The Science of Sustainability

The Benefits of Radioactive Fallout

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Animals are doing surprisingly well in the radioactive areas around Chernobyl.

Imagine people’s worst fears are realized and the nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon here in California has a Chernobyl-style meltdown. The effects on people are obvious: high rates of thyroid and other cancers, permanent resettlement elsewhere, increased rates of birth defects and so on. But as the area around Chernobyl is showing, the effects on the environment may be more subtle.

Over the break I watched a Nature special called, "Radioactive Wolves". This is a documentary about wildlife in a radioactive exclusion zone around Chernobyl.

Even though the area around Chernobyl is still so contaminated that humans can only go in for limited amounts of time, the wildlife appears to be doing surprisingly well. Birth defects are higher than in surrounding areas but life is thriving. Wolves are doing great, beavers have returned and everything looks hunky dory.

This seemed strange to me. I would think that so much radiation should be having pretty severe effects on these animals. And as noted in this in this NIH study, for certain individuals it definitely is.

The difference is in perspective. For the individual, the area around Chernobyl is terrible. Your kids have a higher rate of being stillborn or having birth defects, you have a much higher rate of developing various cancers, and so on. But for the species as a whole, things aren’t so bad. The higher background radiation appears to hardly be affecting their numbers at all.

Now this isn’t to say that the initial fallout wasn’t catastrophic to wildlife. It was. Untold numbers of animals died a terrible death in Chernobyl’s aftermath.

For the lucky survivors and new immigrants, though, Chernobyl is a different story. It is a chance to live a life without human interference. At least for now it looks like the high background radiation is preferable to man for these animals.

It is important that scientists keep studying this ecosystem though. The DNA of the animals in this area are under constant attack from the radiation. There may come a tipping point where the genetic burden becomes too high and populations start to crash. We’ll have to wait and see.

Additional Reading: NY Times Review of Radioactive Wolves

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Category: Biology, Environment, Partners

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.