A new British scientific study shows that radioactive contamination from the Chornobyl nuclear accident is affecting the environment in the United Kingdom more severely than previously thought. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky examines the implications for areas closer to the accident site.
Prague, 15 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- British scientists have found that radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chornobyl disaster is lingering far longer in the environment and at much higher levels than was initially thought.
A study published in this month's "Nature," a prestigious British science magazine, concluded that the environment is taking 100 times longer to rid itself of pollution than previously predicted.
The study by six British scientists tracked the level of the radioactive element cesium 137, one of the contaminants produced by the Chornobyl accident, in lakes in the U.K. and Norway. The team tested water, vegetation, and fish. Team leader James Smith from Britain's Center for Ecology and Hydrology tells RFE/RL of his findings.
"What we found was that the radiocesium in foodstuffs after Chornobyl declined relatively rapidly. The concentration of cesium declined in the first few years after Chornobyl by roughly two times every two years. But in recent years, we have found that this decline has slowed, so that the concentration of radioactivity in foodstuffs is only declining by half every 10 or 15 years."
The accident at Chornobyl in Ukraine, when one of the reactors exploded, spewing out radioactive pollution, was the world's worst civilian nuclear catastrophe.
Although the explosion was in Ukraine, winds drove the radiation into neighboring Belarus, which was, by most estimates, worse affected than Ukraine. The winds also spread contamination into Russia and across western Europe, including Britain.
Britain was relatively little affected by the fallout, although nearly 400 farms have restrictions on the sale and slaughter of sheep. The researchers say such restrictions will have to continue for a total of 30 years after the accident.
Smith says the environment is not cleaning itself of the pollution at the rate scientists previously thought. He says that closer to the accident site, precautions will have to continue for longer.
"It looks like in Ukraine and Belarus the monitoring will need to be continued for maybe up to 50 years or more."
The disaster killed 31 people in Ukraine almost immediately, but both Belarus and Ukraine have said that millions of their citizens have been affected in subsequent years and predict the accident will continue to take a heavy toll in lives for decades to come.
Last month, Ukraine said some 3.5 million people, over a third of them children, had suffered illness as a result of the contamination. The incidence of some cancers has risen to 10 times what it was.
The researchers emphasize that the cancer risk from consumption of contaminated food is small, but they add that precautions must still be taken. Doctor Smith:
"Cesium can be concentrated in our bodies and it can cause a small increase, a very small increase, in our risk of having cancer."
Smith says the danger of contamination to the human food chain comes not from farm produce but from food gathered outside of farms in affected regions.
"The foodstuffs which are most susceptible, it's quite well known, are so-called wild foodstuffs. It's not the agricultural products necessarily, it's the products coming from the forest eco-systems and the freshwater lakes. We find that the highest concentrations of radiocesium are found in freshwater fish in lakes, mushrooms from the forest, berries from the forest, and forest animals."
Ukrainian and Belarusian authorities have for years tried to prevent such produce coming to sale at markets. In Ukraine, inspectors and even some shoppers regularly check mushrooms and other foodstuffs with Geiger counters (radioactivity detectors). As the latest study shows, they will have to continue doing that for a long time to come.