Nuclear blast zone is new wildlife ‘paradise’

Radioactive: Chernobyl is ‘like a forest that has swallowed some buildings’. © Vitaly Fedosenko

Twenty-nine years ago humans were forced to evacuate the area surrounding Chernobyl after a devastating nuclear meltdown. Now, it is teeming with wildlife. Why?

Wolves stalk the forest. Lynxes and brown bears have returned after nearly a century away. Large elk and nimble roe deer flourish. Three decades after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, the exclusion zone is not the dystopian wasteland predicted by nuclear protesters and Hollywood disaster movies; it abounds with wildlife.

On 26 April 1986, one of the four reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded, killing 31 people and contaminating the surrounding area. Over the next two decades, 350,400 people were evacuated from their homes as the fallout spread to neighbouring Russia and Belarus.

A permanent exclusion zone was created over around 1,000 square metres and it could be another 20,000 years before it is safe for humans to return. But animals, it turns out, have proved to be fairly resilient.

The population of most species in the area is similar to the levels found in nature reserves nearby, and a new report estimates that there are around seven times as many wolves. ‘Nature flourishes when humans are removed from the equation,’ said environmental sciences professor Jim Smith, who wrote the report. ‘Even after the world’s worst nuclear accident.’

Of course, he qualifies, it does not mean that radiation is good for the animals. Smaller creatures tend to have shorter lifespans and occasional minor mutations, and populations of birds and insects have declined in some of the most highly contaminated areas. But of the larger mammals, which humans have hunted for generations, the fittest have survived despite radiation.

‘Accidental’ nature reserves have happened before. Rare black-capped kingfishers and black bears have found a home in the 151-mile-long demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, which has been virtually undisturbed since 1953. And in Central America, ‘threatened’ jaguars and spider monkeys roam the inhospitable border between Panama and Colombia.

Going wild

Nuclear power is the most destructive force in the world, say some. The Chernobyl disaster killed scores of people and exposed thousands more to extreme health risks; some estimate that the toxic radiation caused as many as one million deaths. And let’s not forget the potential catastrophe of the world’s 16,000 nuclear weapons.

But nuclear disasters are very rare, say others, and this study proves that the real threat comes from humanity’s far more ordinary presence — roads, buildings and agriculture all disrupt natural ecosystems far more than radiation. Human settlements may be the norm, but their devastating effects on the environment should not be forgotten. After all, it was not nuclear power that endangered 41,000 species: it was human carelessness.

You Decide

  1. Are humans more dangerous than nuclear weapons?
  2. Should we be happy to see wildlife returning to such a dangerous part of the world?

Activities

  1. List five of the biggest threats facing planet Earth today.
  2. Choose an endangered animal and create a detailed poster explaining why it has become threatened, and what might be done to save it.

Some People Say...

“Humanity is the world’s most destructive force.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why is this such big news?
Many thought that the disaster zone would be uninhabitable for years — but the flourishing wildlife is a stark reminder of humanity’s impact on the environment they live in. ‘Obviously I am not condoning nuclear accidents for the sake of wildlife!’ said one professor. ‘But hopefully some good can come from it.’
Could something like Chernobyl happen again?
Nuclear power is generally very safe, but accidents do happen — as Japan saw at Fukushima in 2011. This is why nuclear power is always so controversial: fear of nuclear disasters has fuelled hundreds of protests, and thousands of names have been signed to petitions. The debate over the UK’s nuclear weapons system could be one of the most contentious in parliament next year.

Word Watch

31 people
Although 31 died in the initial blast, or in the following days, the number of deaths attributable to diseases which appeared later in life is far harder to estimate: they range between 4,000 and one million. Fires burned at the plant for ten days following the explosion, which released vast amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. Some of this travelled as far as Africa and the UK.
Korea
The ‘DMZ’ between North and South Korea was agreed as part of a ceasefire between the two countries in 1953. It is still heavily guarded, and littered with landmines and barbed wire. But the lack of human activity has attracted several rare species.
‘Threatened’
Species which are not yet classed as endangered — but may be soon.
Panama and Colombia
Panama declared itself independent from Colombia in 1903, but the Darién Gap between the two countries — full of rainforests and swamps — has proved the perfect environment for drug smugglers, guerilla warfare and endangered species.
Nuclear weapons
Nine countries currently possess nuclear weapons, including the UK, USA, China and Russia.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.