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Chernobyl reindeer radiation in decline

Norway’s reindeer are gradually becoming less contaminated Norway’s reindeer are gradually becoming less contaminated Incredible Arctic
07 May
Thirty years on, the Chernobyl disaster still leaves a radioactive footprint on Norwegian reindeer. However, could the worst of it be over?

When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in 1986, it released millions of radioactive Caesium-137 isotopes into the atmosphere. Rain clouds transported the fallout northwest, to the Norwegian landscape inhabited by indigenous Sami reindeer herders. While reindeer meat today still tests positive for radiation levels that are well above EU limits, there are signs emerging that the worst of the contamination may finally be coming to an end.

‘The half-life of Caesium-137 is 30 years,’ says Lavrans Skuterud, a researcher at the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, ‘which means that around now, half of the radioactive material will have decayed.’ This decay rate means that less radioactive isotopes are being absorbed into the area’s lichens and mushrooms, both of which are an important part of reindeer pastures. According to Skuterud’s data, there has been a gradual decline in the number of reindeer exceeding the Norwegian limit of 3,000 becquerels per kilogram since the numbers peaked two years ago.

There was a spike in contamination levels in 2014. That year we had weather that particularly favoured mushroom growth

‘There was a spike in contamination levels in 2014,’ says Skuterud. ‘That year we had weather that particularly favoured mushroom growth.’ Certain species of mushroom act like radiation sponges, which causes Cs-137 to accumulate in reindeer throughout the autumn. In 2014, some of the reindeer tested exceeded 8,000 becquerels per kilogram and had to be sent back to pasture – a precarious issue for Sami herders who depend on selling the meat to sustain their livelihoods. This year the contamination has been much lower, at around 600 becquerels.

Norway has an exceptionally high permissible level for Cs-137 in reindeer meat, in part as a measure to preserve the Sami way of life. The EU limit is 600 becquerels, however, Norway allowed 6,000 becquerels after the explosion, which it reduced to 3,000 in 1994. ‘Currently there are some problems meeting this criteria,’ says Skuterud, ‘but the challenges would be much larger if the permissible level was reduced to the common EU level – not to mention the Japanese limit of 100 becquerels.’ Most crucially, the higher Norwegian limits have not been linked to any health defects. 

This was published in the May 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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