Nearly a quarter of a century after the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine exploded and spewed radioactivity across the world, it has finally stopped making Scottish sheep too "hot" to eat. In Northern Ireland restrictions ended in 2000. In Wales however, the restrictions are far from over.
For the first time since the 1986 Chernobyl accident, levels of radioactive contamination in sheep on all Scottish farms, 2300 kilometers to the west, dropped below safety limits, enabling the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to lift restrictions. Controls on the movement and sale of sheep have been in force since after the explosion in 1986. Peat and grass in upland areas of Scotland were polluted with radioactive caesium-137 released by the reactor, blown across Europe and brought to ground by rain. This grass was eaten and recycled by sheep, and has persisted in the environment far longer than originally anticipated. In 1987, the restrictions covered 73 farms across southwest and central Scotland.
In April 2009, there were still 3,000 sheep at five farms under restrictions. But now, according to an announcement from the FSA, there are none.
An FSA spokesperson said: "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."
A maximum limit of 1,000 becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg) of radiocaesium is applied to sheep meat affected by the accident to protect consumers. This limit was introduced in the UK in 1986 (after Chernobyl), based on advice from the European Commission's Article 31 group of experts.
Under powers provided in the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 (FEPA) Emergency Orders have been used since 1986 to impose restrictions on the movement and sale of sheep exceeding the limit in certain parts of Cumbria, North Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Emergency Orders define geographical areas, often termed 'Restricted Areas', within which the controls must be followed. Under the FEPA Orders, sheep with levels of contamination above the limit are not allowed to enter the food chain. Initially these restricted areas were large, but have reduced substantially as levels of radioactivity have fallen, with all restrictions lifted in Northern Ireland in 2000.
When the disaster happened in April 1986, some 9,700 farms and more than four million sheep were under restriction across the UK after downpours rained radioactive material onto land across northern Europe.
Hundreds of Welsh farms continue to bear the brunt of UK sheep movement restrictions.
Glyn Roberts, vice-president of the Farmers’ Union of Wales, said the continuing restrictions were an inconvenient but necessary evil. The farmer said: “I remember watching the disaster happen on the television but we never had any idea the rain falling on us in the days after would affect us as well. The disaster was so far away that we never thought it would have an impact in Wales and push some farms to the brink.”
It was only days later, when the Government announced the ban on the sale and movement of sheep – that had grazed on plants grown in radioactive soil across large swathes of North Wales, Cumbria and Scotland – that it hit home.
In May (2010), 369 UK farms were still restricted in the way they were able to use land and rear sheep because of fallout. The vast majority of the restricted farms – 355 – are in Snowdonia, Wales, involving 180,000 of the 190,000 affected sheep. It is understood the restrictions could continue for many years to come.
Sources: Herald Scotland, 4 July 2010 / Wales online, 10 May 2010 / Food Standard Agency: http://www.food.gov.uk/science/surveillance/radiosurv/chernobyl/
Contact: CORE, Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, Dry Hall, Broughton Mills, Broughton-In-Furness, Cumbria LA20 6AZ, U.K.
Tel: +44 1229 716523