Feature Stories

Partners Brighten Prospects for Ukrainian Dairy

Staff Report

August 2005

For Ovruch’s milk and canning factory, Chernobyl spelled trouble. Radionuclides found their way into the food chain in 1986, especially dairy products, and the milk factory was among more than 120 Ukrainian food processing enterprises located in the fallout’s path. A factory that once processed some 500 tons of fresh milk a day saw its production drop steadily as dairy farming declined and milk was found to contain radionuclides that would take decades to decay.

The future looks far brighter today. The factory is processing "clean" milk once again and has become home to a new technique that holds long-term benefits for the country’s food processing industry. In November 1997, a milk decontamination plant was opened at the Ovruch Dairy, after pilot tests demonstrated its potential to clean up as much as eight tons of milk in under half an hour. The plant uses a new processing technology for liquids based on magnetic separation, which can remove up to 80% of radioactive caesium concentrations in milk. Also established was a radiological and radiochemical laboratory at the plant for monitoring and analysis of dairy products. Its capabilities include:analysis of the radionuclide content in milk from all sources that supply the plant, so that the agriculture ministry can identify farms producing contaminated milk and initiate improved farm practices. Monitoring systems at the plant itself are geared to bulk processing measurements, to track the level of contaminants in milk and other products during production.

The decontamination plant and analytical laboratory are visible results of fruitful behind-the-scenes cooperation between government, commercial, and global partners. The decontamination plant was designed and built under an agreement initiated by the IAEA under a project jointly carried out with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It was financed by the United States, which supported implementation of the magnetic separation technology through its Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and the Selentec firm in Atlanta, Georgia, which markets the technology. The technology was patented after one invented by scientists in Bristol, England, to remove radionuclides from contaminated water at nuclear sites.

Since the mid-1990s, when the project started, the IAEA has provided laboratory equipment to the Ovruch plant and trained personnel in using instruments to detect and accurately measure caesium-137 and strontium-90 in milk and dairy products. Playing a key supporting role were scientists at the FAO/IAEA Agricultural and Biotechnology Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria.

Work ahead is tied to Ukraine’s interest in more widely applying the technology, and in extending the reach of a reliable radiation decontamination and monitoring system. IAEA assistance specifically is sought to establish satellite express laboratories in other contaminated regions, using the Ovruch plant as a model laboratory and training centre. Agency expertise also is needed to help design rapid analytical methods for determining radiocaesium and strontium concentrations in milk, meat, and other food products.

With continued support, the hard lessons learned through a committed partnership at the Ovruch plant can brighten prospects well beyond the factory gates.