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Effects of the Chernobyl Disaster on Sámi Life

By Melanie Blackwell
December 2, 2003

Image of men in bio protective gearThe night of April 26, 1986 scarred the way of life for the Sámi living in Sweden and Norway. The event would alter life especially for the Sámi reindeer herder, both economically and culturally. When one of four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine exploded, its effects were felt in countries thousands of kilometers away. For the Sámi of Scandinavia, the result was contaminated food supplies, cultural and economic losses and health risks, striking a blow at an already embattled society.

The Chernobyl nuclear reactor was built to produce nuclear power. In 1986, an experiment was conducted to test the reactor’s functionality in a power outage, to see whether it could produce electricity from residual energy after shutting off the steam supply. With the steam supply stifled, the operators proceeded manually with the system at low power, assuming incorrectly that it would remain at low power and would not come to a halt. They closed the emergency regulation valve and began the experiment. What the operators did not realize was that the steam pressure rose gradually and the cooling water nearly came to a boil, all the while increasing the power. The power increased from a doubling time under one second, working its way up to a one-millisecond doubling time ( A belated attempt was made to activate the emergency regulation system, but the water exploded into steam. The experiment resulted in an explosion of the reactor and a radioactive fire that burned uncontrollably for days until extinguished by some 5 million kilograms of stone and lead, dropped by helicopter. Radioactive elements were carried 1000 meters up into the atmosphere and spread over Western Europe and Russia.

Chernobyl Nuclear Plant

Fallout from the Chernobyl explosion included radioactive cesium, strontium, plutonium and iodine. Of particular consequence to the Sámi was the large amount of the cesium 137 isotope released, which has a half-life of 30 years, meaning it loses half its radioactivity through decay every 30 years. Cesium 137 was carried by wind and spring rain patterns in high concentrations to central Sweden and Norway while the north received lower levels, and Finland and areas of southern and western Scandinavia were spared. Within days, Swedish and Norwegian scientists measured dangerous levels of cesium in the atmosphere.

Cesium 137 intruded into Sámi life foremost by contaminating their food supplies. Through rainfall following the explosion, radioactive fallout permeated freshwater lakes and inland forests, thereby contaminating fish, wild game, berries and other plants (Stephens, 1995). Most detrimental was the contamination of lichen, the main winter staple of Scandinavia’s reindeer. Lichens have no root system so they extract nutrients directly from the air, thereby acting as virtual radioactive sponges, absorbing incredible amounts of airborne cesium 137 and passing it straight onto the deer. Lichen is an extremely slow-growing plant, taking 30 years to regrow completely (Vitebsky). Thus, radioactivity in affected lichen may not drop to safe levels short of 20 to 30 years after contamination. The effects of the contaminated lichen were not fully realized until after the first post-Chernobyl autumn slaughter season; then scientists began to measure levels of radioactivity in slaughtered reindeer.

Map showing heaviest radiation from Chernobyl falling in Sweden and Norway

Radioactive cesium 137 is measured in bequerels (Bq), a unit of radioactive measurement representing one nuclear disintegration per second (Stephens, 1987). The Chernobyl explosion permeated the atmosphere with billions of bequerels of radioactive material. Following the autumn 1986 slaughtering season, the Swedish and Norwegian governments were quick to jump in and regulate the meat industry by instituting bequerel safety levels and offering compensation to affected herders, albeit recommendations and guidelines varied from country to country.

In Sweden, the National Food Administration (SLV) was delegated to convert dosages set by the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority (SSI) into limits for specific foods. The SLV immediately declared reindeer meat, wild game and inland fish with a 300-bequerel/kilogram (Bq/kg) count or higher to be unsafe for human consumption and therefore unmarketable. According to the SSI, this limit would restrict the long-term radiation dose of the average citizen to the equivalent of an annual dose of natural background radiation. This figure was derived with respect to the needs of newborn children and a calculation based on the recommended maximum contamination dose divided by the annual food (milk) intake of a newborn. The Swedish government felt it unnecessary to recommend different bequerel intake levels for adults and children and for different food items. All foodstuffs which would exceed the newborn’s bequerel limit were not to be available on the market and, according to the state, would thereby keep all adults within a safe zone. This marketability limit had the effect of disqualifying hundreds of thousands of kilograms of reindeer meat in Sweden (Beach). All reindeer meat classified as unsafe was tinted blue and either thrown into pits and junked, or fed as fodder to mink and fox on fur farms.

Testing Reindeer for RadioactivityIronically, the cesium levels of some reindeer slaughtered prior to the Chernobyl incident were higher than Sweden’s post-Chernobyl marketability limit. Soviet atomic bomb testing in Novaya Zemlya in the 1950s and 1960s produced contamination in reindeer that went unregulated. Herders affected by Chernobyl were shocked to learn that in the 1960s, Swedish reindeer carried contamination levels of 3,000 Bq/kg, a level 10 times the marketability maximum set by the state in 1986. Sámi conclusively wondered why a limit had not been set following the Soviet nuclear testing, if 300 Bq/kg was indeed an unsafe level of consumable contamination (Beach). The Swedish policy on marketability limits did not endure long in its original form.

Sweden’s policies gradually raised the cesium bequerel concentration limit for marketability. In May 1987, the limit was raised to 1,500 Bq/kg, which thereby classified most herding areas as safe. Some people had already adopted the idea that the marketability maximum of 300 Bq/kg was a “risk threshold”, whether true or not. Thus, some herders remarked that meat was not any safer just because the SLV increased the marketability limit. The SLV then promoted different bequerel intake limits for Sámi and non-Sámi, due to their differing dietary habits. The SLV didn’t discourage Sámi consumption of meat with levels under 10,000 Bq/kg so long as the annual recommended dosage was not exceeded. The recommended annual dosage was a product of bequerel value times quantity consumed.

In 2002, the SSI admitted that it had set the initial bequerel level too low and that perhaps hundreds of thousands of deer were consequently destroyed needlessly. The limit of 300 Bq/kg was equal to 1 millisievert, a dosage which the SSI predicted was low enough to keep cancer risks at only one in 50,000 people. Follow-up since Chernobyl has reflected an annual bequerel intake by most Swedish citizens of less than 1/100 millisievert (

Today we can say that the 300 Bq/kg intervention level for reindeer meat was far too low and a large number of reindeer were destroyed unnecessarily in 1986-87. This intervention level also resulted in moose were destroyed. This took place although there was good reason to eat top quality reindeer and moose meat, even if it contained more than 300 Bq/kg of cesium 137, rather than certain other foodstuffs of lesser quality (

Nearly 80% of all reindeer meat in Sweden was destroyed in the 1986 slaughter season. By permitting a minimal amount of reindeer meat on the market, the state aimed to keep all Swedish citizens safe regardless of food purchasing habits. When the bequerel limit was increased in 1987, herd loss was alleviated with only 29% being destroyed due to contamination. In more recent years, less than 1% of the reindeer herd has been destroyed due to radioactive contamination.

In Norway, the reindeer meat bequerel marketability limit was initially set in 1986 at 600 Bq/kg. In 1987 the reindeer limit was raised to 6,000 Bq/kg, while the limit remained at 600 Bq/kg for all other foodstuffs. The Norwegian state maintained that this would aid the reindeer industry because the meat could legally be sold with higher bequerel levels, and that it would not affect many Norwegians because some considered reindeer meat to be a luxury item. In the autumn of 1986, bequerel levels of meat in some southern regions measured as high as 40,000 Bq/kg. In some ways the bequerel limit increase made little difference, as evidenced in 1998 when over 500 metric tons of reindeer had to be slaughtered due to high bequerel levels.

Confusion over health risks from radioactive contamination abounded after the bequerel limits were increased in 1987 in both Sweden and Norway. Expert statements ranged from claims of minimal health risks to predictions of hundreds of cancer deaths. The Sámi had to question state reports of high Man De-skin Reindeerradiation counts and demands to restructure herding practices, which were contradicted with likewise convincing claims that radiation levels were insignificant and posed virtually no health risks to them and future generations. One Sámi interviewed by author Sharon Stephens questioned the authority of the state to establish safety consumption levels when they would change those levels constantly, on the same charts, from report to report (Stephens, 1995). The SSI maintains that it walked a difficult path in providing information to the public during the first years following the accident, and reported a spectrum of health risks: from no risk at all to 300 cases of cancer over 50 years. Similarly, the Norwegian government estimated from virtually no risk on one end, and up to 150 new cases of cancer in 50 years as a consequence of Chernobyl. The SSI admits that it made overly cautious decisions early on with regard to bequerel limits, and that as more became known about the fallout, recommendations changed. Although the herders knew what mattered was the bequerel value times quantity, some continued to view the marketability limit as a health risk threshold. (Beach) So by increasing the perceived health risk threshold (marketability limit) fivefold, herders lost faith in the Swedish authorities. “Had the initial limit been set at 1,500 Bq/kg, the matter would have been different” (Beach, 733). Some reindeer herders in Sweden chose to defy marketability recommendations, claiming they may have consumed meat over the limit long before Chernobyl without visible illness effects. Thus they perceived no danger and continued to eat reindeer meat over the contamination limit after Chernobyl.

The Chernobyl disaster struck a blow to the main source of income, reindeer meat market, for Sámi herders. With the implementation of subsidies and compensation, the Swedish and Norwegian governments established a Sámi herding population dependent on the state. Herders were compensated for the unmarketable meat they produced, methods for reducing radioactivity were sponsored, and herders were advised to continue slaughtering as usual so that herds and pastures would to be completely depleted.

Compensation to herders in Sweden soared and varied in scope following the Chernobyl disaster. In the Vilhelmina area, it was discovered that August slaughters resulted in meat with lower bequerel levels, before the winter lichen grazing. However, the earlier-than-usual slaughters produced lighter deer in addition to expenses for corralling deer with helicopters from their herding cycle. This added expense of air support was shouldered by the state and compensation was granted to herders for the weight sacrifice due to early slaughtering. The government also agreed to compensation for trucking reindeer to safer pastures if the meat proved to be marketable. Another reimbursement was initiated to herders who used fodder as a lichen supplement, in an effort to produce safe meat. As there is extra work involved in using fodder instead of grazing, some herders opted for the easier compensation for their contaminated reindeer instead of trying to bring their herds under the bequerel limit. Northern Sámi as well as Swedes received compensation for lost fishing and berry harvests.

Some Sámi in Norway took advantage of the offering of state subsidies during the first post-Chernobyl slaughter season, killing off large numbers of their contaminated deer. At the time some news reports “described the dire situation of these Sámi herders, who used tractors to push mountains of bloody animal carcasses into burial pits” (Stephens, 1995). Sharon Stephens, who interviewed North and South Sámi in Sweden and Norway, found that such extreme actions were uncommon but that there was indeed great alarm in areas reported to be highly contaminated.

The Norwegian government sponsored programs to help reduce radioactivity levels of reindeer prior to the autumn slaughter. One such program involved the importing of safe lichen from other areas, which lowered the meat’s bequerel levels and allowed more meat onto the market (Stephens, 1995). Other methods were impelemented, such as chemicals and fertilization to reduce radioactivity in lichen in grazing areas. The efforts of these programs have halved the radiation dose to Norwegian citizens from cesium 137.

“There is no clear evidence, at this point, of significant health or reproductive problems in post-Chernobyl Sámi areas” (Stephens, 1995.) It would be a fallacy to say that health damage has not occurred simply because of lack of conclusive proof. The invisible danger of radioactivity produced very real fears. One anonymous Sámi woman reported to author Sharon Stephens:

I think most people wanted to believe the official reassurances because the alternatives were so horrifying. I became pregnant shortly after Chernobyl, and I remember myself at that time as almost having a wall around me. I didn’t want to read about the fallout or talk to people about it because then my fears would have to be specific. If I kept them general enough, I could push them away (Stephens, 1995).

Post-Chernobyl reproduction-related fears of miscarriages, premature births, birth Reindeer Carcassdefects and infant deaths could not necessarily be confirmed as occurring more frequently than before the explosion, but at the same time it is challenging to secure statistics on the Sámi population due to their nomadic and dispersed living. The incubation periods for cancer following exposure to radiation varies from five to 30 years, so the long-term cancerous effects of Chernobyl on Sámi cannot yet be ascertained. Since the Chernobyl accident, mobile human radiation monitoring units have been making rounds in Sámi villages to measure radiation levels of inhabitants.

Living in a post-Chernobyl world has affected Sámi cultural and traditional practices. From the uses of the deer carcass to the changes in herding practices, little by little those herders that remain in business have forfeited customs and beliefs. A South Sámi reindeer owner in Sweden, Gerd Persson, summed up the loss, “This is not just a matter of economics but of who we are, how we live, how we are connected to our deer and each other” (Stephens, 1995).

Sámi reindeer herders have traditionally eaten meat and used remains of deer taken from their family herd, which are central to their notion on kinship. A herder who cannot slaughter and eat meat from his own herd, known to the Sámi as the niestti, may feel culturally bankrupt. Sámi use the entirety of the reindeer body, from the entrails to organs, antlers, hooves and blood. Whereas food, material, thread and shoes used to come from one thing – the reindeer – increasingly these items are supplied by different sources. Following Chernobyl, herders were able to purchase reindeer carcasses from slaughterhouses in safe areas, although they came without the blood and organs. Some herders preferred to take the risk of slaughtering their own reindeer than to purchase from a slaughterhouse that did not handle the carcass to their liking.

With the change in herding practices, some families are not able to pass on the herding tradition to their children and fear a loss of custom. Sámi women and children have begun to stay in their winter homes rather than join the men and herds in the summer grazing fjells. Following Chernobyl, the men often carried canned food for sustenance during summer herding as opposed to living off the traditional fish and deer. One could often distinguish a Sámi home in Norwegian towns from the racks of deer hanging out to dry, but in a post-Chernobyl world this mark of Sámi identity began to dissipate. Sámi herders were encouraged by the Norwegian and Swedish governments to continue the business of herding and slaughtering as normal so as not to interrupt the cycle, although many of the reindeer they raised would be junked due to their radioactivity levels. They more or less went through the motions only to have their reindeer purchased through subsidies as contaminated meat and then destroyed. Sámi parents wondered how their children could “learn what it means to be Sámi if the reindeer work is only pretending” (Stephens, 1995).

Sámi schoolchildren even felt certain effects of the radioactive fallout. Families felt it important to send dried meat from their own herds to their children who were away at school to preserve a familial bond, but the slaughterhouse deer had a distasteful quality and did not offer the same comfort and familiarity. Discussion of the Chernobyl incident and bequerel levels occupied student conversation heavily at first, but eventually waned. A teacher at the South Sámi School in Snåsa, Norway, reported in an interview with Sharon Stephens:

When the children returned to school in September, they spoke only of bequerels. They asked each other, ‘Did you eat fish from the lakes before you knew? Did you walk in the rain last spring?’ They would open their lunchboxes and say, ‘I can eat this meat. My father bought it in the north so it has only 300 bequerels.’ But by December I noticed that hardly anyone spoke anymore of Chernobyl. ‘Do you think about it?’ I asked. A nine-year-old girl replied, ‘No, it’s like war. You know it’s real but far away. You can’t see it, and you try not to think of it coming to you and your family’ (Stephens, 1987).

A number of Sámi herders chose to outright ignore the risks of radioactivity by continuing to eat meat from their own herds. However, they would be reminded of the fallout risk when receiving state compensation for unmarketable meat. Others chose to observe the risk only seasonally, as when radioactivity measurements were taken during the slaughter season. The measurement process brought the issue to the foreground temporarily when some meat would invariably be discovered with unacceptable bequerel levels. Observing normal herding routines allowed some herders to put Chernobyl out of their mind, according to author Robert Paine (Paine).

To a degree the Sámi were also victim to journalistic sensationalism by journalists who sought human-interest Chernobyl stories. They wrote of the “tragic end of ancient Sámi culture” resulting from the nuclear explosion (Stephens, 1995). One Sámi woman told of spotting a stranger in her yard photographing her children, who, upon her questioning him, said he was documenting for a film on “vanishing cultures”. The media hype overplayed an alleged end of the Sámi lifestyle, which was in fact altered severely by the Chernobyl accident but was not extinguished.

Several methods have been adept in reducing radioactive contamination of reindeer meat in Norway and Sweden. Controlling the reindeer diet by incorporating artificial fodder helps herders avoid the possibility of contaminated lichen. In addition, clean lichen is transported to unsafe areas for reindeer consumption to keep the meat radiation free. Norwegian researchers have developed radionuclide-binding pellets, containing the Prussian blue pigment, to lower contamination levels prior to slaughter. Some herders lace their reindeers’ fodder with these pellets about six weeks prior to the beginning of slaughter season. The radionuclide bonds to the cesium molecules in the digestive tract and thus become molecules that are too large to be absorbed into the deer’s bloodstream and are therefore excreted. “The technique can reduce cesium 137 levels in meat by 50-75% and in milk by 80% while the animals continue to forage in contaminated areas” (Hoke).

In an effort to contain radiation leakage from the damaged Chernobyl nuclear reactor, a concrete sarcophagus was built around the ruins. The sarcophagus shelter has required maintenance to contain radioactivity, such as stabilization of a chimney in 1998 and beam reinforcement in 1999. According to a BBC News report, steps are planned to further stabilize the sarcophagus by 2005, which aim to keep it safe for another 50 to 100 years. This will allow time for long-term solutions to be examined, such as removing the radioactive materials from Chernobyl and reincarnating it into a green field site, or a “hermetically sealed dome over the existing plant,” both ambitious proposals. In the 1995 Memorandum of Understanding signed by Ukraine, along with seven countries offering billions in aid, the Chernobyl nuclear plant was to have been closed permanently and completely by 1999. The closure finally came in December 2000, after much conflict between Ukraine and the donor countries over stipulations and misunderstandings in the Memorandum.

The Norwegian Reindeer Husbandry Association reported to BBC News that of 20,000 reindeer monitored for radiation in 2000, none measured unsafe bequerel levels and were declared fit for consumption. However, this number represented only 10% of the estimated reindeer population in Norway and the average contamination rates are expected to remain high for the next 20 years (

The Sámi of Sweden and Norway have strove to overcome the devastating effects of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion. The livelihood of Sámi reindeer herders was nearly eradicated with the radioactive contamination absorbed by lichen, the main winter food source of reindeer. Reindeer meat became subject to legal contamination limits, a regulation that had far-reaching implications for all Sámi in Scandinavia. The destruction of herds carried cultural as well as economic losses; the sharing of traditional herding knowledge was interrupted while a crucial source of income was obstructed. In the years following the Chernobyl incident, financial aid came to ailing herders in the form of governmental subsidies that compensated them for contaminated deer. To combat the problem of contaminated lichen, herders have introduced artificial fodder and imported clean lichen for their herds, and scientists pioneered radionuclide-bonding pellets to mix with fodder. As a result of the many arduous measures taken in a post-Chernobyl world, reindeer herding and the Sámi have survived in Scandinavia.

Works Cited

Beach , Hugh . “Perceptions of Risk, Dilemmas of Policy: Nuclear Fallout in Swedish Lapland.” Social Science & Medicine. 1990. Vol. 30, No. 6: 729-738. “ Chernobyl – the accident.” Bellona Radioactivity and Nuclear Power. Bellona Foundation. 18 Nov. 2003.

Howard, B.J. “Estimation of Critical Loads for Radiocaesium in Fennoscandia and Northwest Russia.” Journal of Environmental Radioactivity. Apr. 2002, Vol. 60, Issue 1: 209-221.

Hoke, Franklin. “Seizing Cesium.” Environment. June 1991, Vol. 33, Issue 5: 21. “Chapter VI, Agricultural and environmental impacts.” Chernobyl: Assessment of Radiological and Health Impact, 2002 Update of Chernobyl: Ten Years On. Agence pour l’énergie nucléaire, Nuclear Energy Agency. 18 Nov. 2003. “ Chernobyl Closure Saga.” 5 Jun. 2000. BBC News. 20 Nov. 2003. “ Norway’s Radioactive Reindeer.” 24 Dec. 2000. BBC News. 20 Nov. 2003

Paine, Robert. “Making the Invisible ‘Visible’: Coming to Terms with ‘ Chernobyl’ and its Experts, a Saami Illustration.” International Journal of Moral and Social Studies. Vol. 4, Issue 2: 139-162. “Nordic Sagas—Special From Scandinavia: Radioactive Reindeer.” Alan Alda in Scientific American Frontiers. 21 Jan. 1998. Public Broadcasting Service. 20 Nov. 2003. Latest News in Brief. Sept. 98. Samefolket. 24 Nov. 2003. Oct. 2002. Swedish Radiation Protection Authority. 24 Nov. 2003

Stephens, Sharon. “Physical and Cultural Reproduction in a Post-Chernobyl Norwegian Sámi Community.” Conceiving the New World Order: the Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1995.

Stephens, Sharon. “Lapp Life After Chernobyl.” Natural History. Dec. 1997, Vol. 96, Issue 12: 32-42.

Vitebsky, Piers. The Saami of Lapland. New York: Thomson Learning: 1994.