The 'Wildlife Park' of Chernobyl

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They always say that life will find a way to survive.

At 1.23 am on April 26th 1986 a catastrophic event took place in the wooded marshlands of Chernobyl, Ukraine, that would forever test this assumption. 

A day earlier, at 1am on April 25th, routine testing began on reactor four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to see whether the plant's turbines would be able to maintain the cooling of the system in the case of a power outage, until the backup generators could come into use. In order to simulate the circumstances of the power outage, the participating workers shut down many of the safety systems. However, in the middle of the test a high power demand from Kiev (80 miles away) stalled the operation, and it was not recommenced until 11.10pm that same night. After 1am on April 26th a sudden power surge caused the reactor to dangerously malfunction. Without the safety systems in place there was nothing to stop the crisis escalating and within 23 minutes the reactor itself exploded with disastrous results.

The initial death toll of the plant was put at thirty, as several plant workers and emergency rescue personnel were either killed in the blast or succumbed to injury and radiation sickness. However the true extent of the disaster was quickly placed under debate. While the direct death toll was regarded by the UN in 2005 to be as low as 56, the full extent of the effect of the nuclear poison has been under significant debate over the following decades, and the estimations are harrowing. The UN posited that the cancer figures attributed to the radioactive poisoning of Chernobyl were some 4,000, however Greenpeace claimed that some 270,000 cancer cases were attributed to the disaster, resulting in some 93,000 fatalities. This number grew exponentially in the paper 'Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment was published by the New York Academy of Sciences' by Dr. Alexey Yablokov, Dr. Alexey Nesterenko,Dr.Vassili Nesterenko and Dr. Janette Sherman. Founded on a research base of some 5,000 separate reports, and making use of records which have been released from official secrecy, they assert that between 1986 and 2004 some 985,000 people died of cancer that was directly caused by the Chernobyl meltdown. The release of the radioactive poisons of Cesium-137, Plutonium, Iodine-131 and Strontium-90 were tracked to spread across the globe. It consumed the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Finland, France,Germany,Greece,Italy,Poland,Sweden and the UK, with some 10% of fallout across eastern Turkey and Central China, and with an additional 5% dropping upon Northern Africa. It is thought that the radiation from the disaster was 100 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

These figures are, and always will be, under furious debate. 

 Historically, the records and crisis-management of Chernobyl were tempered by the politics of the still chilly Cold War. Attempts at secrecy meant that the full extent of the disaster was not discovered until the Swedish Forsmark nuclear power plant in Stockholm registered unusually high radiation levels. When other nuclear plants across the world had similar readings they contacted the Soviet Union, who denied all knowledge about the disaster until 9pm on April 28th. 
Even now, the admission of the extent of the disastor is one that brings a very heavy political burden, and therefore it is debatable how much still remains in secrecy, and how far studies are potentially manipulated to serve these motivations. Nuclear power offers an efficient alternative to the world's fossil-fuel energy crisis, and has the potential to work with far greater power and efficiency than it's greener options. The greatest fear of Nuclear power comes in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, and with the recent Fukushima disaster this fear has been reinforced as history is repeated. The public and policy makers must weigh up whether the scale of nuclear disaster balances with the scale of energy advantages for the future. The tenuousness of this balance will always make this a very controversial subject indeed.

The Soviets began trying to clear up the disaster in secrecy. It took nearly two weeks to put out the fires. Pipyat, the nearby town that housed the workers and their families, was evacuated on April 27th, but the rest of the population were only advised to stay indoors and were not evacuated until almost a week later. Chernobyl was sectioned off into various 'exclusion zones' which were chosen based on the measurement of radiation in those zones, and which still remain to this day. Now, over 25 years later, some of the outer zones are being declared suitable for tourism and limited settlement. The burning, burying and containment of radioactive materials began soon after the blast  and the reactor itself was contained in a concrete 'sarcophagus' which, by 1997, leaked. In 2013, the 'New Safe Confinement' sarcophagus was being built to replace the damaged container.

The New Safe Confinement construction, filmed by Bionerd23

The eyes of the world are still firmly on Chernobyl's exclusion zone, and work is continually being undertaken to manage the damage done and create a place that, while perhaps never 100% safe, can be of use to future generations. Unique in it's scale and infamy, Chernobyl can teach us some valuable lessons.

One fascinating lesson is the growth of ecological diversity in the exclusion zone: the 'Wildlife Park' of Chernobyl.

Photography by Sergei Gaschak
Amongst the forest and marshland of the exclusion zone, despite the radiation, there seems to be impressive ecological recovery. Amongst the ghost town of Pipyat and even around the reactor itself, bears, wild boar, wolves, deer, wild horses and even rare animals such as eagle owls and even Lynxes have been spotted. In the irradiated pond that acts as a cooling system for the reactors there are teams of fish, including catfish grown large and thriving through a lack of predators.
The Przewalski wild horses, which had escaped from captivity to be introduced into the quarantined area seem to also thrive, growing in number from 21 to 64. It seems that without human occupation Chernobyl can act as a niche for animals to prosper, and for rare animals to gain an ecological foothold once again. The disaster erased much of the invertebrates from the area, and 20-40% of all pine trees died to create the 'Red Forest'. Yet certain types of plant seem to be impressively resistant to radiation damage. Soy beans which grew near the reactor, for example, were studied in 2009 and showed remarkable adaptation in order to protect themselves against radiation. Could it be that through radioactive disaster, we have inadvertently created an Eden that is so rarely seen on this planet: where humans cannot settle and intrude on a natural habitat for wildlife?

The Przewalski horses of the exclusion zone, filmed by Bionerd23

Like everything about Chernobyl, this topic is cause for further controversy. For every radiation-resistant soy bean there are examples of wheat and pine trees, both of which show severe mutation in the wake of radiation, even 25 years later. In the wired article Is Chernobyl a Wild Kingdom or a Radioactive Den of Decay? Adam Higginbothan examines both sides of this ecological argument.
For many, the notion of a 'wildlife park' is a false optimism created by misinterpreting the ecological data. The main proponents of this view are Møller and Mousseau who, in 2005, did a chemical study on the feathers of barn swallows captured in the Ukraine and Denmark in order to track their winter migration. While optimists point to the Przewalski horses' population growth, it seems that the barn swallows paint a more pessimistic picture of ecological diversity that is likely to apply to many species of animals across the exclusion zone. Instead of the swallow population sustaining itself over time through successful breeding, when compared to pre-1986 population data, it seems that greater numbers of swallows were coming into the zone for the summer from elsewhere. The area was a population 'sink', absorbing more individuals than it produced. They also argued that this was shown clearly at work in various deformities in the 7,700 individual swallows that they recorded. They pointed to dead and deformed sperm within the birds and outward mutations such as deformed beaks, eyes and toes, tumors, and malformed tails.

The scientific analysis and debate about the 'wildlife park' of Chernobyl have far reaching consequences, as a study of animals gives many clues about how humans may have reacted and will react in future to the radiation that still affects us over 25 years later. For example, in addition to the noted cancer cases that are directly attributed to Chernobyl, in West Berlin, Germany, the prevalance of Downs Syndrome was seen to peak 9 months after the main fallout. Bteween 1980 and 1986 the prevalence of Downs Syndorome was quite normal (1.39-1.59 per 1,000 births) But in 1987 46 cases cases were diagnosed (2.11 per 1,000 births), especially found in a cluster of 27 cases around January 1987. The next year, the prevalanece was back down to 1.77 and by 1989 it reached pre-Chernobyl values.

Graph of Down syndrome cases in Belarus.

Just as the animals move back into the exclusion zone, so too do humans choose to reoccupy Chernobyl. 

Starving Ukranians often illegally hunt the animals there, thereby linking themselves to the radioactive food chain. The issue of this impact is even more relevant as illegal 'self settlers' defied authorities to return to their former homes and continue to live in the exclusion zone.
To this day, there are around 130 people who are now settled in the exclusion zone out of an original 1,200 people. Almost all women in their 70s and 80s, their husbands having died off from alcoholism, overuse of cigarettes or radiation effects. These 'Babushkas of Chernobyl' feature in a documentary by Holly Morris, where one self-settler Hannah Zavorotnya explains how she snuck back into her village in 1986, defying the soldiers and refusing to leave her home. So long as they were beyond child-bearing age, these people were permitted to stay, and it seems that - despite the dangers - doing so has been beneficial to them. Many old people who were relocated from their homes at Chernobyl suffered relocation trauma, as they were pushed from their links to rural lands in their home and into urban tower blocks. Acoording to studies these women have outlived their relocated counterparts, on average by up to 10 years. "If you leave you die." Holly reports the Babushkas telling her. "Those who left are worse off now. They are all dying of sadness." "Motherland is Motherland. I will never leave."

In conclusion, what is clear from Chernobyl is that it is a place of contrasts, and that it is far from a nuclear wasteland. 

Chernobyl's legacy will live on for hundreds of years: physically in it's radiation as it continues to affect the world, and in the lives of the animal and human populations that settle there, and emotionally through its displaced peoples and the policies of the governments that turn their eyes to it. What Chernobyl's wildlife park and its Babushkas show us is that, even in all of this difficulty and hardship, and in this uncertainty for the future, life will find a way.

Chernobyl is, of course, still in living memory. If you can remember the disaster I would love to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to leave a message in the comments.


 - Inspiration:  'What is the most dangerous place on Earth?' by Vsauce
-Wired Magazine: Is Chernobyl a Wild Kingdom or a Radioactive Den of Decay?
-This Day in History: Chernobyl
-About.Com: Chernobyl
-The Independant: Sergei Gaschaks Photography 
- 'After Chernobyl They Refused to Leave' by Holly Morris
-Wikipedia: The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
-985,000 Death Toll of Chernobyl 
-History of Russia: Chernobyl 
-US and World: Chernobyl Nucelar Headlines 
-Video: Bionerd23 New Safe Confinement Building Process 
-National Geographic: Returning to Abandoned Land 
-Wikipedia: Effects of the Chernobyl Disaster
-Nuclear Flower: The Red Forest
-National Geographic: Abnormalities in Birds 
-The Babuskas of Chernobyl documentary

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