It is considered one of the worst industrial accidents to have ever occurred, with the effects of Chernobyl still being felt 30 years after one of the reactors at the nuclear power plant exploded, spewing radiation into the air in Eastern Europe. One of the many impacts of the disaster can be seen thousands of kilometers from the plant site, as it effects the Sami people of Norway and the reindeer they herd, report Radio Free Europe.
When reactor four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffered a massive power increase in 1986, the core exploded. This blew the top of the reactor off and released massive quantities of radioactive material, which was aided in dispersal by the smoke that was also belched out. Four hundred times the amount of radioactive material that was released by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spread out across much of Eastern and Central Europe, as it entered the atmosphere and traveled with the air currents.
The animals graze on land in Norway that was coated in radioactive material from the Chernobyl fallout. Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
As it then rained and snowed in these regions, the radioactive particles were brought to Earth. This is what happened in southern and central Norway, as huge quantities of caesium-137 rained down on the pristine landscape. The region in which much of the radioactive particles fell is an area used by the Sami people of Norway to graze their semi-domestic herds of reindeer. During the winter, when there is little food on the ground, the animals rely heavily on lichen and moss, which are known to act effectively as sponges to radioactive material, such as caesium. This meant that the reindeer accumulated caesium in huge quantities.
During the winter, lichen makes up about 90 percent of a reindeers' 'diet. Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
According to photojournalist Amos Chapple, who spent a week documenting the Sami people and the scientists who came in to test the radiation levels of the reindeer for RFE/RL, the highest reading this year was at 2,100 becquerels (bq) per kilogram, a unit used to measure radiation in food. While the EU sets a safe limit of 600 bq per kilogram, the Norwegian government had to up theirs to 3,000 in an attempt to save the reindeer herders who would have gone out of business, losing their rich and ancient culture with it.
Scientists test the deer for their radioactive levels, and if the animals come in too high, they cannot be taken to slaughter and are released. Amos Chapple/RFE/RL
Despite the animals being safe to consume this year, according to Norway, it doesn’t mean that the Sami can rest easy. This is because the levels in the deer fluctuate massively. A couple of years ago, for example, researchers recorded a reading of 8,200 bq per kilogram, meaning that many reindeer simply had to be released back into the plains as they were unfit for slaughter. It is thought that the reason behind this increase was due to a bumper crop of mushrooms, which are known to suck up radioactive material still lingering in the soil. They also happen to be a favorite food of reindeer.
With caesium-137 having a half-life of 30 years, it is looking likely that the impacts of the meltdown at Chernobyl will be felt by the Sami people for a long time to come, influencing multiple generations of herders and the landscape on which they rely.
For the Sami, the reindeer are their life blood. Amos Chapple/RFE/RL