Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant: Radioactivity Research and Threatened Wildlife

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant: Radioactivity Research and Threatened Wildlife

The Russian military has taken control of the disused Chernobyl nuclear power plant , which is the site of the worst nuclear disaster on the planet to date. This poses a direct threat to wildlife in the area.

ANALYSIS – From the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both governments declared that the Russian military had taken control of the disused Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of the worst nuclear disaster on the planet. By Twitter, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it feared an ecological disaster.

It is here that a nuclear reactor of the located power plant exploded on April 26, 1986. For ten days, the fire spat out a radioactive plume that spread from Ireland to Greece. The immediate surroundings of the reactor, evacuated for 36 years, are now at the center of an exclusion zone of nearly 3 000 km2.

Access to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is strictly controlled. The Ukrainian army only allows scientists and lovers of macabre tourism – known as black tourism – to pass.

I have visited the area six times, the last in 2018, to study the long-term impact low-dose radiation on wildlife – the effects of which in humans and animals are worrying and controversial. This uncertainty is largely due to the difficulty of working in contaminated areas, as well as the variability and complexity of ecosystems. Scientific uncertainty naturally leads to the question of who to trust.


At Chernobyl, wildlife abounds in the absence of humans. Dense forests have grown, sheltering lynx, bison, deer. Przewalski's wolves and horses, once endangered due to hunting and land management, have been reintroduced and are proliferating.

The prospect of seeing heavily equipped armies, tanks in particular, crossing an ecosystem so contaminated in places is hardly encouraging. Radiation spikes have already been reported, no doubt caused by heavy military machinery plowing through the contaminated soil.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said on February 25 that the rather low levels of radiation posed no danger to the public. But with intense fighting in the vicinity, there is a real risk that an accidental strike on the concrete shelter could spread the radiation still leaking from the reactor core.

The risks to the health of people and ecosystems are difficult to estimate. In winter, most plant and animal species are not very active, hibernate or have migrated south. By spring, it is likely that the high levels of radiation caused by vehicle movement will have diminished.

It is to be hoped that the Russian soldiers will only pass through the area, which offers the fastest route between Belarus and Kiev – except for the possible Russian detachment which will ensure the security of the area, like the Ukrainians before them. Russia, itself severely contaminated by the disaster, will certainly exercise extreme caution.

Effects of chronic radiation

< p>The region is one of the few places in the world where scientists can measure in the field the effects of prolonged exposure on fauna and flora. My team is interested in the effects of prolonged exposure to low-dose radiation. We are also looking to see how these effects are transmitted between generations.

Before the pandemic, we were part of a multidisciplinary team that monitored the population of wild voles, to measure the levels of radioactivity and its effect on health – anemia, cancer, cataracts or immunodeficiency. Radiation levels in the region are highly variable, but some voles have experienced radiation levels 40 times higher than unexposed control specimens.

And yet, despite all this work, the link between abnormalities detected and low dose radiation remains unclear. This is because the environment presents other stressors – predators, parasites, disease and starvation.

The effect on health of low-dose radiation in ecosystems therefore remains controversial. Tim Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina, reports multiple abnormalities in various species. And Rosa Goncharova, a radiation geneticist at the Institute of Genetics and Cytology of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, finds that the offspring of animals exposed to high-dose radiation in 1986 continue to show many chromosomal abnormalities.

But others find no evidence of such effects, including Mike Wood, an environmental scientist at the University of Salford, UK, and Nick Beresford, a radioecologist at the Institute of Hydrology and Ecology in Lancaster University, in the same country.

Nuclear energy and the risks for fauna

We are still analyzing our latest data, collected at Chernobyl in 2018. Preliminary results, which reveal huge individual variation, demonstrate no clear and statistically significant correlation between health status and radiation dose. In our view, one cannot be certain about the effects of low-dose radiation because other natural factors, such as predation and disease, confound the results. This does not mean that they are without effect, but it is not possible to make a typology of effects according to the level of radiation.

This controversy over the interpretation of the results presents a considerable stake and will have to be resolved. Many countries are considering reviving nuclear power generation through small modular reactors installed in remote areas. Since the risk of nuclear accidents will have to be managed in addition to those associated with uranium mining, fuel fabrication, and radioactive waste processing, there is a need to better understand the risks to wildlife. wild.

The study in this vast laboratory that is the Chernobyl exclusion zone therefore remains vital, and it must be recognized that it will be difficult to work there without the knowledge and know-how of Ukrainian collaborators, both in the field only in the laboratories, but also in the logistical and regulatory aspects. No one knows what will become of these years-long collaborations.

Carmel Mothersill, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Radiobiology, McMaster University

< p>This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Chernobyl nuclear power plant: research on radioactivity and endangered wildlife

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