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Chernobyl's Long Shadow

Nearly 16 years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, 200,000 people still live in highly contaminated areas and 4.5 million residents in three countries are receiving financial help - draining national budgets, according to a U.N. study released.

The study by four U.N. agencies, released Wednesday, called for "an entirely new approach" to help those in a state of "chronic dependency" in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia by getting them jobs, fostering small businesses, and reviving agriculture in the areas most affected by the world's worst nuclear disaster.

"If active steps are not taken to resolve the human problems relating to the accident, the fate of the communities blighted by Chernobyl will continue to haunt discussions on energy generation for decades to come," the 75-page report said.

The explosion and fire at Chernobyl's No. 4 reactor on April 26, 1986, contaminated 23 percent of Belarus, 5 percent of Ukraine and 1.5 percent of Russia, according to the report. It also spewed a radioactive cloud across Europe.

At least 8,000 people have died, most from radiation-related diseases.

Some 2,000 people have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and between 8,000 and 10,000 cases are expected to develop over the next 10 years, the report said.

Although the most dangerously radiated areas near the Chernobyl plant were evacuated, 200,000 people still live in severely contaminated areas, the report said. Many of those who were resettled still don't have jobs.

"Focusing on their needs and helping them take control of their destinies must be a priority," said the report.

The 4.5 million people still receiving government payments represent a severe strain to national budgets, especially in Belarus and Ukraine, the report said.

Over the last 10 years, Belarus, the state most affected by the calamity, has spent more than a billion dollars to help victims of the accident, said Kalman Missel, deputy U.N. coordinator for Chernobyl.

Ukraine last year spent $100 million, he said.

The study said with the emergency phase of recovery over, the three governments and the international community must now work toward "long overdue" extended development of the communities hurt by the disaster.

"Within the available budgets, it is the only real alternative to the progressive breakdown of the recovery effort, the continuing hemorrhaging of scarce resources and continuing distress for the people at the center of the problem," the report said.

Ukraine closed the Chernobyl plant on Dec. 15, 2000, and the international community gave $750 million to build a new containment shelter around the stricken reactor.

But Kenzo Oshima, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the closure of the plant and funding for the new container does not mean the world community can "close the file on the people who continue to live in the shadow of Chernobyl."

"We must not turn our back on the government and people of he most affected countries after a decade and a half of assistance," he said. "We must not leave the job half done."

By Gerald Nadler © MMII The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed