26 April 1996

Question-mark hanging over radiation research

By Robert Davies

RESEARCH into ways of keeping radioactive isotopes, released during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, out of herbage could be a victim of spending cuts.

Prof Chris Pollock, research director of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, denies rumours that a decision has already been made to axe bio-remediatation work at Aberystwyth. But he admits all IGER projects funded by Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council competitive strategic grants are being reviewed.

"Following a £500,000 reduction in total funding, we have submitted an action plan, which is still being considered," Prof Pollock said. "No project is guaranteed to continue. Staff will be informed as soon decisions are reached."

The radiation work is investigating chemicals that can lock up radioactivity in the soil. This would prevent it reaching animals that graze vegetation in areas polluted a decade ago by fall-out from the nuclear power station accident. The dangerous isotopes involved are very similar to naturally occurring compounds, and are readily assimilated by plants.

"We are trying to stop, or slow down, the take-up, and some very interesting data is emerging from the work," said Prof Pollock.

Success would cut the big annual expenditure on monitoring the radiation levels of sheep in badly affected areas of north Wales. Within these, movement restrictions are still in place on the whole or part of almost 400 farms.

In June 1986 restrictions were imposed on 5000 Welsh holdings carrying 2m sheep. These still apply to 220,000 sheep within a 580sq km (224sq mile) area.

When 20 farms were derestricted in January, the Welsh Office reported that during the previous year radiation checks were done on 145,486 animals that farmers wanted to move out of the area.

Only 672, or 0.46% were above the 1000 becquerels/kg of liveweight limit to enter the food chain. The highest reading was 2215 becquerels. In the first year of monitoring the top radiation level was 4213 becquerels, and 22,045 head, or 13.8%, failed. The latest test report shows continuing hot-spot contamination in Gwynedd, but no failures on farms in Powys.

Thousands of hill sheep still remain under movement restrictions.