Chernobyl: the response in Northern Ireland

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2016), Volume 24


By Alan W. Robertson

At 1am on 26 April 1986, Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic exploded after a power surge swept through its electrical system. The power surge occurred during the testing of the reactor’s electrical regulating system, responsible for initiating emergency cooling of the core. The initial gas explosion ripped through the reactor’s concrete cover and then ignited in the air. This detonated nuclear fuel and graphite, which evaporated in the heat, sent a plume of radioactive material into the atmosphere and ruptured the reactor core. The ruptured core emitted more radioactive material into the atmosphere. Large quantities of radioactive debris and airborne particles were deposited over the surrounding, mainly agricultural, area.


Above: The Chernobyl power plant in 2006, with the sarcophagus containment structure and (inset) an aerial view of the damaged core on 3 May 1986.

Above: The Chernobyl power plant in 2006, with the sarcophagus containment structure and (inset) an aerial view of the damaged core on 3 May 1986.

The radioactive plume spread owing to weather conditions. A 30km exclusion zone was created around the Chernobyl nuclear complex. On 27 April the town of Pripyat (pop. c. 50,000) was evacuated. Over the next four years another 135,000 people would be evacuated from the area. The radioactive plume spread over Ukraine, Belarus and southern Scandinavia, and then into western Europe and over the UK and Ireland.

Within days of the Chernobyl accident acute radiation sickness was reported by local hospitals. The patients were mainly the reactor and clean-up workers (also known as ‘liquidators’) who were at the reactor after the explosion. Their exposure to radiation was so high that there were cases of the patients themselves emitting radiation and causing acute sickness in hospital staff. The longer-term effects of the Chernobyl accident on human health were and still are a major concern, particularly for children. There have been increased occurrences of thyroid cancer and damage to unborn children, including a range of heart problems informally known as ‘Chernobyl Heart’. Official reports state that the area will not be safe for human habitation for approximately 20,000 years.

Radiation levels monitored

The Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) file HSS/32/1/23/4 (1986–1987) contains telexes and press releases that give information on European radiation levels for milk, meat, vegetation and water. Within the file is a three-page time-line of the actions undertaken by the DHSS regarding the monitoring of the radiation: for example, 2 May 1986, air sampling began; 7 May, vegetable testing began; 12 May, grass testing began. By 23 May 1986 grass testing for radiation was no longer considered necessary.

On 22 May a statement was released stating that it was ‘safe to consume milk, drinking water and vegetables. Regarding imported foods, nationally agreed measures had been implemented by Northern Irish Departments.’ As food imports into the UK were still being restricted and monitored, the increased volume of food tested resulted in the testing facility being relocated to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at the Ministry of Defence.

A press release dated 29 September stated that ‘The results show that radioactivity in lamb continues to fall and also indicate that radioactivity levels in silage and hay present no problems for human or animal health’. This was also true across Europe; a telex from the Romanian Embassy (22 September 1986) states that:

‘The activity of the air and water, and the ground deposition rates in Romania continue to provide evidence that the environmental radioactivity is either well within, or definitely heading towards the ranges known from recorded history to be normal for the natural radioactivity in this country’.

Food testing
Food testing was also being carried out by other European countries. In West Germany testing detected radiation in blackcurrants from Romania, which were returned. In Sweden contaminated reindeer were slaughtered; the Swedish authorities feared, however, that the contamination would intensify during the winter as the reindeer ate contaminated lichen (National Food Administration (Sweden) report, p. 5, 20 October 1986).

The DHSS file HSS/32/1/26/3 (1987–1990) contains further information on radiation levels across Europe, including Cabinet Office correspondence that discusses European co-operation in monitoring radioactivity in domestic/international food in the event of another nuclear accident. The correspondence highlights a time-line of the proposals and development of this pan-European co-operation set within existing European Community Council regulations. The file also contains press releases; for example, one dated 21 March 1988 states that ‘the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland has today written to farmers in the three Northern Ireland restricted areas informing them that controls on the movement and slaughter of sheep will remain in operation’.

Finally, the file contains a series of newspaper clippings (photocopied and originals) ranging from 6 May 1986 to 4 November 1986. These show the media interest in the Chernobyl accident and the potential effects of the radioactive plume, and provide a time-line of the monitoring procedures and released results as the radioactive plume moved across the UK. The file HSS/32/1/22/1A (1986–1986) details that on 5 May 1986 a meeting was held in the Belfast Harbourmaster’s Office. The minutes show that on 2 May 1986 a higher than normal background radiation level was found on timber on board a Finnish ship docked in the harbour. This was considered only to be surface contamination. Also in the file are telexes between the Danish, Polish and British embassies. The embassies were in touch with each other to confirm that rumours circulating regarding agricultural contamination were false.

Above: Bumper cars in the abandoned town of Pripyat, Ukraine (pop. c. 50,000), in 2006.

Above: Bumper cars in the abandoned town of Pripyat, Ukraine (pop. c. 50,000), in 2006.

Co-ordination not satisfactory

File HSS/32/1/22/2A (1986–1988) concentrates on the government evaluation of the response. A fax marked ‘confidential’ (20 May 1986) states that

‘… the minutes of last Wednesday’s meeting of Whitehall permanent secretaries … record general agreement that governmental co-ordination had not been entirely satisfactory and that preparations were needed against an even worse contingency (e.g. a nuclear accident nearer at hand)’.

Faxed correspondence (22 May 1986) from the Governmental Technical Information Centre recommended a working group to investigate lessons learnt before any submission was made.

Within the file is correspondence regarding the radioactivity levels found in lambs and sheep in Cumbria and Scotland compared to Northern Ireland. This affected the movement and slaughter of the animals before they could enter the food-chain. After results were assessed, however, there was no requirement for any control measures to be implemented in Northern Ireland (minister’s briefing notes, 24 June 1986).

The Northern Ireland Office file NIO/6/63A (1986–1986), entitled ‘Northern Ireland Emergency Committee—Radioactivity Chernobyl’, contains the procedures for dealing with a peacetime nuclear emergency: for example, whom to alert should an emergency occur (government departments and individuals) and the implementation of pre-planned arrangements to restrict distribution of farm produce and cattle and to assess the risk to water supplies. These procedures were issued by the Emergency Planning Branch of the NIO.

Within the file is a review of the procedures after the emergency and monitoring of the spreading radioactive plume had ceased. In a confidential document dated 5 June 1986, the Emergency Planning Branch invited relevant departments to attend a meeting on 17 June 1986 to begin this review. The minutes contain points that were made by the government departments. For example, the Department of the Environment (DoE) considered that there was a ‘clear lack of co-ordination of effort and policy, with each department working in isolation’ (p. 1, point 3), and that communication between the DoE and Britain was ‘unsatisfactory and that it proved to be difficult to obtain factual information or the line to be given to the public either individually or as a general press release’ (p. 1, point 4).
The DoE and the Information Service agreed that an early emergency meeting, with the Northern Ireland Office taking the lead, could have resolved the issues of communication detailed above. Further, it was considered that this early meeting could have reduced the anxiety of the general public by issuing a press release within the first week of the radioactive cloud being detected over Northern Ireland.

All the files discussed above are open and accessible to the public and may be viewed in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). I would like to thank the Deputy Keeper of the Records, PRONI, Maggie Smith, for permission to publish the above quotes, and my colleague Ian Farr for his assistance in identifying relevant files for this article.

Alan W. Robertson is an archivist at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

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