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BBC Wales's Robert Thomas
"The peaty nature of the soil means there are still high levels of radioactive material here"
 real 56k

The BBC's Richard Hollingham
Some are asking whether it is time now to raise the safety threshold
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Ben Waters, FSA
The restrictions benefit both consumers and producers
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Friday, 15 December, 2000, 16:23 GMT
Chernobyl still hitting hill farms
Sheep BBC
The restrictions will stay in place for many years
The radioactivity from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster continues to impact not just the people of the Ukraine but those who live many thousands of kilometres away from the infamous power station.

The professors who should know said it would all be washed away in about six weeks

Ned Williams, Welsh farmer
In the UK, restrictions have been placed on almost 400 farms - most of them in Wales - controlling the movement of sheep.

Britain's Food Standards Agency (FSA) warned on Friday that the measures, which are designed to prevent contamination of other livestock and the human food chain, could continue for another 15 years at least.

"Radiation levels are dropping from the very high levels after the accident in 1986, but we are still seeing one or two sheep each year that exceed our threshold level of 1,000 Becquerels," said Ben Waters, head of the radiological safety unit at the FSA.

Mr Waters said the restrictions were essential to maintain consumer confidence in British lamb.

Regular monitoring

Upland farms in the UK were caught out by an unfortunate set of circumstances. There was heavy rain in the days after the explosion which washed radioactive decay products - mostly caesium 137 - out of clouds and on to fields.

And because of the nature of the soil in these areas, the radioactive particles, instead of getting locked up in the soil, were absorbed by plants. The sheep grazing the land ate radioactive grass.

Chernobyl AFP
The legacy of Chernobyl is still felt many thousands of kilometres from the plant
"The professors who should know said it would all be washed away in about six weeks," said Ned Williams, who farms near Trawsfynydd in North Wales.

"But the radiation is still here all these years later - so that shows you how much they know about it."

In the restricted areas, the sheep are monitored regularly and before they can be sold have to spend time off the hills. Dr Brenda Howard, from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, has made a study of the problems affecting livestock.

"In the peaty soils," she said," the caesium doesn't bind to the constituents very well so it gets taken up by the plants, eaten by the animals and goes back to the soil in their faeces and urine.

"We expect the restrictions on some farms to continue for at least another 10 or 15 years. That's a total of 30 years after the Chernobyl accident.

Safety trigger

With only one or two sheep breaking the safety threshold, it has been suggested that limits could now be raised without endangering the health of animal and human populations.

This line is supported by Colin Partington, principal safety advisor to the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria which is surrounded by holdings affected by the controls.

"Politicians are wary of moving that trigger level higher - to allow the sheep to be de-restricted," he said. "In some other countries, they have done it because of the severe impact that has been placed on businesses.

"Perhaps we ought to think about it, too. Perhaps we ought to say, 'what is the risk to these sheep compared to the problems the restrictions are giving the farmers?'"

Jackie Askew and his family farm sheep and cattle in south Cumbria. Whenever he wants to sell an animal, he has to notify Ministry of Agriculture officials who come and test it. He tries hard to see the benefits that stem from the regulations.

"Yes, we're in a restricted area but because all our stock is monitored for radioactivity, we feel that is a positive side and we can assure people that our stock is clean."

It is a point emphasised by Ben Waters at the FSA: "The overall objective of the Food Standards Agency is to make sure that the food that consumers eat is safe. And by keeping these controls, and applying them in a sensitive way, it benefits both producers of the sheep and those that will actually eat the animals."

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15 Dec 00 | Europe
Chernobyl finally to shut down
05 Dec 00 | Europe
Doubts over Chernobyl's closure
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