Chernobyl radiation no problem - almost - for Mother Nature
By Stefan Korshak Apr 26, 2006, 22:37 GMT
General view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on Wednesday, 19 April 2006. Ukrainians will mark the twentieth anniversary of the world\'s worst nuclear power accident on 26 April. EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
Ivankiv/Kiev - It takes more than radiation to intimidate Mother Nature.
Twenty years after Chernobyl, a swath of East Europe the size of Luxembourg remains contaminated by fall-out from history's worst-ever nuclear power accident. Isotopes now embedded in soil surrounding the station will emit deadly radiation for centuries to come.
Yet the ecology of region, a land of marsh and pine forest straddling Ukraine and Belarus, and technically one of the most polluted places on the planet, is thriving, experts said.
'It is a fact, the Chernobyl Zone is now de facto one of the largest wildlife preserves in Europe,' said Mykola Proskura, a Ukraine government spokesman. 'This is not to say the radiation isn't still dangerous, it is, but nature is nothing if not efficient.'
After a reactor melted down at the station on April 26, 1986, Soviet authorities emptied the region of people. Hundreds of thousands were evacuated, and agriculture stopped.
With the exception of a few squatters and poachers, and safety technicians employed on shifts inside the confines of the station, the Chernobyl 'zone' has been empty of humans for two decades.
Nature has managed a great deal in that short time span, said Oleh Bondarenko, a Chernobyl biologist.
'We have seen the reconstitution of the entire ecological pyramid, from single cell life all the way up to apex predators,' Bondarenko explained.
The entire zoo of the long-gone East European wilderness is back at Chernobyl, with moose, roe and red deer, and badgers represented in force.
Wild boar - relatively intelligent and unhampered by the barbed- wire fences and 'no trespassing' signs separating the Chernobyl zone from adjacent farmland - raid wheat and corn fields in packs, sometimes even during the day.
However, most animal life in the zone is self-limiting, as carnivore populations have expanded right along with the herbivores, regional experts say.
'Species hunted out of existence decades ago in this region are in their natural niche at Chernobyl,' said Oleksander Tupik, a Ivankiv forestry official. 'Wolves, marten, lynx, fox, and pike are all are there in numbers no one can remember.'
Close to four dozen species of animals and plants listed in the International Red Book are present in the Chernobyl zone, Bondarenko said.
Rodents have been the big losers. Lacking grain fields to plunder and targeted by growing populations of healthy predators, relative numbers of rabbits, rats, and mice are lower in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, than in practically any cultivated place in Europe.
Chernobyl beavers are an exception, thriving right along with the predators because, inside the zone, beavers do not compete with humans for use of streams and waterways.
Sparrows, pigeons, flies, and cockroaches - all living on edible trash left by human habitation, or on farming byproducts - also are far less common around Chernobyl than on the outside.
Chernobyl's two-headed radioactive wolves and giant mutant spiders, a favourite village ghost story in the region, and in Hollywood 'B' movies, are just that: myths, the scientists said.
'Radiation-induced mutation is happening inside the zone at rates dramatically higher than in 'clean areas', no question,' Proskura explained.
'But nature punishes mutations,' he added. 'For practical purpose mutants don't reproduce.'
Mutations noted by scientists over the last decades include weak- sighted carp, partially-albino swallows, and sick mice.
At one of the most radioactive sites inside the entire zone, along the banks of canals dug to sluice water draining from Chernobyl away from the Dnipro River, some of the normally ramrod-straight reeds living in the high-isotope sentiment grow bent and gnarled.
All experts interviewed cautioned against ruling the Chernobyl zone safe for human habitation, as lingering radiation is certainly present. If a person lived on one of the 'hot' areas he or his children likely would get sick, they said.
'But nature is a lot less forgiving than human society,' Tupik said. 'In the Chernobyl zone only the fittest survive, but since we humans aren't interfering, overall nature is doing just fine in there.'© 2006 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur