Senior scientist’s fears at effect of Chernobyl in Northern Ireland revealed

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world's worst nuclear accident
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world's worst nuclear accident

A senior Government scientist privately expressed concerns at the official response in Northern Ireland to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a declassified Stormont file has revealed.

Professor Cecil McMurray, who would go on to become Northern Ireland’s Chief Scientific Officer, warned that many of the assumptions of officials — who were assuring the public that there was little need for concern — were based on scant evidence.

In a confidential note to the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Prof McMurray, who was at that time in the department’s Agricultural and Food Chemistry Research Division, said: “The response of Jonathan Margetts [an NIO official] to the Permanent Secretary causes some concern.

“It is almost dismissive of the effect of the impact/effect of Cherbobyl on N Ireland. It leaves one with the impression that we are so far away it hardly matters. This is far from the case.”

He said that in the wake of the Ukrainian disaster the Province was not using the same measurement of radioactivity in agricultural produce such as milk, as that being used in the rest of the UK.

Northern Ireland was recording levels in pasteurised milk collected over a wide area, while the rest of the UK was monitoring levels at individual farms.

He said: “It is now evident that our milk powder results are as high as, if not higher than anything measured in the UK....in effect we don’t know how high the local hot spots were, but we must have had a considerable deposition compared with other places when levels are so high in SMP [seemingly an acronym for skimmed milk powder] which again integrates deposition over a considerable area (the collecting area of the manufacturing plant).”

Professor McMurray went on: “A fact we have not really considered yet - what proportion of our cows were solely dependent on grass as their source of forage on the 3rd May, i.e. considering the late wet season, especially in the West?”

Professor McMurray said that the only air monitoring site in Northern Ireland was at Newtownards (another document in the files explains that the DOE’s chief alkali and radiochemical inspector used his own initiative to begin air monitoring at his home in Newtownards as soon as news of Chernobyl reached the UK).

Prof McMurray said: “By chance this may have been the area with the lowest fallout.

“Milk samples from the Belfast area and S. Down were consistently lower than samples obtained in the West; and secondly, powders from Pritchetts in Newtownards were much lower than samples obtained from the West as well...it would be premature to discuss meat, but I suspect we might find considerably elevated levels.”

The scientist added: “I am sure if the truth were told this incident has taken a lot of people by surprise in how widespread the effects have been.”

Prof McMurray also pointed out an embarrassing gaffe by officials, who were referring to testing for “irradiation”, the use of radiation to kill bacteria in food.

He said: “There is a major howler in the draft terms for the working groups...the correct term should be food containing radioactive substances.”

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