Chernobyl: How a Nuclear Disaster Zone Became a Wildlife Refuge

In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant struck fear in people around the world when its reactor failed, emitting 400 times more radiation than that of the Hiroshima bomb.

Roughly 350,000 people were evacuated from the area around the plant. But for many, the damage had already been done. Many of those exposed to the radiation went on to develop thyroid problems, cancer, psychological issues and more.

The exclusion zone was expected to become a desert void of all life — from the humans who had made the area their home to the insect species and local vegetation. Yet 33 years after the disaster, parts of the surrounding area of Chernobyl look nothing like the wasteland of those projections.

Today, Chernobyl is considered a haven for wildlife, an example of what our world might look like in the absence of us.

Through aerial surveys and motion-detection cameras, researchers have discovered diverse wildlife that wasn’t exposed to the radiation emitted back in 1986. There are brown bears, bison, wolves and lynxes all successfully living without human interference. More than 200 bird species are thriving. And in the late 1990s, researchers introduced almost-extinct Przewalski’s horses into the region, who are also doing well.

Wanting to discover more about the impact of radiation, universities across Europe have studied Chernobyl’s amphibians, fish, insects, earthworms and bacteria. Without humans, it seems Chernobyl hosts great biodiversity, with all the tested groups maintaining stable and viable populations.

However, the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster isn’t without long-lasting negative impacts on some of the wildlife there. Certain insects have a shorter lifespan and are more susceptible to parasitic diseases than they would have been prior to the radiation leak. Moreover, some bird species have higher levels of albinism and show a range of physiological and genetic alterations.

One study from the University of Paris-Sud suggests the animals present in the exclusion zone might not be dying of radiation toxicity directly, but instead suffering from a poor quality of life due to conditions, such as cataracts and tumors. “Are these populations of large mammals composed of healthy individuals? Or individuals that are sick or malformed or in other ways negatively impacted by radiation?” university ecologist Anders Møller told Wired. “That’s not investigated, and that’s the big question mark that hangs over the Exclusion Zone.”

Scientists are divided on what the lasting effects of the radiation at Chernobyl will be — and rightfully so. Thirty years is not nearly long enough to know the full impact. Chernobyl’s success in its biodiversity could be due to wildlife being more resistant to radiation than previously thought. Or it could just point to animals being left to their own devices without humans destroying their habitats or hunting them for sport. Research is ongoing, posing more questions for every answer we get.

Chernobyl is making us question more than the impact of radiation on wildlife. In 2015, two forest fires within the exclusion zone re-aerosolized radioactive particles in their smoke — which doused parts of Europe in radiation at the level of a medical X-ray.

Chernobyl is clearly not done with us yet, and its aftermath could be a sign of things to come elsewhere. Could the wildfires we have been told to expect from climate warming be radioactive in areas that have suffered similar disasters to that in Ukraine?

The Chernobyl exclusion zone is a crucial area of study in terms of radiation’s impact on both humans and wildlife. And with our ever-increasing need for “clean” energy, a future with nuclear power plants might be on the horizon, meaning we need better awareness of what can happen when things go wrong. What better model of the problems future generations might face than what has happened at Chernobyl?

Photo credit: Oleksii Hlembotskyi/Getty Images

134 comments

Isabel A
Isabel A1 days ago

thanks

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Toni W
Toni W2 days ago

TYFS

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Toni W
Toni W2 days ago

TYFS

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Nena C
Nena C2 days ago

Wild ones are resilent to more than we can imagine, great area to study for our planet's future!

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Sheila Miller
Sheila Miller3 days ago

Wow! What an interesting article. We must work to protect the environment and must use clean energy to prevent disasters.

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Carole R
Carole R3 days ago

Interesting. I hope they are safe.

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Hui S
Hui S3 days ago

a sobering read. thank you for sharing.

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Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson4 days ago

Thank you.

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Anastasia S
Anastasia S5 days ago

@Tanya W if you want to step down from coal and oil burning, then we can't leave uranium in the ground. Unfortunately we aren't able to completely switch to solar, wind and water energy. We aren't as advanced, so we can't build powerful enough machines, as also store that energy (because we aren't advanced in batteries either). Meaning we can never get all the energy we use now solely from those resources. And nuclear energy is ourmost viable option.

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Nora H
Nora Hetrick5 days ago

at least the animals have somewhere to live

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