Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs

Statement at the Round table discussion
"Identifying and Mitigating Long-term Consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster: Building the Case for Continued International Cooperation"

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thirty-one years ago, on 26 April 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor quickly cascaded into the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen. Today, we remember this tragedy and its victims.

Chernobyl was a man-made disaster – a disaster that was avoidable. When disaster struck, the extent and precise nature of its impact was not well known or fully anticipated. However, it clearly impacted millions across Europe. As many as 115,000 people were evacuated and 220,000 resettled.

The assessment carried out by the Chernobyl Forum, thanks to thousands of scientists, has also provided a quantitative picture of the enormity of the impacts – deaths, and debilitating outcomes such as thyroid cancer, leukemia and other diseases. One of the most widespread and deepest impacts has been on psychosocial and mental health. Most sadly, the impacts span generations. Sussex and ETH Zurich researchers estimate the overall cost of the Chernobyl accident at a whopping US$259 billion.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Chernobyl accident was a terrible man-made tragedy. Have we learned from it? After thirty-one years of international cooperation, are we in a better position to assess, understand and prevent technological calamities of this kind in the future? What kind of risks are we willing to take? How do they compare with the technological benefits? Are there alternatives and what are their risk/reward profiles in comprehensive terms?

We live in a time of powerful technologies, and exponential innovation. In my view, it is paramount that the international community answer these questions – not only for nuclear energy technologies, but also for the range of emerging technologies that can be crucial for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. In the context of the Global Sustainable Development Report 2016, scientists identified opportunities and threats of a range of emerging bio-, digital-, nano-, neuro- and green technologies.

Just to give one example: Automation technologies, robotics and artificial intelligence are expected to have many benefits, but also potentially carry great risks. Experts recently brought together by my Department highlighted the fact that very little is known, especially in terms of the potential positive and negative impacts of these new technologies on developing countries.

If we are serious about the aspirations of the Sustainable Development Goals, we cannot afford to fly blindly with any idea of the impacts of new technologies and possible responses. While technology progress in the past has solved many ills and problems, it has also always added ever new challenges. Technological change is potentially disruptive. However, we do not have unlimited time for trial and error. Human lives and well-being cannot be treated with negligence.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is against this background that I wish to call on all interested partners to work together to systematically assess, develop and share knowledge about the powerful new technologies of today. Many have the potential to drive the kind of transformations called for by the SDGs: yet many also expose mankind to unforeseen threats. Together we can better understand and anticipate issues and flexibly adapt policies – much more effectively than without such cooperation. It is about making the knowledge and factual evidence available for decision-makers.

Member States wisely created a Technology Facilitation Mechanism in the 2030 Agenda and the Addis Ababa Agenda. I believe this Mechanism can and should provide the space to start such cooperation in earnest – on key emerging technologies for the SDGs.

I encourage you all to consider engaging in the Technology Facilitation Mechanism. The Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the SDGs, to be held from 15 to 16 May, will be a good opportunity to discuss next steps for emerging technologies.

If there is one lesson for me from the Chernobyl accident, it is that it was not inevitable. Losing precious lives, and scarring others for generations was not inevitable. And it is clear to me that many actions need to be taken to do our due diligence in managing the risks associated with emerging technologies that will be crucial for the SDGs.

Once again, I congratulate the Government of Belarus for initiating the discussion on this highly important topic. Our thoughts are with the victims for the Chernobyl accident. We can prevent these kinds of man-made disasters and I am convinced that together we will.

Thank you very much.

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