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This is Chernobyl, a small city on the Pripyat River in what is now northern Ukraine. After Ukraine’s crude oil and gas reserves were exhausted in the 1970’s the Soviet state embraced the construction of a nuclear power plant in the small town of Chernobyl. The completion of the first reactor in 1978 represented a transformative technological step forward in the Ukrainian energy supply.
Then, on April 26, 1986 at 1:23 a.m. the unimaginable became reality. “In Europe and at the economic summit meeting in Tokyo, much talk about the Soviet nuclear accident in the Ukraine. Boris Yeltsin who is the communist party chief in Moscow, was interviewed on West German television declaring the area around the Chernobyl plant as dangerously radioactive.
He said nearby reservoirs are contaminated, and the reactor fire at the plant may have been due to human error.” A power surge in reactor four caused a series of explosions spewing forth a cloud of radioactive fallout that swept across the western Soviet Union and eventually over most of Europe. The results of the accident were catastrophic.
An estimated 50 to 250 million Ci of radiation was released dwarfing the amount of radiation released by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The impacts of prolonged radiation exposure were wide ranging and had both immediate and long term consequences. Emergency clean up workers were not fully informed of the dangers associated with the radiation pockets and many died trying to put out the fire.
Radiation sickness claimed many lives before the population could be fully evacuated. Later, an exponential increase in the incidents of thyroid and other cancer occurred mostly in young children and adolescents living in the most contaminated areas. Additionally, increases in the risk for leukemia, cardiovascular disease, cataracts, and post-Chernobyl birth defects,
including mental retardation, were observed in children of exposed parents. But it wasn’t just humans that were affected by the explosion. The environmental consequences were far reaching, the scope of which is still not entirely known. One of the most recognizable effects was the creation of the Red Forest.
Originally called the Wormwood Forest, 400 hector Red Forest derives its name from the reddening of trees in the area as a result of radiation particles killing the forest. There were also inverse impacts on the biodiversity of the exclusion zone, areas of highest radiation closest to the explosion became sterile leading to a rapid decline in local populations.
Studies have also linked the consumption of milk from cows exposed to radiation to increased cancer rates in children. The large animals weren’t the only affected part of the ecosystem. Small creatures that play important roles, such as bumble bees, butterflies, spiders, and dragon flies have decreased with the increase in radiation.
Lots of these creatures could have devastating impacts on the pollination and predation cycles crucial to maintain the ecosystem. Surprisingly, there is ongoing debate about how serious the environmental consequences have been. Some scientists even suggested the removal of humans from the area has allowed the environment to flourish.
With the Ukraine government barring entry to the exclusion zone, Chernobyl has become a near pristine habitat for endangered flora and fauna. The buildings that were once inhabited by 50,000 people are becoming overgrown with weeds and meadows as the environment is returning to its original pre-settlement state.
Animal populations not seen in many years are on the rise, unchecked by human activity. Biologist Robert Baker who has studied the environmental consequences of Chernobyl for over 12 years concludes that farming, hunting, and human society prove far worse for the environment than the accident and although the ecosystem is highly contaminated with radiation, it is also thriving with new life.
Other scientists, such as the biologists Tim Mousseau and Andrew Møller argue that the abnormalities and mutations such as deformed toes and beaks and tumors in animals such as barn swallows are caused by high radiation exposure and negatively impact survival rates. They suggest that such observations call for more research to assess the long-term consequences
of an accident that occurred over 25 years ago and that we still do not fully understand the effects of prolonged radiation exposure on the environment. What did the Chernobyl nuclear disaster mean for the rest of the world and for the future of nuclear energy? The Chernobyl accident immediately led to an increase in anti-nuclear sentiment with several nations scaling back their nuclear energy plans.
Countries became more concerned about reactor design and safety as they became more aware of the dangers associated with nuclear power. Today, as concerns about dwindling fossil fuels and global warming become more prevalent, the alternative fuel sources such as nuclear energy are further explored.
It would be important to remember the destructive capacity of human error. If there is one significant lesson to learn from the greatest technological disaster in history, it is this: life on Earth existed before us and will remain long after we are gone.