Chernobyl’s effects are sadly not confined to history

When nature & humans intersect. Image: Peter GEO Kent. 

There are many photos of Pripyat. The colours faded from Communist red to copper rust long ago, but the tower blocks’ rooftops are still crowned by proud Soviet signs. Plants have creeped out of the concrete, and a ferris wheel can just be made out above the overgrown treetops. In the background of these photos, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is a constant presence. Pripyat was always planned to be a nuclear town, and now it seems  to be frozen in the nuclear era.

While the wilderness intruded upon the city, man’s activity radically altered the nearby woodlands.

Unlike Pripyat, the woodland is a changing space. On the one hand, the evacuation of people has created a place for wildlife to greatly prosper undisturbed. On the other, the fallout of the world’s worst nuclear accident has mutated nature’s fragile genetic coding. Research by the University of South Carolina shows that firebugs have become asymmetrical in both their patterning and shape. They find that bird species are also exhibiting many physical mutations, including large tumorous growths.

Presently, the largest effort in the area is the construction of the New Safe Confinement: a shield over the affected reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

However, new research reveals a concerning and pressing issue, which could be dangerous for continental Europe: the leaves in the woodlands are decaying slower than they should be. This seemingly minor point reveals the complexities and risks of an area contaminated with radiation, and the continuing relevance of Chernobyl.

It was at 1AM on April 26 1986, when Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s Reactor 4 exploded. The Soviet Union tried to conceal the event, but the released quantity of radioactivity was unprecedentedly large. 700 miles away, workers in a Swedish nuclear power plant realised that their shoes had somehow been contaminated, and there had been no news of a nuclear disaster in the Western world. Emergency precautions were enforced all over the continent, including even the Scottish Highlands, so that health, food and water were all protected.

Unbelievably, in the years after the incident, the remaining three reactors were rebooted and reconnected to the grid. The power plant produced electricity until 2000 – 14 years after the explosion of Reactor 4. The blame was allocated to faulty Soviet designs, and also to poor training of staff.

Yet Chernobyl is not confined to history, and though its designs are Soviet, it is still a useful resource. It exhibits how the complicated systems of the natural world progressively react within a region of nuclear fallout.

In 2015, we are still unpacking and discovering the repercussions of the event. Of the radioactive elements emitted by Reactor 4, Caesium-137 is perhaps the most concerning to us today due to its half-life of ~30 years.

The woodlands surrounding Chernobyl absorbed around nine per cent of the Caesium-137 emitted by the disaster. Much of it is contained within the soil, and some of it was absorbed by the plants. This has left its mark on the area: when many trees died due to the exposure to the radiation, they changed colour, and the forest is now known as the ‘Red Forest’.

There is another crucial issue: the leaves. Scientists have found that the heightened background radiation is tangibly slowing down the process of decomposition within leaves, leading to their build-up on the forest floor. This greatly increases the risk of a forest fire, particularly due to rising temperatures in the area because of climate change. Yet, there is Caesium-137 residing within these woodlands – a fire would be cause for international concern.

Many question Ukraine’s current capability to respond to an emergency of this kind. There is a binding of political and environmental, and the scientists’ findings stress the need for the prioritisation and continuous involvement of the state for this area.

It doesn’t seem inherently obvious that woodland must be carefully considered and managed in affected zones. Yet, there is a distinct relevance to these ideas: Fukushima’s Daichii Nuclear Power Plant is also located near a woodland.

This is only one aspect of a complex web of relationships between nature and nuclear power. It is certain that Chernobyl has more to teach us.

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