In 1986 the largest nuclear disaster the world has ever seen took place at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. It was the result of a flawed Soviet reactor design along with detrimental mistakes made by the plant operators, both of which were the consequence of Cold War isolation and a lack of safety culture. The disaster resulted in 10 days of meltdowns, explosions, and nuclear fire that injected enormous amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere, polluting much of Europe and Eurasia. Approximately 400 times more radioactivity was released into the atmosphere than when the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
The first atomic bomb exploded 70 years ago in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and since then, more than 2,000 atomic bombs have been tested, and more than 200 small and large accidents have occurred at facilities, both causing more radioactivity to make its way into our atmosphere.
Thirty years later, the radioactive cesium from the disaster can still be detected in some food products. Animals, plants, and mushrooms in parts of central, eastern, and northern Europe still contain such high amounts of radioactivity that they are considered unsafe for human consumption.
There has been a continuous debate as to whether radioactivity affects the planet or not, but in the past decade, biologists have worked to document just how it can hurt plants, animals, and microbes.
The Effects Of The Chernobyl Disaster
In the Chernobyl region, radiation exposure has resulted in genetic damage and increased mutation rates in a variety of organisms, with researchers finding little evidence to prove that organisms are simply evolving to resist radiation.
“In our studies, species that have historically shown high mutation rates, such as the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), the icterine warbler (Hippolais icterina) and the Eurasian blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), are among the most likely to show population declines in Chernobyl,” said Timothy A. Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at University of South Carolina. “Our hypothesis is that species differ in their ability to repair DNA, and this affects both DNA substitution rates and susceptibility to radiation from Chernobyl.”
What researchers have discovered is that birds and mammals now have smaller brains and cataracts in their eyes as a result of the radioactivity at Chernobyl. Tumors are found on some birds in high-radiation areas, and 40 percent of male birds are sterile. Populations of many organisms have shrunk, including those of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, grasshoppers, spiders, and large and small mammals.
Wolves, however, have shown no effects of radiation in terms of their population density, while some species of birds seem to be more abundant. Researchers suggest this may be the result of fewer competitors or predators in those highly radioactive areas.
Comparing Chernobyl and Fukushima
To better understand the findings of the effect the Chernobyl disaster has had, researchers have repeated their studies in Fukushima. They have found similar patterns of declines in abundance of diversity in birds. Declines in insects, including butterflies, have also been found, though Mousseau notes that some species are simply more sensitive to radiation than others.
Their recent studies at Fukushima show a more sophisticated analysis of radiation doses received by animals, having found, for instance, that doses received by 7,000 birds proved parallel results to Chernobyl, making a strong case for radiation being the main cause of the effects at both locations.
The acknowledgement from the radiation regulatory community has proven slow, nonetheless, including the U.N.-sponsored Chernobyl Forum claiming that the accident has actually had a positive impact on living organisms. But many statements like this are based on predictions from theoretical models as opposed to firsthand observations of the plants and animals residing in these areas.
“Our emphasis on documenting radiation effects under ‘natural’ conditions using wild organisms has provided many discoveries that will help us to prepare for the next nuclear accident or act of nuclear terrorism,” Mosseau said. “This information is absolutely needed if we are to protect the environment not just for man, but also for the living organisms and ecosystem services that sustain all life on this planet.”
Currently, more than 400 nuclear reactors are in operation around the world. There are 65 new ones under construction, and another 165 planned for the future. Because operating nuclear power plants produce large quantities of nuclear waste that must be stored for thousands of years, and with the likelihood of accidents and terrorism so high, scientists must commit to learning and exposing as much as they can on how these contaminants can harm the environment.
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