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Spring 2011

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by John Davis

swans on Glyboke Lake in Ukraine

Image of swans swimming in Glyboke Lake in Ukraine, only miles from the Chernobyl site. Chernobyl Reactor is seen in the background.

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Twenty-five years following the Chernobyl disaster, the landscape is rebounding in amazing ways. Though many believed in 1986 that the area would become a vast nuclear desert, more wildlife exists inside the exclusion zone than ever. While scars still remain, Texas Tech University researchers are trying to figure out why the area of the world's worst nuclear disaster is teeming with life.

Video produced by Scott Irbeck, Office of Communications & Marketing.

Amazing Adaptation

After 25 years, life springs eternal in some of the hottest irradiated areas surrounding Chernobyl.

Swans bob on the gentle waves of Glyboke Lake in Ukraine.

As a cool breeze blows, green trees and marsh grasses sway, making the spot look like an ideal place for a picnic. It's not unusual to find moose, endangered horses and other large, wild animals drinking from these waters. Only the crackling reminder of a Geiger counter attests to the fact that this is still the second hottest radioactive site in the area after the meltdown of reactor No. 4 on April 26, 1986, at Chernobyl.

Twenty-five years later, this corner of Ukraine reminds Robert Baker, director of the Natural Science Research Laboratory, of a pristine, untouched wilderness. Only Chernobyl's ruined reactor, now encased in concrete, and abandoned buildings from neighboring villages and the city of Pripyat, testify that humans ever lived in the area.

The 20-mile radiation exclusion zone around the reactor is still too dangerous for permanent human habitation. But all species of plants and animals that should be there, are there, said this Texas Tech Horn Professor of Biology. No species got wiped out completely. None decided never to return.

That fact begged an important question for Texas Tech biologists as to why plants and animals are so prolific here. After all, the site of the world's worst environmental disaster was slated to become a nuclear desert, according to the May 12, 1986, issue of TIME.

And yet, that's not the case.

Birch trees climb toward the sky in the hottest zones, replacing their dead pine brethren. Deer bring their young to graze in lush green pastures. Wolves stalk prey and raise their cubs. Birds and waterfowl nest in the Red Forest and Glyboke Lake. The area is alive and thriving.

"The countryside is beautiful," Baker said. "The animals and plants are in greater numbers now than if the reactor had not gone down. The ecosystem is as it was before humans started living out there – except for the radiation. It seems as though normal human activities associated with agrarian society are more destructive than the world's worst nuclear meltdown."

Insult to Nature

At 1:20 a.m. on April 26, 1986, workers at the nuclear power plant near Chernobyl lost control of the No. 4 reactor during a test. An explosion sent the first plume of radiation to the west of the reactor, which traversed just a mile south of Pripyat – considered at the time a model Soviet city.

"The ecosystem is as it was before humans started living out there – except for the radiation."
Chernobyl Reactor

Rising heat from the reactor on April 27 sent aerosolized radiation into the air. Worried by this, Soviet officials attempted a brave containment approach by dumping sand from helicopters onto the exposed reactor core. Just like throwing a log onto a fire, this sent a second plume of radiation into the atmosphere that coiled north and east around Pripyat, catching it in a deadly vice. In all, the tragedy contaminated a 93,000-square-mile area in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ron Chesser, director of Texas Tech's Center for Environmental Radiation Studies, was the first American scientist allowed full access to the exclusion zone. After studying the plumes, he estimated about 13,230 pounds of radioactive material containing about 150 different isotopes launched into the air from the reactor, which burned for 10 days.

When the irradiated dust finally settled, 135,000 people were evacuated. The World Health Organization estimates about 4,000 deaths worldwide may be attributed to the radiation released from Chernobyl. Two cities and 112 villages became ghost towns. Houses, businesses, schools and theaters froze in time. The world watched as Soviet doctors diagnosed more and more children with thyroid cancer attributed to the radioactive iodine exposure.

And the case for nuclear energy became infinitely harder to make in the United States.

"The first plume that went almost directly westward was intensely radioactive, but followed a very narrow path," Chesser said. "By mapping deposition of nuclear fuel, I can relate that back to what the radiation dose would have been at the time. It would have eliminated virtually all the wildlife for about three or four miles for an area about a mile wide. That's a fairly large area. I don't want to minimize it. Still, in terms of total area affected by Chernobyl, that's a fairly small region.

"On the second day, the air direction and turbulence was somewhat different than on the first evening. The radiation spread out quicker because of turbulence, and the directions change across distance. It made a curve around the city of Pripyat, contaminating the marshlands and waters of Glyboke Lake nearby."

By and large, the expelled fuel played by physics laws, he said. Big particles fell out first and faster than smaller ones as the plume moved forward. Most of the large chunks of fuel rods and graphite landed close to the reactor. Smaller particles went high into the atmosphere and started to descend as the plume moved across the landscape. Because of their smaller size, these particles created more radioactivity than larger chunks. This higher concentration starts just before the Red Forest.


Ron Chesser Discusses Japan Nuclear Power Plant Concerns

Following the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake that caused tsunamis and rocked the island nation of Japan in March, Japanese government officials announced a nuclear emergency after the quake caused a reactor cooling system malfunction at Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.
Ron Chesser, director for the Center of Environmental Radiation Studies at Texas Tech University, and Chernobyl researcher, said that though reports have stated the reactors were shut down safely, the reactors still must be cooled constantly to avoid a meltdown of the core.
"The fact they’re having trouble cooling the reactors is going to trigger an emergency. There are certain trigger points for declaring an emergency at nuclear reactors," Chesser said.

"Reduction in cooling capacity would be one of those. Release of radiation would be another. Reactors are going to continue generating a great amount of heat until the core is disassembled. Without cooling water, then you stand a real chance of a meltdown of core that could result in a large release of radiation, potentially."
However, Chesser, who has toured a smaller Japanese nuclear power plant in Chiba, said Japanese designers put many precautionary measures and contingency plans in place to ensure reactor safety in the event of an earthquake.
"I was very much impressed with the amount of attention to safety, especially regarding potential of earthquakes," he said. "I was a little bit surprised when I saw they had a looming crisis at the Fukushima power plant just because of all the great attention the Japanese pay to earthquake safety."

Also, the Fukushima reactors appear to have containment vessels over them unlike Chernobyl, he said.
According to the 2008 World Factbook, Japan ranks third in the world for electricity production. A recent story on the United Nations University’s website states that 30 percent of Japan’s energy is produced from nuclear power.
"My great hope is that they are going to be able to rectify this quickly enough that they can maintain cooling capacity,” Chesser said. “I think that a reactor meltdown could be a major disaster, especially in a highly populated country such as Japan. It would be a real setback when we are battling to find alternatives to fossil fuels considering the potential that nuclear energy has."

Read Wildlife and Chernobyl: The scientific evidence for minimal impacts by Robert Baker.

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