Chernobyl : 20 years on

IT has now been two decades since the world’s biggest nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and effects are still being felt. Then in the former USSR, now in Ukraine, the town is still a black-spot for radiation sickness.
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On April 26th, 1986, due to the negligence of the operators and an inherently unsafe design, a reactor at the Chernobyl power plant exploded. This was one of four reactors, and during testing numerous safety procedures had been disregarded.
At 1.23am, an out of control chain reaction created explosions and a fireball, which blew off the reactor’s heavy steel and concrete lid. This caused the release of clouds of radioactive particles.
Over 30 people were killed immediately; and perilously high levels of radiation in the surrounding 20-mile radius led to the evacuation of approximately 135,000 people.
The worst contamination occurred in large parts of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. The radiation has spread as far as the UK, and even parts of the US. Four hundred times as much radiation escaped from the reactor as was caused by the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima.
No-one will ever really know the exact death toll attributable to the disaster, and many of the consequent cancer deaths will not yet have occurred. The World Health Organisation (WHO) calculated that there were 56 direct deaths; and estimate 9,000 subsequent fatalities, from cancer and related diseases.
Greenpeace have claimed that this is a grossly underestimated figure. They estimate a total death toll of 93,000; but cite in their report “The most recently published figures indicate that in Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine alone the accident could have resulted in an estimated 200,000 additional deaths in the period between 1990 and 2004”.
Despite still emitting dangerous levels of radiation, the 800-year-old city just about survives to this day. Hundreds of – mostly elderly – people decided to brave the danger and returned to the zone. In 1987, the population was around 1,200. In 2003, it was more like 300. In 2004, government workers went to police the zone, and clear up radioactive material.
The disaster initially did the wildlife no favours. An area of pine forest covering four square kilometres went orange and died. However, in more recent years, animals have been reintroduced into the ‘dead zone’, which circles the reactor at a radius of 30km. This attempt to rejuvinate the ecosystem has worked surprisingly well, with numerous species of animals flourishing. It hasn’t worked well for all animals; but – despite some evidence of genetic mutation – the myth concerning animals growing two heads has been debunked.
Despite some adaptation, the disaster still causes a good deal of sickness in humans. To this day, a worldwide effort persists to ease the suffering of its victims. pembrokeshiretv.com recently covered the efforts made by the North Pembrokeshire Link of the Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline, when fourteen children visited Pembrokeshire from Belarus. The holiday was to spare them the bitter Belarusian winter, and gave their immune systems a much-needed boost.
The North Pembrokeshire Link – formed in 2002, and one of over 140 in the UK – are fundraising again on the 20th anniversary of the disaster – this time for a children’s hospice movement in Belarus. Co-founder Carol Alabaster said:
“The hospice in Belarus is rather crowded, and really could use some more facilities. We felt they deserved having our attention turned to them”. The collection is being kept low-key, and not turned into an event. However, they have already received a generous donation raised at the Fishguard and Goodwick Rotary Austerity Lunch.
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THE Chernobyl explosion may have happened two decades ago, but the effects are still being felt in Welsh upland farming today. In fact 359 of the 375 farms still operating under restriction in the UK today are in Wales.
After the explosion in 1986, a contaminated plume of fallout swept across the globe. Contrary to some of the weather predictions at the time, the plume reached the UK after 5 days. Areas of Cumbria, southwest Scotland, Northern Ireland and North Wales were contaminated when the plume coincided with rain showers; resulting in deposition of radionuclides in the soil. Hence there was a scattering of radioactive ‘hotspots’.
Immediately afterwards, a countrywide programme of milk and foodstuff monitoring was initiated. This initially pinpointed the hotspot areas, allowing for a more detailed study. Results showed that lamb and mutton was a particular cause for concern, as was milk. Fish taken from upland lakes are still monitored to this day.
The main type of isotopes that are causing the protracted farming restriction are radiocaesium particles – particularly Caesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years. This was deposited predominantly through rainfall, and was ingested by lifestock who ate contaminated vegetation.
In areas with a high level of clay in the soil, this posed less of a problem, as the particles tended to stick to the clay and were not absorbed by vegetation. However, upland soil tends to be less clay-rich, and these were the areas in which a higher level of contamination found its way into the food chain.
Once in the food chain, the contaminated particles remain in meat, and can still be passed back to the land through excreta from contaminated animals. If contaminated meat is eaten by humans, it can easily pass to them.
Nowadays, the animals in the restricted farming areas have to be live-monitored to test their levels of radioactivity. There has been less than a 1% failure rate in upland animals since the mid 1990s. However, animals under restriction still cannot be sold or moved freely. They may not be slaughtered for human consumption; or indeed any foodstuff preparation, including pet food.
Testing is vital, and has become part of everyday life for the affected farmers. Stock must be 100% safe before it can be allowed back into the food chain.
Farmers are paid compensation for stock found to be contaminated. However, the Farmers Union of Wales recently called for a review of the amount which they receive per animal; the figure of £1.30 per ewe has remained unchanged since 1986.
This restricted area covers around 530km2, primarily between Dolgellau in the south and Conwy in the north. In this area, approximately 180,000 sheep are affected by the restriction.
It is possible for areas to be de-restricted if levels of contamination drop significantly. Speaking on Radio Four’s Today programme yesterday, Dr Nick Beresford of Lancaster University, who was responsible for a good deal of the testing 20 years ago, said that contamination modelling in Cumbria suggested that monitoring would become non-essential in about ten years time.
However, due to a much higher failure rate, and larger area of restriction in North Wales – particularly around Snowdonia – ten years time would seem far too hopeful. There have been no de-restrictions in Wales since 1997. As much of the land around Snowdonia is high, remote, and abundant in common land, it is considerably more difficult to stop any spread.
Nevertheless, the Food Standards Agency are satisfied that there are more than adequate systems in place to ensure that contaminated livestock does not enter the food chain. Through the safeguards in place, consumers are highly unlikely to ever be exposed to unacceptable levels of radioactivity. Yet it seems that, for many farmers, live monitoring of restricted stock will remain a way of life for many years to come.

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