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Chernobyl: Why a radioactive wasteland is a haven for wildlife

Where humans cannot tread, animals often thrive. This is certainly proving true for the Chernobyl exclusion zone, a radioactive wasteland where wildlife is thriving in a space now unsuitable for human use. Meanwhile, a similar situation is unfolding in Fukushima.

Chernobyl abandoned shack
"Abandoned village near Chernobyl" by author: slawojar 小山 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Sometimes, something that seems terrible can actually turn out to be good, or at the very least have a silver lining. Take the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, one of only two category 7 nuclear disasters. The disaster spread radiation across Europe, causing livestock and people to get sick, and even resulting in an increased number of abortions as mothers feared that their babies would be born with deformities.

Sounds horrible right? And in most ways the disaster was indeed tragic. The meltdown in Ukraine may ultimately turn out to be a good thing for the local wildlife, wildlife. Deer, boar, and wolves are all thriving in the quarantine zone. Findings published in a recent study in Current Biology have concluded that not only are mammals returning to the area, but their numbers actually appear to be substantially higher now than they were before the disaster struck.

The land immediately surrounding Chernobyl is tightly controlled, with access limited, because radiation is still present. This means humans are few and far in-between, but wildlife can come and go as it pleases. Turns out many animals are settling into the 1000 square mile exclusion zone, with many of them appearing to be fleeing from human occupied areas.

It doesn’t appear that the animals have come up with a way to cope with the high levels of radiation found in the area. Instead, the radiation is likely still affecting the animals, but the removal of humans from the area is giving them room to flourish anyways. In other words, human activity can actually be more inhospitable for wild animals than radiation.

As study author, Jim Smith, a professor at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, puts it, “that’s not saying radiation is good for animals, but human habitation, occupation, agriculture, forestry is worse.”

In fact, researchers have found that the number of animals present in and around Chernobyl rival those found in uninhabited nature reserves. Wolves, deer, wild boar, and numerous other animals are now thriving in the exclusion zone that surrounds the now defunct nuclear reactor.

Wolves, in particular, are doing extremely well with the wolf population in the exclusion zone estimated to be 7 times higher than it is even in other protected areas. No, wolves aren’t thriving on radiation, but instead are enjoying such high numbers because hunters cannot access the area. Further, if wolves are doing well, that must mean their food source, such as deer and boar, are also doing well.

Fukushima also overgrowing with wildlife

Only the more recent disaster at the Fukushima Plant in Japan, which was caused by the earthquake-tsunami double punch in 2011, can rival the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Interestingly, the Fukushima exclusion zone is also teeming with wildlife.

Stunning images of fields of cars overgrowing with weeds and other instances of nature quickly overtaking human habitats and structures, are already emerging. Fukushima is surrounded by a 12.5 mile exclusion zone, though some people have been able to return to their homes.

Unlike their counterparts in Ukraine, the Japanese are not willing to simply let the land go to waste. Instead, a crew of up to 20,000 workers has been working to reclaim the land, digging up contaminated soil, scrubbing houses and other structures, and otherwise trying to rid the area of radiation. So far, their efforts seem to be paying off with some people able to turn to their homes.

Japan’s efforts are in stark contrast to authorities in Ukraine, who have all but abandoned Chernobyl.

Chernobyl is a ghost town

By and large, the animals are left to their own devices. Roughly 300 people still live in the area, however, having refused to leave. Most of those left behind are older women who are, quite frankly, entering the twilight of their life. It remains unclear how the radiation is affecting them, but as older people, they are less vulnerable to radiation. Children, in particular, are the most sensitive to radiation.

Besides these settlers, many people still work at the power plant, working to keep the radiation contained. Traveling into and out of the 1,000 square mile exclusion zone is like entering another country. Complete with a border guard, passports and permission are needed before anyone can enter.

Want to see some of the chernobyl ruins? Check out this video.

Chernobyl accident overview

The Chernobyl incident was one of the worst man-made disasters in history. On April 26, 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear plant’s reactor number 4 experienced a massive power increase, causing the reactor core to explode. Experts assert that the accident was caused by both a flawed reactor design, and insufficiently trained and skilled workers. Whatever the cause, radiation quickly flooded into the surrounding area and those animals unable to escape subsequently died. Radiation also spread across Europe and even the world.

The explosion happened while workers were attempting to test an emergency cool down procedure. Once the explosion occurred, massive amounts of radiation leaked out into the surrounding atmosphere. In total, at least 50 people died directly because of the reactor explosion, and countless more were sickened by it. The total attributable death toll is believed to be much higher.

Reactor number 4 is now contained in a massive “sarcophagus” that was quickly constructed of metal and cement to contain the radiation. The amount of radiation built up inside of the structure has now reached immensely dangerous levels, yet the sarcophagus itself is slowly falling apart. The Ukrainian government is currently looking to build a new container for the reactor.

You can still visit Chernobyl

While Chernobyl will not be habitable for humans for at least 20,000 years, according to current estimates, brief exposure to the higher than normal radiation, as is found in the area, is not considered to be overly harmful. In fact, the Ukrainian government even allows guided tours through the Chernobyl exclusion zone. In many ways, Chernobyl might offer the best opportunity to see what life was once like under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, of which Ukraine was once a part.

If you’d like to go on a guided tour, but don’t want to risk entering a radioactive zone, you can check out the video below.