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Judith Gough

British Ambassador to Sweden

Part of UK in Ukraine

25th April 2016 Stockholm, Sweden

Chernobyl – 30 years on

“Good evening, there has been no nuclear accident anywhere in Russia today particularly not in Chernobyl. No one is feared dead in the incident, which did not happen The rescue services have not been called out because obviously, that would be stupid considering there isn’t a vast nuclear cloud drifting across Northern Europe. So, no need for a newsflash, which didn’t happen anyway…”

This is how the UK’s biting satirical show, “Spitting Image” reacted to the news of Chernobyl 30 years ago (albeit with a shaky grasp of Soviet geography). The words above were spoken by a Comrade Brezhnev puppet reading the news, with smoke drifting across the screen – you can find the clip on YouTube. I remember it well, I sat in the living room at home watching the show with my parents. I was 13 at the time, and like a lot of people in the UK, I was very scared – for we had very little detail of what was happening and the Cold War still brewed deep suspicion on both sides. All we knew was what Scandinavian scientific data were telling us and that preparations for May festivities being shown on television in the Soviet Union was not a good omen.

Of course, the situation was much more terrifying and dangerous in Belarus and Ukraine than it was in the UK. Ukrainian friends and colleagues tell me how you all knew something was very wrong, but were still encouraged to go about your business and out onto the streets as normal. The Chernobyl disaster highlighted not only the failings of the Soviet system, but also its callousness.

The consequences were enormous and long-lasting. It is unlikely we will ever know the true death toll from the Chernobyl disaster – 31 heroic workers died in the immediate aftermath, but there were very many more casualties. Over 350,000 people were evacuated and resettled and long-term health effects are still felt. The environmental disaster was acute in Belarus and Ukraine, but the effects were felt as far afield as Scandinavia, Wales and Scotland.

The UK has contributed to international remediation efforts at Chernobyl since the early 1990s as part of the G7 (or G8, before Russia’s suspension). International remediation efforts are managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. There are two strands of remediation activity: the provision of treatment facilities for radioactive waste and interim storage for spent fuel, and the Shelter Implementation Plan designed to make Reactor 4 stable and environmentally safe. To date the UK has contributed over €120 million to these funds and activities. And we will further contribute to the G7 pledge announced by Japan on 25 April 2016. We have also supported Chernobyl children’s charities for over 16 years.

Thirty years on, much has changed. The Cold War is over and the Soviet Union has gone, although conflict, tragically, still lingers in the region. Nothing can erase what happened in Chernobyl and the effects will continue to be felt for many decades to come.  But the isolation and disconnect that was satirised by “Spitting Image” in the 1980s is no more… in this country.  Ukraine is deepening her ties with Europe, holds a seat on the UN Security Council and is playing an increasing role internationally. The clean-up of Chernobyl and assistance provided has been a truly international effort – and the UK has been very proud to play its part. We will continue to work with our Ukrainian partners to improve nuclear security, through our Global Threat Reduction Programme.

My timid 13 year old self would never have dreamt that I would be visiting Chernobyl on the 30th anniversary of the disaster.  I join all Ukrainians today in remembering the terrible tragedy that took place in Chernobyl and honour those who lost their lives in such appalling circumstances. But we should also not forget that the progress and international cooperation involved in the remediation effort highlight the fact that we have come a long way since 1986 – that should give us all hope for the future.

About Judith Gough

Judith Gough is the British Ambassador to Sweden. Before this, she was British Ambassador to Ukraine from 2015 to 2019 and previously Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at…

Judith Gough is the British Ambassador to Sweden. Before this, she was British Ambassador to Ukraine from 2015 to 2019 and previously Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the FCO.

Ms Gough joined the FCO in 2001 and has been engaged with this region for over 20 years and previously served as Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Tbilisi. Ms Gough has also served in the British Embassy in Seoul and, prior to joining the FCO, worked as a Consultant at Ernst and Young, in Emerging Markets and Financial Services.