effects of atomic radiation, CLARE GATEHOUSE ( Australia), Chair of UNSCEAR, said that since its establishment by the General Assembly in 1955, UNSCEAR had served the vital function of providing authoritative scientific review of the sources and effects of ionizing radiation.  Governments and organizations worldwide relied on the Scientific Committee’s estimates as the scientific basis for evaluating radiation risk, establishing radiation protection and safety standards and regulating radiation sources.  Those estimates were, in turn, used by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in discharging its statutory functions of establishing health standards, with respect to radiation. 


She added that this year marked the twentieth year since the accident at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and she welcomed the Scientific Committee’s commitment to review the effects of that accident on people and the environment 20 years later.  She was concerned, however, that the present funding level was inadequate.  This year’s draft resolution, therefore, requested that the United Nations Environment Programme continue providing support and take steps to ensure the strengthening of present funding, so that the Committee could discharge its responsibilities and mandates.  The draft also requested UNSCEAR to continue to review important issues in the field of ionizing radiation, and it considered the question of Committee membership.


Statements


HELI KANERVA ( Finland), speaking on behalf of the European Union, said that she welcomed UNSCEAR’s report as a good overview of its work and achievements.  It further confirmed the Scientific Committee’s status as the principal body in its field.  The information it provided was also indispensable in establishing both international and national standards on the effects of radiation.  She reaffirmed her delegation’s willingness to provide all relevant information to the Committee for its evaluation.


On the Chernobyl accident, she said that the European Union attached great importance to the studies conducted by the Committee and encouraged it to continue its important work.  She noted that observers from the World Health Organization, as well as the IAEA and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) had attended this year’s meeting of the Committee.  The European Union encouraged such cooperation and the exchange of information between those organizations.


She added that, while interest in the Committee’s work had increased significantly, it had not been matched by a commensurate increase in resources.  The draft addressed the need for funding, and the Union looked forward to the discussions next year.


REBECA HERNANDEZ TOLEDANO ( Cuba) said that her Government affirmed the importance of UNSCEAR’s work as a source of specialized, balanced and objective information on matters of its competence.  Its excellent work -- carried out for the past 50 years -- proved that even 60 years after an atomic bomb was dropped, negative effects on human health were evident.  Her delegation, therefore, reiterated its steadfast commitment to the total elimination of nuclear weapons.


On the tragic accident of Chernobyl, she said that her Government had provided significant assistance to the Ukraine, where a rehabilitation programme had helped more than 18,000 children receive medical attention.  A small Cuban medical brigade was also helping victims in the province of Crimea.


GALINA BUBNOVSKAYA ( Belarus), recalling 2006 as the twentieth anniversary since the Chernobyl accident, said she considered atomic radiation the main problem for the future.  As one of the countries most affected by the disaster, Belarus had several specialists who collected data on overcoming the consequences of radiation from the accident.  Her country had carried out work at the international level, and results were being used in interactions between Belarus and international bodies, including the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Labour Organization, and UNEP, among others. 


She said Belarus’ experience must now be applied in the work of UNSCEAR, and her country intended to become a member of that body, which had been reflected in the final document of an international scientific conference in Minsk, Belarus earlier this year.  Conference participants there had noted the usefulness of Belarus’ contributions.  She, meanwhile, called for expanding membership of the Scientific Committee.  Belarus had established an interdepartmental working group to resolve issues concerning Belarus’ membership in the Scientific Committee and was ready to propose a candidate.  Membership had last been reviewed 20 years ago.  Belarus had made substantial progress in studying the effects of radiation since then.  Expansion of the Special Committee should help to energize its activities and would ultimately be useful to the world’s scientific community.


MANAR TALEB (Syria), reaffirming that the Special Committee should preserve the independence of its role, supported that body’s request to revise and strengthen its financing, as the issue was important to discharging its mandate.  Nuclear technology should be used for peaceful purposes to achieve development.  He was concerned over constraints for developing countries in that regard.  His delegation called for the elimination of nuclear stockpiles and to contain the dangers of atomic radiation.  Syria had been one of the first States to have called for the Middle East to be a nuclear-weapon-free zone and a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.  It had worked to achieve that goal, had become a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and had concluded the safeguards with the IAEA.


He said that the draft resolution submitted by the Arab Group in 2003, aimed at ridding the Middle East of nuclear weapons through collective monitoring, would strengthen the multilateral disarmament agreements.  Israel’s refusal to adhere to the Non-Proliferation Treaty or implement safeguards had undermined peace and security in the region.  That could lead to an environmental disaster with serious repercussions; a Chernobyl-type accident could happen anywhere.  Neighbouring countries had the right to know whether Israeli power stations were safe, and the lack of controls and guarantees on Israeli stations was a threat.  He called on the international community to exert pressure on Israel for it to place its eight nuclear installations under IAEA supervision. 


Drawing attention to the issue of the dangers of ionizing radiation, particularly in the sea, he said that when nuclear waste was buried, it had a negative impact on neighbouring regions.  Israel buried its waste in the occupied Syrian Golan, which had compromised its statements on the need to respect disarmament.  That subject required increased international cooperation.


TAKEOMI YAMAMOTO ( Japan) said that he appreciated the excellent work done by the Chair in drafting and introducing the draft resolution.  Although UNSCEAR’s original mandate had been limited to assessing and reporting levels and effects of ionizing radiation, its role had been adapted over time to address new challenges arising from radiation exposure -- such as the effects in the area of non-cancer diseases and the environment.


He said it was important for UNSCEAR to continue its work in authoritatively reviewing the effects of radiation, in order to ensure the safety of the human race and to promote public health in the use of radiation for medical purposes.  In light of that, adequate funding was vital, and he voiced the need to consider alternative funding mechanisms, including those provided for in the draft.


U AUNG LYNN ( Myanmar) commended UNSCEAR for its work in its five decades of existence, stressing its need for the international community’s urgent attention.  Referring to the Chernobyl accident, he noted that it had provided the Scientific Committee with many hard lessons and served to underscore the need to ensure that the Committee’s work was successful.  It was incumbent on the international community to support its work, as UNSCEAR played an important role in safeguarding human health and the environment.


Because today’s world was a nuclear world, the danger of atomic radiation remained a serious challenge to all countries, he said.  Notwithstanding those risks and dangers, nuclear energy remained attractive, as it provided important applications in science, medicine and power.  His Government exercised its legitimate right to the peaceful use of atomic energy for development purposes.


On the regional level, he noted that Myanmar was party to the Regional Cooperative agreement for East Asia and the Pacific region, under the aegis of the IAEA.  It had also ratified the South-East Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty.


ASIM IFTIKHAR AHMAD ( Pakistan) expressed hope that UNSCEAR would be provided with the necessary resources to effectively carry out its work.  He welcomed the idea to expand the Scientific Committee’s membership, an opportunity that would allow the vast expertise of non-member countries to contribute to its work.  Pakistan was interested in becoming a member of the Committee.


Further, he said its expansion would increase the level of international cooperation in the field of studying the effects of atomic radiation.  Pakistan had continuously advocated the Scientific Committee’s expansion and had the necessary expertise and capability to contribute to that body’s work.  His country’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority, which dealt with nuclear issues, adhered to IAEA guidelines.


DIEGO DESMOURES ( Argentina), while thanking the Scientific Committee for its thorough, scientific analysis on the detrimental effects of exposure to ionizing radiation, said that Argentina had been a member of the Committee since its creation and continued to contribute through its specialized scientists.


He underlined two points of particular interest to his delegation.  First, referring to the Scientific Committee’s conclusion not to change its current estimates on the risk of cancer and hereditary effects derived from radiation exposure, he said that that had confirmed that the protection and security regulations in place were indeed based on correct risk estimates.  Second, in reference to the Committee’s acceptance of his country’s request to conduct a study on detrimental effects attributed to low levels of radiation exposure, he stressed that the problem was not only limited to Chernobyl.  It was, in fact, generic to all cases of radiation exposure, and he urged the Committee to resolve the issue as soon as possible.


ALFRED CAPELLE ( Marshall Islands) said that the effects of atomic radiation were of utmost concern for the Marshall Islands, as the United States had conducted nuclear tests, including the detonation of 67 large-scale atomic bombs in his country between 1946 and 1958.  In 1954, the Bravo test, conducted at Bikini Atoll, was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb of Hiroshima.  Today, people continued to suffer from serious long-term health effects.  In that context, he called attention to the Marshall Island’s continuing struggle with the legacy of atomic weapons testing, and emphasized the urgent demand for scientific consensus on the effects of atomic radiation.


He stressed that the Scientific Committee’s studies were of great value to the international community, although that body faced under-funding.  In the 60 years since the United States testing programme, there had been conflicting assessments of the degree of remaining radioactive contamination, and the Committee’s conclusions had been invaluable to the Marshall Islands.  As the Committee responsible for atomic radiation, he sought that body’s support for Marshall Islands’ Changed Circumstances Petition submitted to the United States Congress in 2000.


Faced with conflicting scientific conclusions, his country was challenged to complete policy actions regarding issues of public health, environmental remediation and possible resettlement.  By increasing the Scientific Committee’s technical and administrative capacity, the United Nations would allow his country to safely move forward, by giving it a more accurate picture of steps to address its needs.  He supported the draft resolution, sponsored by Australia, which urged UNEP to boost the Scientific Committee’s funding.  It was important that the text be considered more than a “hollow endorsement”, or distant scientific goal.


PETRO DATSENKO (Ukraine), aligning himself with the statement made on behalf of the European Union, said that, while there were important nuclear applications in science, medicine and the power industry, nuclear and radiological accidents posed possible dangers. 


For the past 50 years, UNSCEAR remained the trusted world authority for dealing with the levels and effects of ionizing radiation.  It was recognized for its scientific credibility -- Governments relied on the Committee’s assessments in their establishment of policy standards and practice.  Furthermore, the Committee had helped with the harmonization of radiation safety standards.  Its work had also laid the scientific foundation for the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. 


On the Chernobyl accident, he said that, despite conclusions that the vast majority need not fear major health impacts, there was still heated discussion on exactly how many deaths were linked to the disaster.  Numbers range up to several million.  While there was no demonstrated increase in leukaemia or solid cancers in the most affected populations, a dramatic increase in incidences of thyroid cancer had been noted.  On that issue, the Committee had proven helpful in extending the calculation of collective doses of radiation -– regardless of its cause -– throughout the entire global population.  It had also introduced the novel concept of the influence of chronic low-level exposures on future generations.


He noted that, since 1986, radiation levels in the affected environment had declined several hundredfold.  The majority of the contaminated territories, except the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, was currently safe for settlement.  As the Ukraine profoundly understood the importance of the Committee’s work, his Government fully supported the forthcoming activities, including the following: the study of the risks of radon; epidemiological studies of radiation and its cancer and non-cancer effects; and cellular responses to radiation.  In light of the Committee’s huge responsibilities, his delegation believed that UNEP needed to take a fresh look at the Committee’s current budget.


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