Northern Ireland

NI 1985/1986 state papers: NI Chernobyl disaster response 'was confused'

Chernobyl nuclear plant Image copyright AFP
Image caption Chernobyl nuclear plant was damaged by a series of explosions that sent a huge radioactive cloud into the air

A lack of co-ordination in reacting to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Northern Ireland is revealed in newly declassified files.

The emergency was caused by a leak at a nuclear power station at Chernobyl in central Ukraine in April 1986.

More than 250 people were killed and thousands of square miles contaminated.

A meeting of the Northern Ireland Emergency Committee (NIEC) on 11 June was told there had been a clear lack of co-ordination of effort and policy.

Nigel Hamilton of the Department of the Environment told Stormont officials that this approach meant each department was working in isolation.

He said this could have been avoided if there had been an early meeting of the NIEC, with the Northern Ireland Office taking responsibility as the lead department.

Mr Hamilton also said he found the lines of communication between his department and Great Britain to be unsatisfactory, and had "proved difficult to obtain factual information or the line to be given to the public".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A still picture of Soviet television that shows the damage four days after the Chernobyl explosions
Image caption The area around the plant was cordoned off for many years after the disaster

In response, G Treharne of the Government Information Service said the lack of any local press release after the incident was a major problem that "helped to feed the uncertainty and anxiety among the general public".

This view was shared by officials from the Departments of Agriculture and Health.

Radioactive cloud

The NIEC chair, S McKillop, said that while arrangements existed to alert the committee in the case of a nuclear accident in Britain, similar procedures did not exist for international incidents.

It might be that an early warning system needed to be set up for all such incidents "so that monitoring of radiation could begin and departmental plans activated if these rose above a certain level".

The file contains a timeline of the Chernobyl incident as it affected Northern Ireland:

  • The crisis began on 26 April 1986 with the first release of radioactivity from the Chernobyl reactor
  • On 1 May, the DHSS was instructed to monitor the importing of food, especially vegetables, fruit and fish from the Soviet Union and Poland
  • On 2 May, a Finnish cargo ship docked in Belfast was found to have "hot spots". The advice of the National Radiation Prevention Bureau was followed and the vessel was hosed down and its cargo released
  • On 3 May the radioactive cloud reached Belfast and two days later a meeting was convened at the Belfast Harbourmaster's Office, attended by representatives of the Radiochemical Inspectorate, Radiological Protection Service and Food Control Branch. As a result, monitoring of milk and meat began.

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