Born in the aftermath of the atomic bomb horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and amid a proliferation of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, a little known but vital United Nations committee that probes the effects of radiation is celebrating its 50th birthday, proud of its past achievements and eager to face the challenges of a new century.
In the past half-century the Vienna-based UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has moved from assessing the lingering and deadly impact of nuclear warfare to the wider task of gauging the effects of radiation whatever its cause, be it medical, natural or industrial.
“Their contributions have led to measures vital to the health of the global environment,” the former head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Hans Blix, told an anniversary celebration in Vienna last night.
In a message to the ceremony, Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted that for half a century the 21-member-state Committee has been the trusted world authority on ionizing radiation.
“From assessing the significance of fallout from nuclear-weapon tests in the 1950s, to studying the effects of radiation on the human genome today, UNSCEAR has always taken an independent and objective approach to its work,” he said in the message, delivered by Antonio Costa, Director-General of the UN Office in Vienna.
“On questions that are often highly emotional and political, UNSCEAR’s reports are impartial, dispassionate and scientific, and have prompted significant worldwide reductions in radiation exposure.”
Mr. Blix made light of the Committee’s obscurity. “I suspect UNSCEAR is one of the least understood acronyms in the world. When I told a friend that UNSCEAR had to do with atomic radiation, he said: ‘Good acronym, radiation is kind of SCARY’,” he noted.
But the Committee’s deadly serious importance is no laughing matter. “By becoming the authoritative voice of the UN system in matters of radiation exposure, UNSCEAR turned out to be a key instrument in the process through which international radiation protection standards was developed.” Mr. Blix said.
“The existence of such standards accepted by all is of vital practical importance. Indeed, it is a necessary precondition for the many safe uses of the atomic radiation,” he added, noting that in the future the world will undoubtedly expand its use of radiation for uses ranging from getting better medical diagnoses and treatments, to improving agriculture to producing clean energy in nuclear power plants.
“UNSCEAR will need a well-staffed Secretariat and its resources will need to be strengthened so that its authority can remain based on rigorous investigation and radiation protection standards and rules can remain fully based on science,” Mr. Blix concluded.
“UNSCEAR has a great role to help move radiation from the world of mystique to the natural world and help it to become recognized as a normal and manageable part of our lives.”
The 21 states who appoint scientists to the committee are: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Sudan, Sweden, United Kingdom, the United States.