You are here

Chernobyl: 26 years later; sheep restrictions Norway and UK

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
WISE Amsterdam

26 years have gone by since the Chernobyl disaster but Norway continues to suffer the effects of and be vulnerable to nuclear fallout. Animals have been feeding off Norwegian radioactive-laced vegetation following Chernobyl’s reactor number four explosion on 26 April 1986. Worst affected were mountainous parts in the Midt-Norge region following the heavy rain showers. Meanwhile, in the UK a consultation is underway about lifting all post-Chernobyl sheep restrictions.

In Norway, major quantities of meat had to be destroyed in the years following Chernobyl, with subsequent generations of mushroom and grass-loving sheep having been measured for radioactivity and treated using a method called “foddering down” ever since. The process involves feeding the animals a controlled cesium-free diet, sometimes laced with a cesium binder (normally ferrocyanides of iron, also known as Prussian blue) six weeks prior to slaughtering.

At the time of the accident, the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture expressed fears that as many as 100,000 sheep, which spend most of the summer on semi-wild mountainside or woodland pastures, may have to be treated for radioactivity because of a bumper mushroom crop. Since then, a total of 300,000 animals have had to be treated. (Of course, the contaminated mushrooms are to be avoided too)

Chernobyl has cost Norway over 650 million Norwegian Kroner (US$115 million, 87 million euro) so far, according to an estimate made in September 2009. Adding to the size of the bill are the annual costs of monitoring and treatment of crops and livestock for radioactivity. This has become an annual ritual in Norway since the accident. “The decrease in radioactive contamination is slower for each year that passes. Nobody could have predicted that this would take so long,” according to Astrid Liland, departmental head at the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority.

Lately, reports have surfaced that some sheep in certain parts of Norway contain 4,000 Becquerel per kilo of meat, almost six times higher than recommended by Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA) officials. The Norwegian Food Safety Authority’s Magnar Grudt tells NRK, “It’s way above the allowed limit for meat trading. 600 Becquerel per kilo is the maximum permitted for sheep.”

Levels have not changed for the past few years and other parts of Norway also still feeling the Chernobyl effects. 14 of 23 municipalities in the county of Nord-Trøndelag currently contain animals that will have to undergo “foddering down” after the end of this year’s grazing season in the autumn.

Food Safety Authority officials underline the meat then is perfectly eatable without risk to members of the public following this process, but Magnar Grudt exclaims, “We were given measuring equipment in 1987 and learnt how to us it. Nonetheless, we never thought we would still be measuring radioactivity in sheep today. It’s unthinkable.”

UK: Lifting of restrictions

In the UK, the Food and Safety Agency (FSA) is currently holding a consultation process  and seeking views on the proposal to remove all remaining controls on the movement of sheep from the restricted areas, based on the assessment that the risk to consumers from radioactivity in sheep resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear accident is now very low. All restrictions were lifted in Northern Ireland in 2000 and Scotland in 2010.

The number of farms under restriction has reduced substantially over the years; out of the nearly 10,000 farms originally restricted across the UK only eight farms in Cumbria and 299 in North Wales remain (twenty-six years later) under full restrictions, although a number of these farms in North Wales are not currently active sheep farms. In addition, 28 farms in North Wales and one in Scotland have been released from formal controls but issued with Conditional Consents or Directions. These Conditional Consents or Directions have been issued on the basis of specific conditions pertaining to individual farms. The conditions are set on a case-by-case basis but, in general, they require that sheep are kept on clean pasture or clean feed for a period of time before they are sent for slaughter.

Unconditional Consents have been issued on 41 farms in England, seven in Wales and three in Scotland. These are farms that have met the criteria for derestriction and so have been removed from all formal controls and conditions, either pending revocation of the Food & Environmental Protection Act (FEPA) order or because the legislation does not easily permit their removal from the FEPA order.

The Food and Safety Agency has reviewed the controls that remain on the relatively small number of farms, to consider if they are still required to protect food safety. As part of this review, the use of the current limit of 1,000 Bq/kg (so higher as in Norway) as a measure of risk has been considered. Using a fixed limit of contamination, in effect, considers that sheep above 1,000 Bq/kg are unsafe and sheep below that level are safe. However, recent international guidance published by the International Commission on Radiological Protection has reinforced the view that protection from radioactivity should consider the actual risk to individuals (measured as the effective dose) rather than purely relying on a fixed limit of contamination. Therefore, the Agency has carried out an updated risk assessment to consider the actual risk to consumers from eating sheep meat originating in the restricted areas.

These controls comply with European Council Directive 96/29/Euratom, which lays down basic safety standards for the protection of the health of workers and the general public against the dangers arising from ionizing radiation. Article 53 covers intervention in cases of lasting exposure. This states that where the Member States have identified a situation leading to lasting exposure resulting from the after effects of a radiological emergency, they shall put measures in place that are necessary for the exposure risk involved. This can include monitoring of exposure and implementing any appropriate interventions. However, Article 48 of Directive 96/29 specifies that such intervention shall be undertaken only if the reduction in detriment due to radiation is sufficient to justify the harm and costs, including social costs, of the intervention; and so the updated risk assessment has led to a review considering whether this is still the case.

Sources: The Foreigner (Norwegian news in English), 17 September 2009 & 21 February 2012 / UK Food and Safety Agency, 17 November 2011