Thirty years after the largest nuclear disaster in history at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant what has happened? Despite knowing the initial details of the accident, it seems the general public knows very little about the state of Chernobyl and perhaps we all need to be reminded of the absolute care we must take when managing a nuclear power plant.
Unfortunately, radioactive Cesium-137 from Chernobyl can still be detected in some food products today. As well as this, in parts of central, eastern and northern Europe, many animals, plants and mushrooms still contain too much radioactivity for safe human consumption. However, the damage in Chernobyl seems to extend further.
The radiation exposure has caused genetic damage and increase mutation rates in lots of organisms in Chernobyl. As of now, there is very little evidence to suggest that many organisms are evolving to resist the radiation. An organism's evolutionary history is hypothesised to play a large role in determining the vulnerability of an animal to radiation. In the studies conducted by the University of South Carolina, species which have historically shown high mutation rates are most likely to show population decline in Chernobyl. Hence the research team has hypothesised that species differ in their ability to repair DNA. Similar to the human survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, birds and mammals in Chernobyl have cataracts in their eyes and smaller brains. Both are direct consequences of exposure to ionising radiation in the surrounding environment. Additionally, like with some cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy, many of the birds become sterile. In fact, up to 40 per cent of the males are completely sterile. Unsurprisingly, there is also tumour growth to be observed, as well as developmental abnormalities in some plants and insects.
Given the above observations, it comes as no surprise that evidence of these damages have caused the population of many organisms in high contamination areas to have shrunk. This seems to be the case in Chernobyl, all major groups of animals surveyed were less abundant in more radioactive areas. However there are a few anomalies. For example, wolves seem to show no effects of radiation on their population. Additionally, a few select species of bird were observed to be more abundant in more radioactive areas. An explanation for both cases may be due to the fact that there are fewer competitors in these harsh environments and hence the population can thrive. This is most likely where the misconception that the meltdown benefited animals comes from. But as discussed earlier, clearly this is not the case, and only some of the animals seem better off.
Further confirmation of the research team’s findings can be seen in the recent Fukushima power plant accident. The same team found similar patterns of declines in abundance and diversity of birds. There also seem to be some developmental mutations amongst insects. Overall, the parallels found between Chernobyl and Fukushima support the hypothesis that radiation is the underlying cause of effects observed in both locations. Despite all this evidence, large organisations such as the UN seem to be assured that the accidents have had or are having a positive impact on the species. However, what seems to be extremely clear and worrying is our lack of understanding of the effects. While we can continue to blame institutions or others for the accident, we must focus on analysing the effects so future generations can understand the consequences and hopefully never make the same mistakes we did.