Wildlife thriving after Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster – study

Gaby Leslie

When dangerously high levels of radiation spewed from the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986 after an explosion in one of the reactors the effects were devastating.

Not only was the accident responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in the following years, scientists also feared the worst for Chernobyl’s surrounding wildlife.

But ground-breaking research conducted by two UK universities has revealed the effects of the nuclear disaster may not have been as harmful on wildlife as previously thought.

The study has been shedding light on the real impact of radiation on birds living in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone – and it shows they have been thriving without humans.

Experts believe the results in Chernobyl could also apply to wildlife at Fukushima in Japan following last year's tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis.

[Related link: Radiation found in kelp off US West Coast]

Until now it was believed that radiation would cause irreparable damage to a bird's antioxidant defence mechanisms, but the study by the University of Portsmouth and the University of West England suggests high density radiation levels similar to those seen at Chernobyl and Fukushima would not present a danger.

Professor Jim Smith, an environmental physicist at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Portsmouth, who has studied contamination at Chernobyl for more than 20 years said: “We can’t rule out some effect on wildlife of the radiation, but wildlife populations in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl have recovered and are actually doing well and even better than before because the human population has been removed.

“We showed that changes in anti-oxidant levels in birds in Chernobyl could not be explained by direct radiation damage. We would expect other wildlife to be similarly resistant to oxidative stress from radiation at these levels.

He added: “It is well-known that immediately after the Chernobyl accident, extremely high radiation levels did damage organisms. But now, radiation levels at Chernobyl are hundreds of times lower and, while some studies have apparently seen long-term effects on animals, others have found no effect."

The new findings are published in the Royal Society journal ‘Biology Letters’.