Chernobyl: why the nuclear disaster was an accidental environmental success
When we think of ecological successes, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 is unlikely to be at the top of the list.
Widely hailed as the worst nuclear accident ever, the incident occurred during a safety test at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in what was then Soviet Ukraine. The skies are filled with contamination, with radioactive rains falling across Europe.
While the disaster killed less than 100 people immediately after, the UN and WHO reported in 2005 that there had been 4,000 Chernobyl-related deaths. Other groups claim that the toll in Europe is in fact as high as 16000.
About 117,000 people were evacuated from the immediate surroundings, mainly from Pripyat, a town built to serve the power station. An exclusion zone has been established, with boundaries drawn around an area with a radius of 30 km from the remains of the factory. Parts of Belarus have also been closed to humans, after suffering most of the radioactive rains.
The exclusion zone now covers an area of approximately 2,800 km2 and is, unsurprisingly, one of the most radioactively contaminated areas in the world.
More than 400 hectares of pine trees were killed immediately after the disaster, and the surrounding flora and fauna – as well as all nearby water sources – were also heavily contaminated.
But now, almost 35 years after the incident, the exclusion zone appears to have undergone a renaissance transformation.
Despite the significant and immediate damage to the ecosystem of the exclusion zone, the biodiversity of the area has increased rapidly over the past three decades. Rare species like the lynx and the vulnerable european bison have seen a resurgence.
In the Belarusian part of the exclusion zone, the researchers found that populations of wild boar, elk and deer exploded in the 10 years following the disaster.
It was also observed that wolves had seven times more.
“The number of wolves is seven times higher, possibly due to much lower hunting pressure in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone,” says James Smith of the University of Portsmouth, who has conducted research on the wildlife in the region, with Nick Beresford of the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology.
“Our camera trap investigations in Ukraine photographed Eurasian lynxes, brown bears, black storks and European bison. Ukrainian and Belarusian researchers have identified hundreds of plant and animal species in the area, including more than 60 [rare] species, ”says Beresford.
Species like Przewalski’s horse, a rare and endangered horse native to Central Asia, have even been deliberately released to the region as part of conservation efforts.
It is still not clear how healthy these animals are, with many scientists concerned that these species still suffer negatively from the effects of radiation exposure. Being able to collect enough data to monitor this is indeed impossible at the moment.
However, researchers examining the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on plants reported this week that wheat, rye, oats and barley grown near the region are still contaminated. Almost half of all samples examined by scientists at the University of Exeter and the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology contained illegal levels of radioactive isotopes.
But the mammalian population boom, especially in the region, is still seen as a good sign. Despite the massive contamination, Beresford, along with other researchers, believes that the “overall effect has been positive” for the wildlife in the exclusion zone.
“The radiation burden at Chernobyl is less severe than the benefits for humans leaving the area,” says plant biochemistry expert Stuart Thompson, who adds that the area “supports more life than before”.
Will humans ever be able to return?
The area accidentally became one of the largest nature reserves in Europe, clearly testifying to the detrimental impact humans have on wildlife.
There are ongoing discussions as to whether the exclusion zone will again be habitable for humans. Ukrainian state authorities said in 2011 that the area could be occupied within 320 years, while Greenpeace and Chernobyl director Ihor Gramotkin more recently said it would likely be more than 20,000 years away.
Incredibly, there are 187 people – known as Samosely (meaning self-settlers) – who have made their home in the 30 kilometer zone. This is technically still illegal, although in 2012 the local government gave unofficial permission to only elderly Samosels to stay.
These residents receive social support from the government, but their residence in the exclusion zone has not been legalized.
This immense territory has therefore gone from industrialization and high population density to less than 200 permanent residents.
The long-term success of the region’s ecological recovery will not be fully understood for many years to come, but there are already clear lessons to be learned.
For now, the exclusion zone more and more open to tourists. After the pandemic, it might even be possible to see this accidental reforestation project up close.