What Chernobyl's Wildlife Can Teach Humans

As more nuclear power plants are built around the globe, understanding the effects of radiation is essential

Wild horses running in Chernobyl's Exclusion Zone (Getty Images)

The 1,000-square mile exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant has remained virtually free from human intrusion for the last 30 years—ever since the landscape was blanketed in lethal levels of radiation following a catastrophic meltdown. The years since have seen a gradual rewilding of the area, with nature reclaiming the ghost town surrounding the defunct plant, and animals large and small moving into the surrounding forests. Headlines trumpet that the wildlife is “thriving,” “flourishing,” and ruling the landscape.

The real story is vastly more complicated. Animals are present, but they haven’t escaped the effects of radiation, according to the results of 15 years’ worth of studies conducted by Timothy Mousseau, a professor of biology at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and his colleagues. Theirs is one of the only research groups gathering on-the-ground data to better understand the Chernobyl disaster’s effects on the plants, animals and microbes living there. In 2011, they also branched out to Fukushima, repeating some of their Ukraine studies in the Japanese disaster zone, for comparison.

The insights they’ve gleaned provide us a picture of how early to chronic radiation exposure plays out in real-world natural settings, and overall, the findings do not bode well for wildlife. Although plants, animals and other organisms are often present, Mousseau and his colleagues have found that they are frequently plagued with mutations and genetic damage. As a result, animals tend to occur in lower numbers than in places not affected by radiation, and indeed, all of the major animal groups the researchers have surveyed—including birds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, grasshoppers, spiders and mammals—are less abundant in more radioactive areas, Mousseau writes.

Animals vary in their ability to live in the most heavily contaminated areas, however, and based on genetic studies, the researchers believe that a species’ natural ability to repair its DNA and susceptibility to genetic damage likely explain differences. Many of the effects observed in animals also parallel those seen in human victims of radiation exposure, Mousseau explains, including atom bomb survivors. Such symptoms range from cataracts to infertility, and from tumors to other developmental malformations. Brain size is also sometimes impacted, with those born in more contaminated places having smaller brains.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the frequency and intensity of those symptoms seems to increase in proportion to doses received by the organism. “We see small effects at low doses and big effects at higher doses,” Mousseau says. Some of the symptoms also occur in animals that were exposed to radiation levels lower than those predicted to cause ill effects, he adds.

Radiation additionally seems to impact animal populations as a whole—not just individuals. While Chernobyl might be hailed as an unexpected boon for wildlife, the benefits are not equally distributed across the landscape. “In many of the populations living in the more radioactive areas we have studied, birth rates are down, life spans are shorter and they have a higher proportion of immigrants than elsewhere,” Mousseau says. “All of which points to these areas as being ‘ecological black holes’ that are only sustained via continuous immigration from adjacent, unaffected areas.”

Few other research groups have tested whether animals and plants in Chernobyl and Fukushima are actually evolving special adaptations to deal with radiation. “The majority of studies that suggest that organisms are adapting do not have a scientific design that allows for such assessments,” Mousseau says, referencing the findings of a recent review article. Others that imply positive or negligible effects are based on computer models alone rather than field data.

Insights based on fieldwork—good or bad—can help us better prepare for possible future incidents in which people or wildlife are exposed. Nuclear power plants continue to be built around the globe, and many of the reactors currently operating in the U.S. are undergoing 20-year life extensions, Mousseau points out. “Given this growth, along with the vast stockpiles of spent fuel that are accumulating, accidents and acts of terrorism seem inevitable,” he says. “To my mind, it would be negligent to not invest in much greater research concerning the health and environmental consequences of nuclear accidents.”

via The Howard Stern Show / YouTube

Former Secretary of State, first lady, and winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, sat own for an epic, two-and-a--half hour interview with Howard Stern on his SiriusXM show Wednesday.

She was there to promote "The Book of Gutsy Women," a book about heroic women co-written with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

In the far-reaching conversation, Clinton and the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" and, without a doubt, the best interviewer in America discussed everything from Donald Trump's inauguration to her sexuality.

Keep Reading Show less

Offering parental leave for new fathers could help close the gender gap, removing the unfair "motherhood penalty" women receive for taking time off after giving birth. However, a new study finds that parental leave also has a pay gap. Men are less likely to take time off, however, when they do, they're more likely to get paid for it.

A survey of 2,966 men and women conducted by New America found that men are more likely to receive paid parental leave. Over half (52%) of fathers had fully paid parental leave, and 14% of fathers had partially paid parental leave. In comparison, 33% of mothers had fully paid parental leave and 19% had partially paid parental leave.

Keep Reading Show less

Bans on plastic bags and straws can only go so far. Using disposable products, like grabbing a plastic fork when you're on the go, can be incredibly convenient. But these items also contribute to our growing plastic problem.

Fortunately, you can cut down on the amount of waste you produce by cutting down on disposable products. And even more fortunately, there are sustainable (and cute) replacements that won't damage the environment.

Coconut bowls


Who says sustainable can't also be stylish? These cute coconut bowls were handmade using reclaimed coconuts, making each piece one of a kind. Not only are they organic and biodegradable, but they're also durable, in case your dinner parties tend to get out of hand. The matching ebony wood spoons were polished with the same coconut oil as the bowls.

Cocostation Set of 2 Vietnamese Coconut Bowls and Spoons, $14.99; at Amazon

Solar powered phone charger


Why spend time looking around for an outlet when you can just harness the power of the sun? This solar powered phone charger will make sure your phone never dies as long as you can bask in the sun's rays. As an added bonus, this charger was made using eco-friendly silicone rubber. It's win-win all around.

Dizaul Solar Charger, 5000mAh Portable Solar Power Bank, $19.95; at Amazon, $19.95; at Amazon

Herb garden kit

Planter Pro

Put some green in your life with this herb planter. The kit comes with everything you need to get a garden growing, including a moisture meter that helps you determine if your herbs are getting the right amount of food to flourish. All the seeds included are certified to be non-GMO and non-hybrids, meaning you can have fresh, organic herbs right at your fingertips.

Planter Pro's Herb Garden Cedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazonedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazon

Reusable Keurig cups

K & J

Keurig cups are convenient, but they also create a ton of plastic waste. These Keurig-compatible plastic cups are an easy way to cut down on the amount of trash you create without cutting down on your caffeine. Additionally, you won't have to keep on buying K Cups, which means you'll be saving money and the environment.

K&J Reusable Filter Cups, $8.95 for a set of 4,; at Amazon

Low-flow shower head


Low-flow water fixtures can cut down your water consumption, which saves you money while also saving one of the Earth's resources. This shower head was designed with a lighter flow in mind, which means you'll be able to cut down on water usage without feeling like you're cutting down on your shower.

Speakman Low Flow Shower Head, $14.58; at Amazon

Bamboo safety razor


Instead of throwing away a disposable razor every time you shave, invest in an eco-friendly, reusable one. This unisex shaver isn't just sustainable, it's also sharp-looking, which means it would make a great gift for the holidays.

Zomchi Safety Razor, $16.99; at Amazon

The Planet