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Why Sweden's reindeer are still radioactive after 30 years

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Why Sweden's reindeer are still radioactive after 30 years
Sami reindeer in northern Sweden. Photo: Magnus Hjalmarson Neideman/SvD/TT
16:34 CEST+02:00
Thirty years on from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, traces of radioactive material can still be found in northern Sweden's elk and reindeer populations.

The nuclear reactor tragedy in the town of Chernobyl, north of Kiev, on April 26th 1986, led to much of Sweden being covered in a toxic cloud of radioactive iodine and cesium-137. When the rain came, the area around Gävle in the southern part of the Norrland region took the brunt of the radioactive pollution. 

With only days to go to the 30th anniversary of the disaster, traces of increased radiation levels can still be found in Sweden's wild elk and reindeer, which are herded by the indigenous Sami community.

"The levels are low for slaughtered reindeer, but this doesn't happen automatically – the Sami people are working very hard on this," Pål Andersson, researcher at the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (Strålsäkerhetsmyndigheten), told the TT newswire on Thursday.

In the past two years, only two out of around 50,000 reindeer in Sweden have been classed as unfit to consume due to high radiation levels. But the preventative work is likely to continue for many years to come.

"They will probably have to keep these special arrangements going for a long time, like special feeding of the reindeer, altered slaughter periods and actively moving reindeer from contaminated areas," said Andersson.

Meanwhile, cesium levels in elk, while low, are not decreasing as rapidly as they did in earlier years.

"It's gone very slowly lately. But it varies a lot between individual elks. If you as a consumer want to know how much cesium there is in an elk the specific elk has to be examined," said Andersson.

However, according to experts the risk for consumers of being exposed to harmful levels of radiation from eating elk, or picking mushrooms or berries in the Swedish forests, is low. Only one percent of radioactive substances most Swedes end up being exposed to in a year can be traced back to Chernobyl.

"If you pick berries and mushrooms and live in these fallout areas, there's still no risk," said Kettil Svensson, toxicologist at Sweden's Food Agency (Livsmedelsverket).

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