The United Nations General Assembly today marked 20 years since the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the most severe in the history of the nuclear power industry, with officials calling for more action to address the health and other challenges faced by Belarus, the Ukraine and the Russian Federation, the countries most affected by the catastrophe. The Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Kemal Dervis, hailed progress in addressing the problems caused by the 1986 accident, which led to a huge release of radionuclides, but said more needed to be done for the communities still dealing with its aftermath.“The biggest challenge now facing affected territories is being the need to create new jobs, promote investment and growth, restore a sense of community self-reliance, and improve local living standards,” he said.Mr. Dervis also highlighted that UNDP’s mandate is “to work together with the three governments, the affected communities, as well as with other UN agencies and international organizations, to find the right solutions to the development challenges posed by Chernobyl.” Emphasizing the health fallout from the disaster, the head of the UN children’s agency (UNICEF) told the gathered delegates that the most dramatic health impact was the increased incidence of childhood thyroid cancer caused by radioactive iodine fallout. “In a cruel irony, just as iodine deficiency in the affected area made children more vulnerable 20 years ago to the radioactive iodine fallout even now it continues to affect thousands of children,” stressed Executive Director Ann M. Veneman, noting that iodine deficiency is the world’s leading cause of mental retardation.In areas like those affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe, where iodine deficiency is endemic, it has been shown to lower the IQ level of children by an average of about 13 points, according to UNICEF, which advocates universal iodization of salt to ensure that everyone benefits from the protection of iodine. Today, only about 55 percent of households in Belarus consume iodized salt and in Russia and Ukraine, that figure is about 30 percent.Ms. Veneman said this means that every year, an estimated 41,000 children in Belarus, 274,000 children in Ukraine, and 1 million children in the Russian Federation are born iodine-deficient. “What is needed is a commitment to action from the leaders of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine and the international community stands ready to help,” she said.The representative of Belarus, Andrei Dapkiunas, said the Assembly meeting was an encouraging sign that the international community had not forgotten the many people affected by the tragic 1986 accident. Citing UN experts, he said the overall damage had cost some $235 billion. Belarus had spent more than $17 billion to address post-Chernobyl issues, and had relocated approximately 140,000 people. Those achievements had been accompanied by much-needed assistance from foreign partners, he said.Igor Shcherbak of Russia said after the disaster, more than 59,000 square kilometers of the country had been contaminated – an area that was home to 3 million Russian people. He praised the “catalytic and coordinating role” of the UN, as the international community worked to provided assistance in the field of health, help rehabilitate agriculture and promote the information exchange network. Volodymyr Kholosha, Deputy Minister of Emergency for Ukraine, noted that 10 per cent of Ukraine’s land was affected by radiation, as 164,000 people had been forced to move out of 170 towns and leave their homes to go live elsewhere. For some years, Ukraine had been compelled to spend 12 per cent of its State budget for measures, such as improved medical services and environmental clean-up and thanked the international community for its support.