A little after midnight on the 26th April 1986, a nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine exploded following a safety test, casting a radioactive shadow on the Earth. An exclusion zone measuring 2600 square kilometers has thus accidentally become a natural reserve. It appears in fact that Nature has adapted, as well as it can, without the presence of man.
So what do we know up until now? Many microbes were quick to take advantage of the disaster. Melanin-rich fungi such as Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Cryptococcus neoformans and Wangiella dermatitidis for example started to reign supreme in the Chernobyl ‘sanctuary’, thanks to the effects of the ionising rays on their pigments. Research has shown that fungi literally “fed” on the radioactivity.
We can often imagine that nuclear disasters leave nothing but dust, dried grass and bare trees after them. However, this is not the case for Chernobyl. Around 10 square kilometers of pine forest has been nicknamed “The Red Forest”, as the radiation turned the leaves brown. Other plants have found intelligent ways of dealing with the stress of the increase in radiation. A study on soya grown in the restricted area around Chernobyl – compared to plants grown 100 km away – in fact showed that the radiated plants had not really prospered, but they had survived by producing proteins known to combine heavy metals and reduce chromosomal anomalies in humans.
In terms of the fauna, the bird population were among the hardest hit by the disaster. A study on 550 specimens including almost 50 species showed that the radiation had an impact on the birds’ neurological development. There was in particular a significant reduction in cerebral volume. The losses were not equal across all birds – for example, more females than males died.
Although the birds lost out as a result of the disaster, it appears that mammals came fairly well out of it, and they made quite a rapid return to the forests. Studies carried out in the mid 1990s on small animals, such as mice and voles, showed that there were no major differences in the sizes of these populations across the entire area. The number of large animals, including deer and wild boar, has also soared over the course of the last few decades. According to certain estimations, there are seven times more wolves in the exclusion zone than there are outside it. One of them has even recently left the exclusion zone for the first time.
Not all of these mammals are necessarily in good health. According to Jim Smith, a researcher in the University of Portsmouth (United Kingdom), “this doesn’t mean that radiation is good for fauna, but that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming and forest exploitation, are far worse”. Remember that some 1,000 people returned to their homes in the months following the catastrophe, choosing the solitude of the area, despite the data provided by the Geiger counters. This population, made up mainly of older women called the “Chernobyl Babouchkas”, are on the road to disappearing forever.