The term ‘nuclear waste’ usually evokes images of barren landscapes, hazard signs and three-eyed mutant fish. But according to an international study published this week, the scene at the site of the worst nuclear accident in history couldn’t be more different.
Presenting their research in Current Biology earlier this week, scientists reported that the Chernobyl region in Ukraine, where the 1986 nuclear disaster occurred, is now teeming with wildlife. The group estimates that animal populations in the exclusion zone, a restricted 4,200km squared area around the plant, now not only exceed pre-contamination numbers, but also have surpassed populations at uncontaminated nature reserves. The findings challenge assumptions about the long-term ecological effects of radiation.
“These results demonstrate for the first time that, regardless of potential radiation effects on individual animals, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone supports an abundant mammal community after nearly three decades of chronic radiation exposure,” the researchers wrote.
Their data show numbers of elk, deer and wild boar similar to those at nearby, uncontaminated reserves. The wolf population, meanwhile, is over seven times larger at Chernobyl than elsewhere.
The results encourage optimism about ecological recovery from more recent contaminating events, such as the 2011 meltdown at Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. But they also reflect rather badly on us.
“These unique data showing a wide range of animals thriving within miles of a major nuclear accident illustrate the resilience of wildlife populations when freed from the pressures of human habitation,” said Jim Beasley, a co-author and biologist at the University of Georgia.
To put it bluntly, these animals do better in an environment abandoned for thirty years due to radioactive contamination than in an environment inhabited by people.
“This doesn’t mean radiation is good for wildlife,” clarified Jim Smith at the University of Portsmouth. “Just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming, and forestry, are a lot worse.”