For the first time levels of radioactive contamination in sheep on all Scottish farms dropped below safety limits last month, enabling the government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) to lift restrictions on farmers. Controls on the movement and sale of sheep have been in force since after the accident in 1986.
The Chernobyl reactor near Kiev scattered a massive cloud of radioactivity over Europe, after it overheated, caught fire and ripped apart because of errors made by control room staff. It was the world’s worst nuclear accident, and has been blamed for causing ten of thousands of cancer deaths.
Peat and grass in upland areas of Scotland were polluted with radioactive caesium-137 released by the reactor and brought to ground by rain. This was eaten and recycled by sheep, and has persisted in the environment far longer than originally anticipated.
In 1987 the restrictions on sheep covered 73 farms across southwest and central Scotland. Animals that contained more than 1,000 becquerels of radioactivity per kilogram were banned from being slaughtered for food.
“Since the early 1990s an annual post-Chernobyl sheep monitoring programme has been carried out on restricted areas in Scotland,” said an FSA spokesperson.
“Over time, radioactivity levels have continued to decline, and, as of February 2010, only two areas in Scotland remained under restrictions. Of these, one area has been taken out of agricultural use, so is no longer being used to farm sheep, and the other area was removed from restrictions on 21 June 2010.”
Dr Richard Dixon, the director of WWF Scotland, pointed out that a whole generation had been born and grown up since the Chernobyl disaster. “It has taken nearly 25 years for the contamination of Scottish soils to decay to officially safe levels - and we're 1,400 miles away,” he said.
“This is a timely reminder of the folly of the UK government's enthusiasm for a new generation of nuclear reactors. Pouring money into nuclear is a huge distraction from making the best of our natural advantages in renewable energy and cracking down on energy waste.”
Dr Dixon added: “We need low-carbon energy but nuclear will be too little, too late, too expensive and at far too much risk to present and future citizens of this country.”