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

A A A

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
News
Ireland will not find out whether gay couples have won the right to marry until Saturday afternoon
news
News
Kim Jong-un's brother Kim Jong-chol
news
News
Manchester city skyline as seen from Oldham above the streets of terraced houses in North West England on 7 April 2015.
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?