Nuclear disasters are among the most devastating events that can happen on Earth. They cause widespread contamination, displacement and death for humans and other living beings. But even in the most radioactive areas, life finds a way to survive and flourish.
This is what wildlife ecologist James Beasley has discovered in his research on the effects of the nuclear disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima on the wildlife living there. Beasley, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, has been studying these areas since 2015, using camera traps and GPS collars to monitor the movements and behaviors of various animal species.
The Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986, when a faulty reactor exploded near Pripyat, Ukraine, releasing 400 times more radiation into the atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Fukushima disaster happened in 2011, when a tsunami washed over the nuclear power plant in Japan, causing a meltdown of three reactors. Both events led to the evacuation of more than 150,000 people from their homes and the creation of exclusion zones that cover thousands of square kilometers of land.
But these exclusion zones are not devoid of life. On the contrary, they have become havens for wildlife that have reclaimed the abandoned towns and villages. Beasley and his team have detected 14 species of mammals in Chernobyl, including wolves, boars, bears, bison and foxes. They have also detected 20 species of mammals in Fukushima, including wild boar, macaques, Japanese serow and raccoon dogs.
“Some of the species are doing extremely well in evacuated areas, including former towns and villages,” Beasley said.
One of the reasons for this is that animals have less competition and predation from humans, who are often more harmful to wildlife than radioactivity. Another reason is that plants have proven to be remarkably resilient to radiation, recovering within three years in the most contaminated areas of Chernobyl.
“Because they can’t move, plants have no choice but to adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves,” said Stuart Thompson, a plant biochemist who wrote an article for BBC Future about how plants reclaimed Chernobyl’s poisoned land.
Plants can also help animals cope with radiation by producing more antioxidants or repairing their DNA faster. Some animals may have also developed genetic mutations that make them more resistant to radiation over time.
But Chernobyl’s exclusion zone isn’t devoid of life. Wolves, boars and bears have returned to the lush forests surrounding the old nuclear plant in northern Ukraine. – Lauren Schenkman
The wildlife recovery in these zones is not only a testament to nature’s resilience, but also a source of scientific knowledge and inspiration. Beasley and his colleagues are using their data to understand how animals respond to different levels of radiation exposure and how they interact with each other and their environment. They are also collaborating with local authorities and communities to address the human-wildlife conflicts that arise when people return to their homes or visit the zones for tourism or research.
“In the decade since a tsunami washed over the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, triggering the second-largest nuclear disaster in history, the surrounding towns have struggled to return to normal,” wrote Kristen Morales for UGA News. “But that’s not the case for the wildlife living in the area.”
The wildlife living in Chernobyl and Fukushima shows us that even after a nuclear disaster, there is hope for life to thrive again.