Page last updated at 05:55 GMT, Tuesday, 18 April 2006 06:55 UK

Leaders 'not ready' for Chernobyl

The Chernobyl plant
One of Chernobyl's four nuclear reactors exploded

Documents obtained by BBC Wales have shown how unprepared the UK Government was to deal with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 20 years ago

More than 350 farms in north Wales are still dealing with the after-effects of the Ukraine power station disaster.

Sheep on farms in upland areas are still tested for radiation before meat can be eaten.

Estimates of the eventual Chernobyl death toll range from 4,000 to 200,000 people.

Design flaws in the Chernobyl reactor led to a power surge, causing massive explosions which blew the top off the reactor.

BBC Wales' Welsh-language current affairs programme Taro Naw has obtained documents which show Welsh Office civil servants told hundreds of farmers high levels of radiation found in sheep would be a short-term problem.

Trefor Roberts, who farms near Dolgellau, said: "In the first meeting we had as farmers Welsh Office officials told us that what they called 'this thing' would be with us for three weeks.

Animals on hill farms still have to be tested for radiation

"At the worst scenario, he said three months. Here we are 20 years on and we still have the restrictions."

Radiation from the explosion reached uplands in north Wales in less than a week.

Expert Kevin Doughty warned at the time that land could be contaminated for at least 100 years.

Dr Doughty told the BBC: "Scientifically, it was a simple process for me to calculate that the radioactivity was likely to remain in the soil for a matter of tens if not hundreds of years.

"That was not the message the people wanted. They wanted to hear that it would disappear quickly, it would go away and that the problem would be long gone within a few months."

High levels

Problems were not confined to contaminated lamb. Taro Naw reveals that water and milk were also tested for radiation.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the samples were taken from areas that had not experienced the highest levels of radiation.

They also show that relevant information was not getting through to Welsh office quickly enough and there was a lack of knowledge on how to deal with such an incident.

Plaid Cymru Meirionnydd Nant Conwy MP Elfyn Llwyd said he was concerned that there had never been "an independent evaluation of what exactly happened".

"That sounds very strange, but what I'm saying is I don't know whether the radioactive material in the ground has come exclusively from the Chernobyl fallout or if there are other factors in play.

"For example, could it be that some of these farms, being in proximity of Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, might have contracted it in that way?"

"What I would hope even now is that we could have a properly-funded, arms-length, expert inquiry into what exactly is the reason for this contamination."

The UN estimated between 4,000 and 9,000 people will eventually have died as a direct result of the Chernobyl explosion, but Greenpeace said in a report on Tuesday that the toll could be as high as 200,000 taking cancer and other diseases into account.

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