Dear EarthTalk: How has wildlife been affected around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in Russia three decades ago?
—Walter Scinto, Hartford, CT
The Chernobyl disaster confirmed everyone’s worst nightmares about the awesome power of nuclear reactions. When the Ukrainian reactor collapsed, the radioactive fallout profoundly contaminated the surrounding environment, affecting any living beings located within the so-called “Exclusion Zone” of 30 kilometers around the reactor’s shell. Acute radiation poisoning annihilated a large pine stand, since renamed “the Red Forest,” while many animals suffered significant physical or mental abnormalities.
Invertebrates in the area suffered particularly dramatic population crashes, as most radioactive material resides in the topsoil layer where such insects survive and reproduce. Even apparently healthy wildlife was forbidden from resale because of the dangerous levels of radioactivity. The dangers of radiation led to a government-mandated eviction of the radioactive territory soon after the 1986 explosion.
However, 30 years of isolation from humans has proven to be the most beneficial consequence of the disaster. After the initial devastation of the radioactive fallout, species began to adapt to the higher levels of radiation. Indeed, species diversity and populations are actually healthier now than in most other forests in Eastern Europe. This recognition from the Ukrainian government led to the Exclusion Zone’s establishment as one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in Europe in 2007. Some rare and endangered species, including lynx and the European bison, have returned to the area and can be found in higher densities than in radiation-free forests. Even the Przewalski’s Horse, extinct in the area and artificially reintroduced to the Exclusion Zone in the 1990s, has flourished; the population has reached stability and is even starting to spread out beyond the protective fencing of the Zone.
The question remains of how these animals are able to sustain such high levels of radiation without succumbing to its deadly effects. Recent studies of the Chernobyl region by wildlife biologists Anders Pape Møller and Timothy Mousseau have identified serious consequences of radiation, even within thriving populations. Mutations among affected Exclusion Zone species include higher rates of cataracts, partial albinism, and physical variation. However, it appears the deadly mutations took their toll on populations immediately. Subsequent surviving generations have shown amazing adaptability.
Møller and Mousseau conclude that while radiation is inarguably bad for the environment, its impact on wildlife is far overshadowed by the effects of typical human development. While no one would have wished for the Chernobyl meltdown, environmentalists point out the silver lining of being able to monitor wildlife population in the absence of human populations and activities.
Chernobyl is a primary example of ecosystem resilience as capable of overcoming radioactive devastation — and can teach us all a lesson about the importance of setting aside at least some wild areas just for wildlife. Furthermore, the experiences at Chernobyl and in the intervening years illustrate the benefits of preservation over conservation. While conservationists encourage sustainable use of natural resources as optimal for wildlife health, Chernobyl shows the incredible benefits to wildlife of just leaving vast swaths of land alone and letting the animals just get on with their lives.