Chernobyl's Reindeer

The Norwegian herders still living in the shadow of nuclear disaster.

By Amos Chapple and Wojtek Grojec


On April 26, 1986, an explosion blew the roof off a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in present-day Ukraine. It was to become the worst civilian nuclear disaster in history. Thirty years and 2,000 kilometers away, one group of people, and their animals, are still living with the consequences.

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In the days after the Chernobyl disaster a radioactive cloud, equivalent in toxicity to 400 Hiroshima explosions, swirled over Europe.

Data from IRSN

What followed was a grim lottery: Wherever rain or snow fell, radioactive dust was also pulled to the ground.

In central Norway it rained, and snowed, hard. By the time the precipitation stopped, 700 grams of radioactive caesium had settled on some of Norway's most pristine landscape.

Much of that was absorbed by lichen, unique for its tendency to sponge up radiation.

And nothing loves lichen like reindeer. In winter it can make up 90 percent of a reindeer's diet.

For the Sami people around the central Norwegian village of Snasa, the results were devastating.

Kjell Joran Jama is the head of the Sami reindeer herders in the Snasa region. He still remembers the days after the Chernobyl disaster.

"We read about it in the news, but we never thought it could reach us here.... But it came, and our reindeer became very radioactive."

The Sami are an indigenous people who live in parts of Scandinavia and the Arctic. Their lives have traditionally revolved around reindeer herding. Kjell says of the Sami way of life: "We are the last free people on earth. If I want to go into the mountains, I go. If I want to stay at home, I stay at home."

Kjell's semidomestic herd roams over landscape affected by the Chernobyl fallout, sometimes wandering across the border into Sweden. The reindeer graze on grasses, lichen, and mushrooms. Mushrooms are also known to absorb radiation from the soil.

Aina Bye

Around three times a year, Kjell and his team of herders take to their snowmobiles or motorbikes and gather the herd. They drive the reindeer through the mountains and toward a corral, where many will be slaughtered for their meat.

Aina Bye

Inside the corral, it's heavy work.

Some reindeer are vaccinated against parasites and released. The rest, particularly the males and any not expected to survive the winter, are selected for slaughter. Around 10 percent of a Sami herd are males.

Reindeer meat is a mainstay of the Scandinavian diet. The flesh of one animal currently fetches around $400 for the Sami herders. But that's only if the deer isn't too radioactive to eat.

Aina Bye

Much of the radiation that fell on Norway has a half-life of 30 years, meaning only half its radioactivity remains today. But Kjell's herd still requires testing.

In 2014, there was a huge spike in radiation levels that scientists put down to a bumper season for mushrooms. Hundreds of Norwegian reindeer intended for slaughter had to be released back into the wild.

When RFE/RL witnessed the testing of the Snasa herd, the highest reading was 2,100 becquerels per kilogram. Norway's current limit is 3,000, far higher than the EU limit of 600 becquerels per kilogram for foodstuffs.

The relatively high level of radiation permitted by Norway was a government response to radiation levels in reindeer that threatened the very existence of the Sami herders' way of life.

We have nothing else to live off. If the reindeer don't sell, we are left to ourselves.

Kjell Joran Jama

No one can say when the testing will end, but 67-year-old Kjell says he will probably live the rest of his life in the shadow of what happened at Chernobyl.

Kjell says Fukushima Daiichi, in 2011, showed that nuclear power is still unsafe. "It can have consequences for many years, for thousands of years," he adds, then looks toward the beautiful, poisoned mountains of his ancestors. "And we don't have the right to spoil this world for our children."

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