Can any good come out of the Chernobyl disaster?

Almost everyone has at least heard about the Chernobyl disaster. On the 26th of April 1986, whilst testing was being carried out on reactor number 4 of the Ukrainian nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, a spike in power output caused a fire which led to the largest radiation accident ever recorded.

Much of the surrounding area had to be evacuated with over 336,000 people relocated. To date over 5,000 deaths have been attributed to the event. Four square Kilometres of forest around the site was destroyed. Animals, both domesticated and wild, either died, stopped reproducing or showed stunted growth. It’s hard to think of any good coming from this event.

But some scientists, including Professor Robert J. Baker, believe that the now abandoned ‘Exclusion Zone’ could be a ‘heaven for wildlife’. After 24 years without any human influence it seems that populations of some animals may have multiplied with rare and endangered species flourishing in the area. Lynx, wild boar, bears, bison and eagle owls have all been reported.

Not everyone has such happy news however. A four year study by Dr Anders Moller and Professor Timothy Mousseau studying the abundance of 9 different taxa (spiders, grasshoppers, dragonflies, bumblebees, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles, birds & mammals) in the area suggests that many of these animals are still suffering from effects of the radiation.

Natural background radiation varies from place to place but is still incredibly high in the Exclusion Zone (a 2005 report suggests 10-100 times higher than normal) and this recent study shows that this higher radiation level may be having an effect on the abundance of mammals and birds especially. Previous studies following the migratory barn swallows showed that these birds had lower reproductive success and more physical abnormalities due to the radiation.

So is Chernobyl a heaven for wildlife:

Baker, R.J. & Chesser, R.K. (2000) ‘The Chernobyl disaster and subsequent creation of a wildlife preserve.’ Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry.

or is the radiation slowly destroying all life in the area:

Moller, A.P. & Mousseau, T.A. (2010) ‘Efficiency of bio-indicators for low-level radiation under field conditions.’ Ecilogical Indicators.


About Rebecca Nesbit

I am author of a popular science book 'Is that Fish in your Tomato?' exploring the fact and fiction of GM crops. In my work and leisure so far, I have trained bees to detect explosives, used a radar to study butterflies for my PhD, written a novel, taken the train from London to China, organised Biology Week, sold science jewellery on Etsy, and traveled to four continents with Nobel Laureates. Best off all, I've made lots of friends whose support I very much appreciate. Thank you! Please visit my website:
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17 Responses to Can any good come out of the Chernobyl disaster?

  1. So can any good come out of the BP oil spill?

  2. emmalouisewright says:

    I really hope so…although I can’t think what.

    If nothing else hopefully we should now have the technology and expertise if something similar should ever happen again.

    Will keep eyes peeled for interesting research to come out of the disater though…you never know.

  3. emmalouisewright says:

    Maybe mentioning ‘something similar happening again’ wasn’t the best idea. May have slightly jinxed the Gulf of mexico where another rig exploded yesterday!

    No one was killed this time and there currently appears to be no leaking oil… so no where near as bad as the BP one…but maybe I should be more careful what I say?

  4. Trish Wells says:

    Slightly related to this, in the ‘bad things actually being good for wildlife’ category, I was fascinated to hear that the tsetse fly, a fly that slashes skin and licks up blood with the potential of transmition trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness in humans and nagana in animals), is protecting regions of sub-saharan africa from the disruptive settlement of humans. We can’t live or farm in areas inhabited by tsetse flies so we leave them alone. Should control methods be developed which enable human habitation then this control of the tsetse fly would indirectly damage biodiversity.

    So good can come out of a dangerous fly!

  5. Theo Richel says:

    Could you show me where the science says that Chernobyl has cost 5000 lives? As far as I know the tally stands at 59 and an expected increase of 3000 cancer cases, which will always remain hidden in the total cancer incidence in Russia. Then there is also the expectation that the excess of radiation that many people are exposed to might decrease cancer incidence.
    And isnt it scientifically interesting to compare the findings of Chesser/Baker with those of Moussau/Moller. Your treatment of the subject suggests that you believe the latter more than the former, but it remains completely in the dark why. That is strange because in radiation biology there is a serious discussion going on about the question whether some doses of radiation might actually be beneficial. Lots of human studies have confirmed that.

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