Chernobyl fall-out will affect Europe for far longer than expected

Research into the stability of radiocaesium from Chernobyl has shown that "persisting mobility" is occurring, and that restrictions on foodstuffs in the UK and areas of the former Soviet Union will have to remain for more than 100 times longer than previously thought.

Details of the new findings are published under the title Chernobyl’s legacy in food and water in the 11 May edition of Nature magazine. Scientists based in the UK and the Netherlands report that “the effective ecological half life in young fish, water and terrestrial vegetation has increased from 1-4 years during the first years after Chernobyl to 6-30 years in recent years”.

The reason for the change has to do with the reversibility of the ‘fixation’ process by which radiocaesium levels stabilise in land and water. The article in Nature asserts that the fixation process which had been previously observed can reverse and that radiocaesium levels will remain high in UK areas which were contaminated with radioactive precipitation immediately after the Chernobyl accident (see

related story).

Restrictions exist on the sale and slaughter of about 232,000 sheep at 389 upland farms in the UK. Some of these sheep have radiocaesium levels above the limit for entry into the UK food chain.

The scientists conclude that “restrictions may need to remain in place on some farms for a total of 30 years after the Chernobyl accident, which is more than 100 times longer than initially expected. In some areas of the former Soviet Union, consumption of forest berries, fungi and fish, which contribute significantly to people’s radiation exposure, will need to be restricted for at least a further 50 years”.

The scientists who contributed to the article in Nature are based at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the UK Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Netherlands Energy Research Foundation.

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