Today is Chernobyl ‘s 30th anniversary– and the impacts of the world’s worst nuclear power plant disaster (yes, they say, worse than Fukushima in 2011) are still being felt in wildlife that remain in the “Exclusion Zone” and humans who fled the contamination. Scientists continue to study how exposure to high levels of radiation are affecting everything from spiders and birds, to wild dogs and wolves. (See below for tv documentaries and photo essays below). Many agencies including the World Health Organization continue to track the trail of disease and death to humans.
How it started
On April 26, 1986, the explosion and fire in Number 4, one of the four 1,000-watt operating power reactors–on the Pripyat River, just 60 miles from Kiev– experienced a power surge, then a larger spike, during a bungled test. The reactor vessel ruptured, a series of radioactive steam explosions occurred, and the combustible graphite moderator ignited, causing a fire that went on for 10 days.
Thousands of people were exposed to cesium-137, strontium-90, iodine-131 – the deadly radioactive isotopes in the nuclear fission process– expelled in the bursts of steam and particles that wafted over western Soviet Union and Europe. Some 350,000 people were evacuated from Chernobyl and other areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine; some 530,000 local recovery workers, without adequate protective gear, experienced exposure “equivalent to an extra 50 years [per person] of typical background radiation exposure.” A shocking fact: the Soviet government waited 36 hours to call for the general population evacuation!
Now almost a generation later, a giant steel-clad arch is nearing completion to enclosure the reactor site, at a cost of $1.7 billion euros, paid for by more than 40 governments and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The original Exclusion Zone – the size of Luxembourg – will shrink to about 1,000 square miles of uninhabitable land. See the 30th anniversary article
The final toll of disease and death has yet to be tallied and remains the subject of intense debate. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates: ” [A]mong hundreds of millions of people living in broader geographic areas there will be 50,000 excess cancer cases resulting in 25,000 excess cancer deaths.”
What happened to nature ?
An Exclusion Zone – the size of Luxembourg – was established by the Soviet government, leaving a no-man’s land of buildings, schools, parks and wild spaces for the past 30 years.
According to a Nature documentary (PBS), “ In the ensuing 25 years, forests, marshes, fields and rivers reclaimed the land, reversing the effects of hundreds of years of human development. And surprisingly, this exclusion zone, or ‘dead zone,’ has become a kind of post-nuclear Eden, populated by beaver and bison, horses and birds, fish and falcons – and ruled by wolves.” See the full episode of Nature on the Wolves of Chernobyl (53 minutes).
Scientists from the US, Germany, Ukraine and other countries continue to investigate Chernobyl’s animal populations, in particular, to see how wolves have adapted to life in a radioactive zone. The premise is that if the top predators are doing well, the prey must be available too.
Review of genetic studies (comparing Chernobyl and Fukushima) in a recent publication of the Journal of Heredity find, “The few genetic studies that have been conducted in Chernobyl generally show elevated rates of genetic damage and mutation rates. All major taxonomic groups investigated (i.e., birds, bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, spiders, mammals) displayed reduced population sizes in highly radioactive parts of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” (Source: Dr. Timothy Mousseau from the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and Anders Møller, Journal of Heredity
Today, it’s possible as a tourist to take a limited visit to Chernobyl under strict controls. Despite the continuing danger from contaminated soil and surfaces, some intrepid loggers are moving into the area to log timber from trees felled by fire, as well as healthy pines that end up on the market in Europe and sold to unsuspecting homebuilders ! Recent New York Times article
To learn and see more, go to
“Without question, the accident at Chernobyl was the result of a fatal combination of ignorance and complacency,” says Richard Rhodes in Nuclear Renewal, A Matter of Risk. ‘As members of a select scientific panel convened immediately after the…accident,’ writes Bethe, ‘my colleagues and I established that the Chernobyl disaster tells us about the deficiencies of the Soviet political and administrative system rather than about problems with nuclear power.” Nuclear Renewal, A Matter of Risk, Richard Rhodes (Chapter 5), Penguin Books 1993.