Chernobyl: A poisonous legacy

Twenty years after a blast in the nuclear plant at Chernobyl spread radioactive debris across Europe, it has been revealed that 375 farms in Britain, with 200,000 sheep, are still contaminated by fallout

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After two decades, the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster is still casting its poisonous shadow over Britain's countryside. The Department of Health has admitted that more than 200,000 sheep are grazing on land contaminated by fallout from the explosion at the Ukrainian nuclear plant 1,500 miles away. Emergency orders still apply to 355 Welsh farms, 11 in Scotland and nine in England as a result of the catastrophe in April 1986.

The revelation - in a Commons written answer to the Labour MP Gordon Prentice - comes as Mr Blair prepares to make the case for nuclear power in a forthcoming government Energy Review. The Prime Minister argues that nuclear energy would allow the UK to achieve twin objectives of cutting C02 emissions and reducing dependency on imported natural gas supplies.

But, just last week a damning report from the Government's own advisory board on sustainable development identified five major disadvantages to any planned renewal of Britain's nuclear power programme, including the threat of terrorist attack and the danger of radiation exposure. The longevity of the "Chernobyl effect" in a region generation of nuclear power stations, and going through a consultation exercise to try to convince the public that this is a safe form of electricity generation, we shouldn't overlook the terrible consequences if something does go wrong,

"No one would now build a reactor as unsafe as those at Chernobyl, which were jerry built. Even so, I think a lot of people will be shocked to know that, as we approach the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl, hundreds of farming families are still living with the fallout."

Jean McSorley, Greenpeace's senior adviser on nuclear energy said: "Chernobyl was the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen but it is by no means the worst that could happen. In Cumbria, where I come from, people who are old enough to remember still talk about it. It's quite moving to hear the stress that farming families were put through. I think the British public that all this distance from Chernobyl, 20 years later, so many families are still living with its impact day to day."

The Chernobyl disaster turned public opinion in Britain against civil nuclear power overnight. The land still poisoned by Chernobyl's radioactivity lies all along the Welsh hills between Bangor and Bala, much of it in the Snowdonia National park. There is also a large triangle of contaminated land in Cumbria, south of Buttermere - though the number of farms affected is smaller than in Wales.

Some of the Scottish hills are also still affected. No sheep can be moved out of any of these areas without a special licence, under Emergency Orders imposed in 1986. Sheep that have higher than the permitted level of radiation have to be marked with a special dye that does not wash off in the rain, and have to spend months grazing on uncontaminated grass before they are passed as fit to go into the food chain.

A National Farmers' Union spokesman said: "The paramount concern has to be the safety of the consumer, and consumer confidence in the meat supply, so exceptional care has to be taken to make sure no contaminated meat goes into the food chain."

Most of Britain's nuclear power stations have either ceased to produce electricity, or are nearing the end of their active life. The last is due for closure in 2035. The Government is now conducting an energy review, to be published in June, which is expected to announce a new nuclear programme.

Tony Blair signalled his support for the industry in a speech to Labour's conference last autumn, when he warned Britain is too reliant on "unstable" regimes for its energy supplies, and singled out nuclear power as an alternative.

But resistance to the idea has been growing, particularly with the publication last week of the report by the government's Sustainable Development Commission. The Commons Environmental Audit Committee will also report later this month. According to a committee member, their findings are expected to be "measured" but "certainly won't put a strong case for nuclear power".

On 23 March, leading specialists will hold a conference in London on the long term impact of Chernobyl. At the end of the month, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will issue a revised figure for the cost of cleaning up the sites of disused publicly owned nuclear plants.

Their figure is expected to be substantially higher than their original estimate which was published last year, of £56bn.

David Ellwood, 49, farmer: 'Nobody can tell us when the radiation will pass'

By Geneviéve Roberts

David Ellwood has 700 sheep on his farm in Ulpha, near Broughton-in-Furness. His wife, Heather, 50, helps out on Baskell Farm, and they have four children.

"I remember the Chernobyl disaster 20 years ago. We were lambing in April and it was raining like hell. We got a letter from the ministry suggesting it would last about three weeks, but they were only guessing - it could go on for another 20 years.

"Every time we take sheep to auction, we must phone Defra, who check they are clear from contamination [from radioactive caesium]. They give us £1.30 for every sheep they monitor. We take them off the fell and put them in the fields for a couple of weeks before selling them, so readings are usually low. But the odd one gets a high reading if it comes straight in off the fell, and has to be slaughtered.

"Defra are here four or five times a year which is a hassle. At shearing time in July they monitor everything. If we are taking Cheviots to auction, we have to get them into a pen to take readings, which makes them mucky and bad for selling. Now we try to get them monitored three or four days before," said Mr Ellwood, 49. "We have been on this farm for 16 years, and owned the ground surrounding it before that, so have always been affected by Chernobyl. There is a lot of contaminated peat on our fell, so when the grass comes up in the summer that gets contaminated too. If our fell were rocky, I don't think it would be such a problem.

"I could get angry, but it is pointless, there is not a damn thing we can do and nobody seems to know when it will pass. I would be worried if more power stations were built. We were 1,500 miles from Chernobyl and still feel the effects."

Edwin Noble, 45, sheep farmer: 'I had no idea it could affect us so far away'

Edwin Noble and his family, who run a 2,500- acre farm close to Mount Snowden, live under emergency restrictions that they were told would apply for 30 days, but which are likely to continue for years.

Mr Noble, 45, was in his early twenties when he took charge of the family farm. On the night of 2 May 1986, he was disturbed by torrential rain and feared the river would burst its banks. What he did not know was that the radiation cloud from Chernobyl was passing invisibly overhead. The rain left huge deposits of radioceasium in the peaty soil, which is no direct threat to humans but works itself into the grass, contaminating his sheep.

"I had heard about Chernobyl on the news, but had no idea at all that [it] could affect us so far away," he said. "It's something we have had to live with ever since.

"Every time we move a sheep or lamb off our land it has got to be scanned. If it fails the monitoring, it ... cannot be sold. If you can get the sheep or lamb off the contaminated land, then the radiation comes out of them fairly quickly, but the whole of our farm is affected, so we rent grazing land 20 miles away. It means you constantly have to think ahead. If the lamb is fattened and ready to go to market, you can't have it sitting in a pen waiting to be monitored because it loses weight, so you've got to get the monitoring done ahead of time. When the market is volatile, it has cost us a sale.

"The experience has made me very opposed to nuclear power. It's not so much the inconvenience for farmers like us - but what if the explosion had been at the plant near here, at Trawfynydd? It doesn't seem worth the risk," he said.

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