The explosion of the then Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear reactor electric generation plant in 1986 was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history based on its cost and the casualties caused, but something surprising has happened since over 300,000 people from the surrounding area were evacuated and resettled to other cities.
A very interesting article on the New Scientist website reveals what that is:
The site of the world’s worst nuclear accident is now a wildlife haven. The abundance of large animals around Chernobyl, such as deer, elk and wild boar, matches that of nature reserves in the region – and wolves are seven times as common.
Some 116,000 people fled the radioactive fallout from the reactor after it exploded in 1986, and another 220,000 were resettled after that, vacating a zone covering some 4200 square kilometres split equally between Belarus and Ukraine.
“Whatever negative effects there are from radiation, they are not as large as the negative effects of having people there,” says Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth in the UK. “We’re not saying there weren’t radiological effects at all, but we can’t see effects on populations as a whole.”
The message is clear, he says. “The everyday things we do, such as occupying an area, forestry, hunting and agriculture, are what damages the environment.”
“The striking Chernobyl findings reveal that nature can flourish if people will just leave it alone,” says Bill Laurance of James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. “This underscores the vital importance of having people-free parts of the planet.”
Lee Hannah of Conservation International says Chernobyl is a living testament to the resilience of nature. “Wild places can come back if we give them a chance, but we don’t want to rely on nuclear disasters to make this happen,” he says.
It turns out that the most severe impact of the radiation from Chernobyl’s fallout was, in fact, pretty short lived. The article continues:
Smith says that the worst impacts of radiation on animals occurred within the first year or so after the accident, mainly because of short-lived but highly toxic isotopes such as iodine-131 and technetium-99. For example, cattle died after eating grass contaminated with the iodine, and early studies showed that mice suffered many more miscarriages.
“By 1987 the dose rate fell low enough to avoid these larger, more acute effects,” says Smith.
Since the disaster, the estimated radiation doses that animals receive in the worst-hit areas have stabilised at around 1 milligray per day, about a tenth the dose someone would receive during an abdominal CT scan.
Chernobyl created an accidental laboratory for studying how well nature can recover from human-caused disasters, perhaps providing some hope for recovery of other wild places in the world that have been damaged by human activity.
For more details on the environmental research that has been done in the Chernobyl area, check out the fascinating article on the New Scientist website.
Source: NewScientist.com – “Wildlife is thriving around Chernobyl since the people left“
Featured Photo Credit: Sergey Gashchak