It was meant to be a routine safety check. A procedure at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine on the evening of April 25 and early morning of April 26, 1986, should have passed without a hitch. But a combination of poor design and under-trained operators led to an unthinkable disaster. The plant went into meltdown, before exploding and setting surrounding buildings alight.
However, this being a nuclear plant, the most devastating consequence was not the explosion and resulting inferno. Rather, it was the spewing out of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The explosion killed two men at the plant. Another 28 operators and firemen died within a few months from the effects of acute radiation poisoning.
Not surprisingly, the radioactivity levels around the site were lethal. Exposure to radiation can be measured by roentgen units, with exposure to about 500 roentgens per hour for a period of five hours enough to kill an adult. Incredibly, in the aftermath of the explosion, the area around the power station was delivering an estimated 20,000 roentgens per hour.
Moreover, it was still the era of the Soviet Union and communist central planning. That meant that party apparatchiks in Moscow actually administered the Chernobyl plant. Their initial reaction was to delay making the catastrophic event public. But the authorities soon realized that covering up this horrific accident was not a viable option.
In fact, it was the Swedes who prompted the Soviets into action. On April 28, 1986, instruments at Sweden’s Forsmark Nuclear Plant some 620 miles from Chernobyl detected high radiation levels. Swedish officials subsequently contacted the Soviets, who at first feigned ignorance. That is, until the Swedes said they’d be submitting a report to the International Atomic Energy Authority, which forced a hasty Soviet admission.
Soviet TV news swiftly made a brief announcement downplaying the gravity of the incident. But on the ground, officials quickly realized that people would need to move from the area around the stricken power plant. The most affected population center was the city of Pripyat.
The evacuation got under way on April 27. The authorities told residents that they should bring with them only minimal belongings since the evacuation would only be for a period of three days. By 3:00 p.m. on April 27, some 53,000 people had vacated the city. In reality, they would never return to their homes, and Pripyat lies deserted to this day.
At first, the authorities declared an exclusion zone around Chernobyl of just over six miles, but within a week and a half this had been increased to almost 19 miles. Ultimately, more than 90,000 people were evacuated from the zone, which today covers an area of some 1,000 square miles.
Theoretically, no one was allowed to remain or return to the exclusion zone. But a few people, mostly elderly, are still living there, with the latest available evidence putting their numbers at 197. But humans are not the only creatures living in the affected region, of course. There’s also a wide diversity of wildlife. So, how have the non-human inhabitants fared?
One of the most immediate indications of the radiation impact on the local flora and fauna was the death of numerous pine trees around Chernobyl. The dead trees took on a ghostly orange color and the near-1,000 acres they covered became known as the Red Forest. It was one of the most radioactive areas in the world.
Birth deformities in animals were recorded, and a survey of 48 species of bird showed that they had diminished brain sizes compared to normal specimens. But although the intense radioactivity undoubtedly caused casualties among the local animal population, there was actually an apparent benefit to wildlife in and around Chernobyl as well.
That benefit came from the simple fact that there are very few people still in the exclusion zone. Moreover, the paucity of people and associated activities such as agriculture and industry is actually a massive bonus for wildlife. And among the species apparently doing well is the rare Przewalski’s horse.
A few dozen of these were actually introduced to the exclusion zone in 1998. Their numbers quickly increased to 200, though the population has since decreased sharply due to illegal poaching. Professor Tim Mousseau, who visits the zone regularly, told the BBC in 2011, “Many people in this part of Ukraine are very poor. So access to a readily available supply of horsemeat is tempting.”
Wolves, too, have done well in the territory, a fact borne out in 2015, when a team of scientists conducted an extensive study of wildlife population numbers in the exclusion zone. They then compared the figures to populations in wildlife reserves unaffected by radiation.
The results were fascinating. One of the scientists, Jim Smith of the University of Southampton, told IFLScience that “wolf density was around seven times higher in Chernobyl.” It seems the absence of humans from the exclusion zone meant that the wolves could go about their business in safety. The startling implication is that radiation is less harmful than the presence of people.
And there is certainly plenty of prey for the wolf population to hunt. Researchers used helicopters to survey wild boar numbers in the area and found that the boar population is at comparable levels to other nature reserves. It seems that derelict agricultural properties and abandoned orchards are ideal habitats for the mammals.
Other large mammals eking out a successful living in the exclusion zone include European bison. Once a common animal roaming in European forests, over-hunting decimated their numbers to the point of extinction. But now they appear to be thriving in the exclusion zone.
Another study published in 2016 confirmed the abundance of wild mammals in the exclusion zone. Using camera traps, over a period of five weeks researchers reported sightings of myriad species including red foxes, badgers, raccoon dogs and gray wolves. Among the more majestic species spotted was the magnificent European elk.
Another welcome find was the Eurasian lynx. This handsome predator, sharing the top spot in the Chernobyl food chain with the wolf, is a good indicator of a healthy population of wildlife. Clearly, top predators can only survive in areas with thriving populations of prey.
So it turns out that the one thing that can apparently be of more harm to wildlife than dangerous levels of radiation is homo sapiens. Get rid of the people, it seems, and even in the face of extremely adverse conditions, wildlife will find a way to thrive. What a sobering thought that is.