UNITED NATIONS - A major international environmental group is demanding the United Nations stop promoting nuclear technology in the world as a useful tool to tap energy resources.
Greenpeace International's call against the use of nuclear technology comes a day before the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, considered to be the most devastating of its kind in human history.
By some estimates, the April 26, 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine has left hundreds of thousands of people to suffer from cancer and various other diseases caused by radiation.
Members of Greenpeace hold a banner as they stand between a nuclear symbol and Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate April 26, 2006. The activists reminded the 20th anniversary of the nuclear disaster in the former Soviet nuclear power plant Chernobyl. The banner reads: 'Chernobyl shows: Nuclear power can kill - Switch it off !'. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Greenpeace accuses the UN-led International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of deliberately trying to "whitewash" the impacts of the Chernobyl accident in order to justify the use of nuclear technology for so called "peaceful purposes."
The Vienna-based nuclear watchdog estimates that only 4,000 to 9,000 people are still expected to die from cancer caused by the Chernobyl accident, but independent scientists claim that the death toll will be much higher.
A new study released by Greenpeace this month concludes that over 250,000 cancers--nearly 100,000 of which will be fatal--are likely to be caused by the disaster that took place 20 years ago.
The study, entitled "The Chernobyl Catastrophe - Consequences on Human Health," shows that Chernobyl radiation has not only caused cancer, but a variety of other diseases, including leukemia and heart problems.
To mark the Chernobyl anniversary, environmentalists working with Greenpeace delivered to the IAEA headquarters about five pounds of radioactive waste Monday, which they had collected from the exclusive zone of the site.
To ensure public safety, activists shielded the radioactive soil samples with four inches of concrete and a layer of lead. The samples examined in the laboratories of Austria and Ukraine were taken from locations about 30 miles away from the Chernobyl reactor.
"Most worrying," according to Greenpeace, was the discovery of a small but highly radioactive grain of spent fuel. Scientists consider such a grain to be "highly dangerous" if inhaled or touched.
"People harvest wood, mushrooms and berries from those forests, not knowing that they are subjecting their health to serious radiation risks," says Ivan Blokov, a nuclear expert at Greenpeace.
Scientists estimate that samples collected from areas close to the Chernobyl site are at least 10 to 25 times more radioactive than the limits set by the European Commission for defining a substance as radioactive waste.
"These samples are physical evidence of how contaminated some parts of the Ukraine still are," says Blokov. "The IAEA should stop denying facts and downplaying the impact of Chernobyl."
"The IAEA cannot remain as the world's nuclear watchdog," he adds, "if it cannot at least admit that nuclear power is responsible for the impact on those whose life it scarred forever."
Blokov and others say about seven million people are still living in areas contaminated with radiation linked to the Chernobyl accident.
In addition to Greenpeace, some leading European politicians are also raising questions about the IAEA's role in encouraging nations to acquire nuclear energy for non-military use.
Former environment ministers from 10 European countries, including Russia and Ukraine, sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urging him to reform the mandate of the IAEA.
"Nuclear power is no longer necessary," they said in the letter. "We have now numerous renewable technologies available to guarantee the right to safe, clean, and cheap energy."
Established in 1957, the IAEA is tasked with inspecting nuclear facilities worldwide to make sure they are not used for making bombs, but its mandate also allows it to promote "secure, safe, and peaceful" nuclear technology.
Critical of this dual function of the UN agency, the former ministers said the IAEA "has proved impotent" in preventing the conversion of so-called "peaceful nuclear programs" of India, Pakistan, and North Korea into bomb-making activities.
"By deliberately ignoring the interlock between civil and military nukes, the IAEA contributes to the proliferation of fissile material," says Dominique Voynet, a former French environment minister who was among those who signed the letter.
The former ministers also demanded the nuclear-armed countries--the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China--to stop getting involved in commercial trade deals in nuclear technology.
"France must end its trade policy of nuclear material and technologies to whomever is willing to pay," says Voynet. "This trade jeopardizes world peace."
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