Wildlife Impacts At Chornobyl, Fukushima May Yield ‘A New Ecology’
Dec 27, 2023 | Pratirodh Bureau
Wolves in Chornobyl seen via a camera trap. Scientists have not found Chornobyl wolves’ abundance to be impacted by radiation, perhaps due to their extensive ranges and reduced human pressure (Image courtesy of James Beasley)
The world’s worst nuclear power plant accidents to date, at Chornobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, and Fukushima, Japan in 2011, and the human exclusion zones created around them have given scientists a unique opportunity to study the effects on wildlife of radiation and of reduced pressure from people.
Chornobyl disaster findings regarding the impacts on exclusion zone organisms vary: Some point to a resurgence of the studied wildlife in the absence of humans, while others indicate radiation negatively impacting certain animal populations.
Fukushima radiation impacts are statistically harder to detect. But scientists have made similar observation to Chornobyl: Some, but not all, species appear to thrive from reduced human pressure.
Radioactive contamination moves in ecosystem-specific ways, depending on factors such as water flow. A combination of radioactive contamination and reduced human activity in nuclear exclusion zones may be giving rise to “a new ecology,” with nature overall neither suffering nor thriving, simply different in the impacted areas.
Note to readers: “Chornobyl” is the Ukrainian spelling of “Chernobyl,” which is the Russian version, a spelling change requested by the Ukrainian government following its independence from the USSR. Mongabay has chosen to use the Ukrainian spelling throughout this story.
Wolves lope through the Chornobyl nuclear power plant exclusion zone in the 2019 documentary Our Planet, as naturalist and TV presenter David Attenborough reminds viewers: “Hunters like these would only return if their prey and the surrounding forest is also thriving.
“No unprotected human being can stay here for long without lethal risk,” he then explained, “But in driving us out, the radiation has created space for wildlife to return.”
Attenborough is not the first to claim that nature can thrive in nuclear exclusion zones; indeed, the Our Planet script drew from scientific literature. However, there’s no consensus among the scientific community on this question, with researchers continuing to investigate and debate the ongoing effects of radioactive contamination on the environment in Chornobyl, Ukraine, and in Fukushima, Japan — the sites of the world’s two worst nuclear power plant accidents to date.
Although individual-level radiation impacts on numerous animal and plant species have been widely observed and acknowledged, some researchers have found evidence of population-level, or even ecosystem-level impacts, while others haven’t. Study design, including target species, sample size, and method of estimating radiation dose, potentially colors these findings.
Others argue that the body of research on nuclear exclusion zone organisms and ecosystems point in sum to neither a restoration, nor to a diminishing of the wild — but to “a new ecology.”
What is clear is that in a world where more than 400 nuclear plants are currently in operation — with more than 100 such facilities over 40 years old; and with many new, though smaller nuclear plants in the works — it’s important to recognize and analyze impacts on wildlife and habitat if we’re to be prepared for future mishaps.
On a far bigger scale, humanity’s release of significant amounts of radiation globally is included within the novel entities planetary boundary, which incorporates a vast number of other harmful synthetic pollutants ranging from plastics to pesticides. The “safe operating space” threshold for the novel entities boundary was declared transgressed in 2022 by scientists. Six planetary boundaries, including climate change and biosphere integrity, have already been crossed, placing life on Earth as we know it at risk.
The Radioactive Mosaics Of Chornobyl And Fukushima
The 1986 Chornobyl nuclear power plant accident, the largest in history, forced the evacuation of roughly 116,000 people in Ukraine and Belarus from a 4,200-square-kilometer (1,600-square-mile) zone surrounding the plant, which occupies a flat marshland ecosystem partially drained by human engineering. Today, the zone covers 2,800 km2 (1,100 mi2) in Ukraine, as well as the 2,162-km2 (835-mi2) Polesie State Radioecological Reserve in Belarus.