NI ‘let down’ by Whitehall during explosion response

Former Secretary of State Jim Prior.
Former Secretary of State Jim Prior.

Northern Ireland was “let down” by Whitehall following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster because officials were too busy looking after their own backyards, a government file from 1986 suggests.

Many abortive hours were spent trying to contact British officials on the telephone and devolved Stormont departments were not advised about a UK-wide programme of environmental monitoring for contamination, according to the NIO archives.

Vegetables, milk and water were eventually tested as a radioactive cloud arrived over Northern Ireland but the country was not properly linked into the wider system.

Emergency planners at the NIO said: “The traditional Northern Ireland dependence on departments let us down on this occasion, possibly because people in Great Britain were too busy looking after their own backyards.”

In April 1986 reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, spewing radioactive material across many parts of Europe.

Under prior arrangements the Radiochemical Inspectorate in Britain was to alert its equivalent body in Northern Ireland’s administration, which had been established in 1982 under former Northern Ireland secretary Jim Prior.

The NIO said: “This procedure failed to operate in the Chernobyl incident.”

The first release of radioactivity at Chernobyl happened on April 26. On May 2 a Finnish cargo ship docked in Belfast was found to have “hot spots” on parts of its deck and cargo. They were hosed down and the cargo released.

The following day the radioactive cloud from the Russian reactor reached Northern Ireland. Monitoring of milk, water and air took place. Samples of vegetables and grass were sent for testing and the importing of fresh meat from eastern Europe banned.

But the Agriculture Department in Northern Ireland was not informed of the position in other countries and no department had been designated to take the lead.