Since the Chernobyl disaster nearly 35 years ago nature has been recovering and has reclaimed the irradiated territory now referred to as the ‘exclusion zone’ once occupied by man. The speed and magnitude to which this natural recovery has taken place not only demonstrates the negative impact humans had on the surrounding environment, but also illustrates the potential for rapid recovery should nature be left to its own devices.
On Saturday 26th of April 1986, in the North of Ukraine near Pripyat, a steam explosion and fires at the number four reactor in the Chernobyl power plant released around 5% of the core into the wider environment (1). Many consider this event to be the most severe nuclear disaster in recorded history. As a point of comparison, the amount of radiation released was 400 times higher than that released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima back in 1945 (2).
Immediately after the explosion, two Chernobyl plant operators were killed, weeks after the event a further 28 emergency workers and plant operators died from acute radiation syndrome. Where these figures are largely agreed upon, long-term estimates regarding the total loss of life have not proven as unanimous and a host of experts, researchers and committees have reported varying degrees of estimated severity (Figure 1).
The human-impact extended beyond fatalities: a handful of international studies found that those exposed to radiation were more likely to report higher rates of anxiety, unexplained physical symptoms and general poor health (8). Additionally, the resettlement of 350,000 people (1) from the areas affected was an operation of significant magnitude and one which altered the lives for all that were involved.
Following the explosion, flora and fauna in the surrounding environment were also adversely impacted in varying degrees depending on their proximity to the power plant. According to a report by the UN Chernobyl Forum Expert Group in 2005, the three major kinds of environmental damage caused were (9):
· Increased mortality of coniferous plants, soil invertebrates and mammals
· Reproductive losses in plants and animals
· Chronic radiation syndrome of animals (mammals, birds, etc.).
Perhaps the most visually blatant manifestation of environmental radiation damage was the formation of the “Red Forest” after the explosion. 20-30 square Kilometres from Chernobyl (an area later labelled as the ‘First zone’), a vast 400-hectare expanse of scotch pine forest ‘burned down’ from the significant accumulation of radioactive emissions, converting the landscape from a vibrant green into a Brownish-Red (10).