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Spring 2011

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Clockwise from upper left: View of Chernobyl nuclear plant from Pripyat; Ron Chesser climbs a slide at an abandoned playground; Toys left in a cabinet at a school; A classroom with decaying school desks; Vegetation growth around abandoned buildings.

Center for Environmental Radiation Studies

The Center for Environmental Radiation Studies is part of the College of Arts & Sciences.

The Center focuses research on the fate and effects of radiation to help reduce risk to human health and environmental contamination.

The Center is in partnership with the International Radioecology Laboratory, in Slavutych, Ukraine, to foster long term radiation research on the Chernobyl accident.

Meet the Researchers

Ron Chesser

Ron Chesser is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.



Brenda Rodgers

Brenda Rodgers is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.



Robert Baker

Robert Baker is Horn Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.



Carlton Phillips

Carleton J. Phillips is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.


With radiation, it’s always a "good news, bad news" scenario, Chesser said. For example, good news – 98 to 99 percent of the radiation released is now decayed. Bad news – the 1 or 2 percent left has long decay rates and will be there for decades yet to come.

Some areas around Chernobyl are still too radioactive for safe human habitation – bad news. But the good news is once out of the initial high-concentration radiation zones from the plumes, the radiation intensity diminishes almost exponentially over distance, Chesser said.

"One thing that’s very important to understand about Chernobyl, because it really affects people’s preconceived ideas, is that proximity to the reactor has very little to do with how much radiation dose an organism is experiencing," he said. "You can come to the reactor from the east and actually not experience a huge change in the radiation background. However, if you approach it from the west as you start to cross the first plume of nuclear fuel was released, then you’ll see a very dramatic increase in radiation background."

Opportunity in Tragedy

After the Chernobyl disaster, Chesser and Baker talked about the possibilities of studying what the radiation’s effect would be on the surrounding environment.

Way led on to way, and Chesser moved on to Savannah River Ecology Lab near Aiken, S.C., which studies the environmental impact of former Department of Energy nuclear production facility.

Robert Baker stayed in Lubbock.

Then in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chesser tried to gain access to the Chernobyl area. It took until September 1992 for the new government to relent and allow Chesser and his DoE researchers to study outside the exclusion zone with scientists from the University of Georgia. The questions that remained after that first visit enticed him even more, and a few months later, he decided to go by himself.

"I started interviewing with the officials that had the authority to give me access to the Chernobyl site," he said, describing the red tape. "It took about two weeks for them to relent and give me access to the zone. At one moment, they said, 'This will be very difficult, Dr. Chesser.' And then, a man from Parliament called, because he'd heard I wanted to get access, and said, 'Give him access.' In the next moment, they put me on the helicopter and said, 'Where do you want to go?'"

Task Force

In 1994, Chesser invited Baker to accompany him on another trip to the exclusion zone. The two set out to collect samples and find the most irradiated areas. That's when they were able to take in the full scope of the human tragedy.

"In the early times when I first started there, some of the most dramatic images I can recall were from going into the abandoned city of Pripyat," Chesser said. "Everywhere you drove and everywhere you looked, you could see the human costs of the accident at Chernobyl. It’s hard to take in ... all of the human loss. And it’s so obvious. The biological impacts were what I was really first interested in, but they’re more cryptic. In Pripyat, you could still drive down the streets, and the buildings were still largely intact. In some places, it looked like people should still be living there."

Baker said that because local authorities tried to keep the pair away from the most radioactive areas, the two spent the first few days walking around the region with a Geiger counter trying to find them. But in order to determine the radiation's impact, the two wanted to study the living animals in the plumes.

"I remember we walked through the Red Forest, and we found a place that had a dose of a rad an hour and some other really hot areas," Baker said. "I remember Chesser saying, 'No more phone calls please, we have a winner.' He was really happy he found the place to design our experiments."

All of Texas Tech's Chernobyl researchers admit that when they first began looking to see how radiation affected animals in areas with the highest radiation, they expected to find gross mutations in the DNA of any of the animals they studied.

What they found, they said, shocked them.

"The first time I went over there I was quite naïve," Chesser said. "I thought some of these biological effects would be quite obvious. You’d think that with the high radiation released by Chernobyl, that you would easily see some type of genetic change. You may see some morphological variance, and you might see some species that are gone. But over the years, we’ve learned that nature is much more resilient than we first thought. What we would call high radiation in biological terms as causing damage, is really low dose. It’s hard to convince people that Chernobyl is low dose, because everywhere you look there’s radiation. The amount of radiation that’s imparted into biological tissues is still not sufficient to cause a great degree of genetic damage."

Images od Chernobyl Images od Chernobyl Images od Chernobyl Images od Chernobyl Images od Chernobyl Images od Chernobyl
Images od Chernobyl Images od Chernobyl Images od Chernobyl Images od Chernobyl Images od Chernobyl Images od Chernobyl

Photos of Pripyat, Ukraine, before and after the Chernobyl disaster. Click images to enlarge.

Vole from Chernobyl

The researchers found the bank vole, Myodes glareolus, lived in areas where it received the highest radiation dose among the animals living in the hottest radioactive areas.

Brenda Rodgers conducts research in Pripyat

Brenda Rodgers poses over the animal cages while conducting research in Pripyat.

Brenda Rodgers conducts research in Pripyat

Image of cages used to hold animals during testing.

View more Texas Tech Chernobyl photos on Flickr.

Most Surprising Mice

When designing experiments, Baker and Chesser chose to study the bank vole, Myodes glareolus, because it lived in a wide range of areas across Ukraine and Europe, but also because the animal was living, breeding and dying in the most radioactive areas.

Of greatest concern was these animals' exposure to cesium-137 and strontium-90. Unlike other radioactive isotopes that are slowly going down into the soil, these elements were recycling through the environment inside animals. Bodies mistake strontium-90 for calcium and build it into bone material. Cesium-137 mimics potassium, and gets taken up into muscle tissues.

Baker said the team calculated this particular animal's radiation dose and found it to be the highest of any animals in the area. If any mammal would show signs of mutation or genetic disruption, the bank vole would be the one.

Brenda Rodgers was a doctoral student who began working on Chernobyl in 1997. Now an assistant professor of biology, she said she remembers running the tests.

"We started with a species of vole and collected them in the exclusion zone and in uncontaminated regions, to see if we could detect genetic differences between the two populations," Rodgers said. "They came from similar habitats – the primary difference being radiation exposure. We looked at markers for chromosomal damage. This was a blinded study. I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. After analysis, decoding and comparing results, I was rather surprised to find no difference in the DNA damage between those animals living in the clean area and those living in the exclusion zone. Of course you start to wonder what's at the root of this. And so we began more focused studies to see if we could determine what biological differences were between these two groups."

In some of the work, Baker said researchers did find an elevated chromosomal fragment in red blood cells. Though they couldn’t prove that was detrimental to the animals, the researchers did find that it was an effect of living in that environment.

"Does that change life expectancy or fitness of individuals living there? We certainly don't know that," he said.

Because the bank vole isn't genetically profiled like a lab specimen, the team decided to test Chernobyl's radiation on lab mice.

In 2001, Chesser returned to the faculty at Texas Tech. In 2005, Texas Tech researchers and West Texas A&M University researchers completed a study on mice for the U.S. Department of Energy. Thanks to new technological advances in cell biology, they found the mice exposed to radiation began an amazing adaptation. As expected, the radiation affected the gene expression in their cells.

Baker, a co-investigator on the project, said the results changed his mind completely about radiation's impact on living things.

"In the experiment, we took lab mice known to be sensitive to radioactivity and put them in that environment to find out what genes got turned on and what genes got turned off. We found evidence that certain amounts of radiation are better than having no radiation at all."

After researchers placed mice in Chernobyl's radioactive area, their cells formed greater amounts of protection against radioactivity. Researchers found the mice produced more amounts of proteins and enzymes that repaired DNA broken by the radiation and countered the ill effects of radiation-created oxygen radicals, which can cause cell damage and disease.

Baker admits the findings cause controversy.

Currently, two schools of thought exist on what radiation exposure does to living things. One thinks that as a plant or animal receives a certain level of radiation over a lifetime, it will die from the exposure. The other camp, to which Baker now belongs, believes that while certain high doses of radiation will kill living things, regular exposure to radiation helps plants or animal cells respond to a radioactive environment in a positive way.

This response is called hormesis.

"We joke that everyone should have a 'Ronco' radiation device under their bed to improve their health," he said. "I now believe there are benefits, and there is a positive response to low levels of radiation that creates DNA repair mechanisms and proteins that protect your cells."

The Cowboy Approach

Part of the problem with understanding the impact of Chernobyl is lack of coordination, Chesser said. After the atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, American scientists and others made careful experiments to test how the bombs' radiological effects would impact people and the region. Chesser said the collaborations gave scientists a great understanding of the impact atomic bombs had on the landscape and organisms exposed.

But that hasn't happened at Chernobyl.

Little collaboration between organizations has taken place. It's what he calls "The Cowboy Approach," in which different groups go in, take samples and report without consensus on experimental design – some of which the team regards as sloppy science. Results have varied wildly and often contradict. Chesser said many of the genetic differences that are attributed to the accident may also be misinterpreted as geographic variations as well.

As time has passed, interest in funding Chernobyl research has waned.

From a scientific standpoint, the more time that elapses, the harder it is to understand impacts and implications for the future.

"I gave a report to Congress in 2006 on research at Chernobyl – what we know, where we need to go, what we need to do," Chesser said. "Even in that forum it was impossible to reach consensus on what had been done and what needed to be done. We need to have a panel that puts together common experimental approaches and methodologies to examine real effects of Chernobyl so we have repeatability across labs, and we can start to build consensus on experimental design that will give us the right answers and not have, what I call, the cowboy approach with everyone running out with their six guns and shooting up the landscape."

But that doesn't mean the site isn’t a treasure trove of information. And also, it makes for a perfect classroom to teach budding scientists about radiation’s impact on nature.

Iraq Nuclear Clean Up

Thanks to $1.3 million in grants from the U.S. Department of State and the United Kingdom, scientists with Texas Tech University's Center for Environmental Radiation Studies can continue dismantling the old uranium enrichment plants, getting a better handle on the public health impact of the contamination and helping train Iraqi scientists to safely continue the dismantling process.

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Aerial view of nuclear facility from Blackhawk helicopter.

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Protective mounds surround the nuclear facility near Baghdad.

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Researchers approach the nuclear facility near Baghdad.


"It's been an incredible opportunity for students, myself included," Rodgers said. "That's how I got involved in the project. Since that time, I've had an opportunity to take my own students to the region. And I've had three students now do either a master's thesis or part of their dissertation work on the Chernobyl region. They've taken some of my early studies steps further. Not only do they have this environment to work in, but also they have the opportunity to work with scientists from all over the world, such as the U.K., Japan, Ukraine and Germany. My students have gone on to international meetings to present data and have published their findings in international journals even at the master's level."

Extending Diplomacy Through Science

Prior to his return to Texas Tech in 2001, Chesser was instrumental in the creation of the International Radioecology Laboratory (IRL) in 1998. In 2008, Texas Tech researchers began using the Chernobyl area and the lab to train Iraqi scientists to detect radioactive materials as they attempt to track and understand escaped uranium from former nuclear facilities destroyed while Saddam Hussein was in power, said Carleton J. Phillips, a professor of biology.

The lab, built about 50 miles from Chernobyl in the town of Slavutych, was a $2 million cooperative venture between the United States and Ukraine.

Al-Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center, originally created by Saddam Hussein's regime to enrich plutonium for a weapons program, was bombed by Israel in 1981, he said. Hussein continued the program at the other facilities to enrich uranium. These met their end in 1991 during Desert Storm and wiped out the material foundation for his nuclear weapons programs although the personnel remained on his payroll.

But the bombing released radioactive materials, mostly uranium, into the local environment, then the looting that followed also played a role in dispersing them to nearby villages and roadways as well.

Thanks to more than $2.3 million in grants from the U.S. Department of State and the United Kingdom, scientists with the Center for Environmental Radiation Studies continue advising the Iraqis undertaking the dismantlement of Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons facilities, getting a better understanding of the public health impact of the contamination, and helping train Iraqi personnel in project management and planning regulatory processes as well as the engineering skills needed to safely continue the dismantling process.

Phillips calls it extending diplomacy through science.

"The broader idea, is that going through this process will have a broader impact on their sense of quality control and quality assurance with regard to their handling of nuclear materials," he said. "Those were the things that were squashed during the Hussein regime. They developed an attitude that international standards no longer apply to them. It's hard to get back to that once you drift away. I'm committed to the idea that science, engineering and technology are crucial to the restoration of Iraq as a stable, democratic ally in the Middle East. Using the IRL lab as a base of analytical operations for our work in Iraq is a return on U.S. investment in nuclear nonproliferation."

John Davis is a Sr. Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University

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