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News Extra: Wildlife thriving around Chernobyl nuclear plant despite radiation

24 December 2015

Humans are worse for wildlife than nuclear disaster, according to the first long-term study at Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, which found wildlife was thriving. The results pose profound questions about both the effect of humans on nature and of the safety for humans of sites devastated by nuclear accidents.

Rare Przewalski's horses in the Chernobyl exclusion zone - Image: Shutterstock
Rare Przewalski's horses in the Chernobyl exclusion zone - Image: Shutterstock

An international group of scientists coordinated by Professor Jim Smith from the University of Portsmouth’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences published their findings in Current Biology in early October.

It is the first large scale study of mammal populations in the 4,200 square kilometre human exclusion zone around Chernobyl. The zone was exposed to chronic radiation following the 1986 accident but, 30 years later, the researchers found no evidence of a drop in the number of animals.

On the contrary, the number of large mammals, including elk, roe deer, red deer, wild boar and wolves are similar to those in four uncontaminated nature reserves in the region.
Professor Smith said: “We know that radiation can be harmful in very high doses, but research on Chernobyl has shown that it isn’t as harmful as many people think.

“There have been many reports of abundant wildlife at Chernobyl but this is the first large-scale study to prove how resilient they are. It’s very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are much higher than they were before the accident.

“This doesn’t mean radiation is good for wildlife, just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming and forestry, are a lot worse.”

At Fukushima, site of the world’s second worst nuclear accident, there have also been reports of wild boar thriving in the evacuated area.

After the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 the region’s 116,000 residents were permanently excluded, and animals in the area were exposed to extremely high doses of radiation. The research shows that their populations recovered within a few years. Aerial counts of wild boar, elk and deer from 1987, almost immediately after the disaster, to 1996 increased several times. Wild boar reached very high population densities then dipped, which the researchers say was caused by the soaring wolf population and a disease outbreak not linked to radiation.

Increases in the area’s wildlife are in stark contrast to a decline in elk and wild boar populations in other parts of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, as major socio-economic changes brought rural poverty and poorer wildlife management.

The census data covers 20 times the area of previous studies of mammal populations in the area and was repeated in different years, to result in the most in-depth analysis of the zone’s animal numbers to date.
Professor Smith said: “The Chernobyl area is a fascinating experimental area because it allows us to investigate the transfers and effects of radioactivity in the long term. There have been many laboratory experiments on the effects of radiation on animals and plants but these are usually quite short term. Chernobyl allows us to study the effects on animals after years of radiation exposure.”

Professor Tom Hinton, of Fukushima University in Japan, site of the second worst nuclear disaster, is a co-author of the new research, and said: “These remarkable data from Chernobyl will help us understand the potential long-term environmental impact of the Fukushima accident.”

The lead author of the report is Dr Tatiana Deryabina from the Polessye State Radioecological Reserve in Belarus.


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