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Sheep still contaminated by Chernobyl

Eighteen years after nuclear disaster, ban on Scots farmers selling mutton affected by radiation remains in force
By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor

It happened 2500km away and 18 years ago, but it is still contaminating Scottish sheep with levels of radioactivity considered unsafe to eat.

After the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine exploded and spewed radio activity over most of Europe in April 1986, people were assured by the authorities that its effects would be seen off in a matter of weeks.

But new figures released by the government show just how misguided those assurances were. Today 14 farms covering 16,300 hectares of southwest and central Scotland are still subject to restrictions on the movement and slaughter of radioactive sheep.

The concentrations of radioactive caesium-137 from Chernobyl in the animals’ muscles still exceed the safety limit of 1000 becquerels of radioactivity per kilogram. Farmers have to mark con taminated sheep with indelible paint, and must wait until they fall below the limit before they can have them slaughtered for food.

“It is incredible that a small number of Scottish farms are still under restriction 18 years on from an accident that occurred hundreds of miles away,” said James Withers, the spokesman for National Farmers’ Union Scotland (NFUS).

“The initial advice in 1986 was that the effects would be over in a few weeks. It is obviously extremely frustrating and disappointing for the individuals concerned.”

Ten of the farms with sheep restrictions are in East Ayrshire, three are in Stirling and one is in East Renfrewshire. The farmers have not been named. Similar restrictions on the movement and slaughter of sheep still apply down south. In Wales they cover 359 farms totalling 53,000 hectares in Snowdonia and the north, while in England they affect nine farms totalling 12,000 hectares in West Cumbria.

The information was given by ministers in response to recent questions in the Commons from anti-nuclear Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent, Llew Smith. “Chernobyl showed how nuclear accidents are both deadly to those in the area immediately affected, and have an impact thousands of miles away,” he said. “I strongly believe that all nuclear power should be scrapped.

“It has turned out to be the most costly and certainly the most dangerous means of generating fuel.”

Chernobyl was the world’s worst nuclear accident. Errors by control room staff in an old and poorly designed Soviet-era reactor led to a blast which ripped apart the building.

Over several days a massive cloud of radioactivity blew over western Europe, falling to earth wherever it rained. Caesium-137 and other radio active isotopes got into the soil and were then taken up and recycled by grass and plants.

As a result, grazing animals, particularly those in rainy upland areas, became con taminated. As well as sheep, high levels of caesium-137 were detected in deer and grouse.

Chernobyl also triggered an epidemic of thyroid cancers among children in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. According to the World Health Organisation, the accident released 200 times more radioactivity than the US atomic bombs which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

In the months immediately after the accident, more than 2000 farms in Scotland were subject to sheep restrictions. But by 1991 this had dropped to 60, and by 2001 to 18.

Farmers affected are compensated under the 1986 Sheep Compensation Scheme. The government has paid out £2.8 million to Scottish farmers, including £330,000 over the past five years.

“Our primary concern is to ensure public safety,” said a spokesman for the Scottish Executive. “Monitoring of sheep on affected farms will continue until radioactive caesium levels comply with internationally agreed standards.”

According to environmentalists, there are lessons to be learned from Chernobyl’s legacy. “When nuclear power plants go wrong they tend to go wrong in a big way,” said Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland.

“The fact that Scottish farmers today are still feeling the impacts of this accident should be a warning to all those who think that nuclear power deserves a second chance.”

He said two of the countries that have just joined the European Union – Lithuania and Slovakia – are still relying on old Soviet-style reactors. And that the Euratom Treaty which underpins the EU obliges them to pursue nuclear power.

“Instead of asking these countries to increase their capacity in dangerous nuclear power we should be assisting them to shut these plants and move towards safer, cleaner forms of energy production,” McLaren argued.

He added: “In the run-up to the European elections the public should challenge candidates as to whether they support replacing this outdated treaty with something that will prevent future Chernobyls.”

Hundreds of Welsh farmers still restricted by Chernobyl

Martin Shipton, The Western Mail

Eighteen years after the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in Ukraine, as many as 359 Welsh farms are still restricted in moving sheep as a result.

The disclosure was made by Wales Office Minister Don Touhig in a parliamentary answer to Blaenau Gwent Labour MP Llew Smith.

Mr Touhig also revealed that the affected area, in Snowdonia, amounts to 53,000 hectares, the equivalent of 83 square miles or a city the size of Cardiff.

Mr Smith said, "I have been asking questions about this for many long years, tracking the impact the Chernobyl explosion is still having in Wales.

"I have always been an opponent of nuclear power, even in the days when people were saying it would produce electricity that was so cheap it would not even be worth metering it. In fact, of course, it has turned out to be the most costly and certainly the most dangerous means of generating fuel.

"Chernobyl showed how nuclear accidents can not only be deadly to those in the area immediately affected, but have an impact thousands of miles away. I strongly believe that all nuclear power should be scrapped."

Glyn Roberts, of Ysbyty Ifan in the Conwy Valley, is one of the farmers whose land remains affected by the sheep movement restrictions. He has worked in agriculture since 1977.

He said, "I have two farms, and it's the one on higher ground that is affected. What the restriction means is that we cannot take lambs to market who have been grazed there unless they have been screened for radiation.

"We have to put red paint on the lambs' neck and only once it has been declared safe can it be given a tag on the ear which means it is safe to enter the food chain. I have to hire someone to do the painting, but we get compensation from the National Assembly.

"About three or four years ago I had a lamb that was above the radioactivity threshold of 100 becquerels per kilogram. After a few weeks on lower ground it was below the level, showing that it is the vegetation on the upper areas that remains radioactive.

"We don't know how long this restriction will remain - how long is a piece of string? It's convinced me that nuclear power is something we can do without. I know there is quite a bit of opposition to wind farms, but I would rather have the beauty of our landscape spoiled than have the risks associated with nuclear power."

Caernarfon Plaid Cymru AM Alun Ffred Jones said, "I knew there was still a problem, but I'm surprised to hear that so many farms are still affected. It's incredible that there is still a risk of radiation after so many years. I think it underlines the serious drawbacks that go with nuclear power.

"It does not make sense to produce electricity from nuclear energy and the only long-term alternative is using natural resources like wind."

Mr Smith was also told that 153 farms in Northern Ireland are in a similar position. At least £13m has been paid out in compensation to British farmers.

Four years ago a research study showed some parts of northern Europe including Wales were not cleaning itself as quickly as had been hoped.

It is now likely to be up to 50 years before all restrictions are scrapped.

Long-term health hazards have emerged slowly from nuclear accident
ON APRIL 26, 1986, the world's worst nuclear power accident occurred at Chernobyl in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant located 80 miles north of Kiev had four reactors and while testing reactor number 4 numerous safety procedures were disregarded.

At 1.23am the chain reaction in the reactor got out of control creating explosions and a fireball which blew off the reactor's heavy steel and concrete lid.

The Chernobyl accident killed more than 30 people immediately, and as a result of the high radiation levels in the surrounding 20-mile radius, 135,000 people had to be evacuated.

There have been lasting health consequences. For example, between 1981 and 1985 the average thyroid cancer rate was four to six incidents per million Ukrainian young children (birth to 15 years). Between 1986 and 1997 this rose to 45 incidents per million.