Texas Tech University

Chernobyl Research

Texas Tech researchers associated with the NSRL and the Department of Biological Sciences have conducted research at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster since 1994. This page provides a brief background about the Chernobyl incident and a summary of Texas Tech's research efforts.

The Chernobyl Disaster, 1986

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (now decommissioned) is located in what is now the independent nation of Ukraine (formerly a Republic of the Soviet Union). On April 26th, 1986, Reactor 4 of this complex went out of control during a test, leading to core explosions and fires. Over the next 10 days, 100‒200 million Curies of radiation were released into the atmosphere. The Chernobyl meltdown is the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.

Due to the prevailing winds and storm patterns, radioactive material was scattered over much of the northern hemisphere, particularly the western USSR and Europe. The amounts dispersed in many areas were minimal and posed no significant threat to humans or the environment. However, nearly 58,000 square miles in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus were contaminated in an irregular dispersal pattern that included areas of particularly high radiation fallout as well as relatively "clean" areas.

Generally, the most radioactive sites were within a 6 mile radius of the plant. Within weeks after the accident, a zone of 18 miles radius from the plant, known as the Exclusion Zone, was completely evacuated. As more data documenting the spread of the radiation became available, the Exclusion Zone was modified and extended, and additional evacuations were ordered. Estimates of the number of people relocated as a result of the mandatory and voluntary evacuations vary greatly, but the total is thought to exceed 200,000. Today, more than 1,000 square miles encompassing numerous villages and towns in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus remain abandoned of human habitation.

Texas Tech's Chernobyl Research Project

The primary goal of the TTU research in Chernobyl has been to achieve an understanding of the biological consequences of chronic exposure to radiation in the environment. Texas Tech's Chernobyl Research team was co-directed by the late Dr. Robert Baker, who was Horn Professor of Biological Sciences and Director of the Natural Science Research Laboratory (NSRL) of the Museum, and Dr. Ron Chesser, Chair and Professor of Biological Sciences and Director of the Center for Environmental Radiation Studies. Other members of the research team included Dr. Brenda Rodgers, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, and Dr. Carl Phillips, Professor of Biological Sciences (now retired), as well as TTU students and post-docs and colleagues from other institutions. In total, the TTU research team members have conducted more than 70 trips to Chernobyl to conduct research on the biological impacts of radiation exposure, to assist in the planning of an International Radioecology Laboratory in Ukraine, and later, to assist in the coordination of an international coalition between the governments of Iraq and Ukraine.

When the team first visited the site, they were shocked and saddened by the impact of the disaster on human life and culture, as evidenced by the evacuation and subsequent decay of Pripyat and other towns and villages—but they were also amazed by the natural beauty and lushness of the landscapes within the impacted zones. Although most of the exclusion zone remained highly contaminated with radioactivity, it was far from the "nuclear desert" predicted by the media immediately after the Chernobyl incident.

While it is documented that some plants and animals were killed by acute, high-level doses of radiation in the days after the accident, no species was wiped out completely. Because the areas of acute radiation exposure were relatively small, and were interspersed with areas of lower radiation exposure, the affected areas were quickly repopulated with surviving animals from the neighboring low-dose and clean areas.

In fact, the beauty and biodiversity of the region are striking. Abundant grasses, wildflowers, mosses, trees, and other plants thrive at the site, and all of the native mammals from the area occur, even in the most contaminated regions. Only the persistent clicking of a Geiger Counter reveals the presence of the radioactive contamination in the environment.

The primary goal of Texas Tech's Chernobyl research team has been to determine the genetic consequences of radiation exposure to wildlife in the region.
Since 1994, members of the team and many colleagues have visited the site multiple times to collect small mammal specimens, primarily field mice and voles, from the contaminated areas as well as from "control" regions with little or no radioactive contamination. They have evalualed the radiation loads and genetic consequences to the rodents over time (50+ generations since the accident). The specimens and tissue samples collected during these research expeditions were deposited into the Radioactive Collection at the NSRL.

In addition to their genetic research, the Texas Tech team documented many ecological observations from the Chernobyl zone. When the Texas Tech team began their research (8 years after the accident), the Red Forest area had become a grassland habitat, and grassland species of mammals were commonly found. Over the years, as the trees and other plants in the Red Forest experienced ecological succession (progressive change through time), the mammalian fauna experienced succession as well. Species associated with forests became common and dominant. Thus, the species present in the area has been as expected based on local ecology. If there is an effect of the presence of radiation on the ecosystem, other than removal of humans, it has not been obvious from a gross perspective.

Because most of the human population has been removed from the area, there is essentially no hunting pressure or agricultural impact on the wild animal population in the Exclusion Zone. This absence of human habitation led to an increase in numbers of native wild animals. Many species are more abundant within the Exclusion Zone, despite high levels of radiation, than they are in areas outside the Exclusion Zone that have little or no radioactivity but do have typical farming and ranching practices. In published articles, the Texas Tech team has compared the Exclusion Zone to a wildlife preserve, and in fact both Belarus and Ukraine have designated Exclusion Zone areas as natural reserves.

Native species such as gray wolves, wild boar, moose, beavers, and roe deer are booming in the area, and rare species such as lynx and brown bear have even been observed. Endangered Przewalski's horses were introduced and have multiplied to become the largest wild population of the species outside Mongolia.

Texas Tech's Chernobyl research has involved more than a dozen Texas Tech graduate and undergraduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The study of the natural laboratory created by the Chernobyl disaster has been a fertile educational experience for Texas Tech students and has been valuable to Texas Tech's image as an educational and research institution.

Natural Science Research Laboratory