15 Jul 2015

Chernobyl: inside the nuclear disaster exclusion zone

Almost 30 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which turned the area around the plant into a no-go zone, scientists are involved in a unique experiment in how nature copes with radiation.

A European-funded project is racing to complete a vast steel containment building covering the entire Chernobyl reactor number four. The original concrete and steel sarcophagus covering the melted down reactor is becoming unstable. The new arch, designed to be slid into place, is tall enough to house the Statue of Liberty.

From the roof of a tower block, the abandoned city of Pripyat. In the distance, the Chernobyl nuclear complex, which on 26 April 1986 spread fallout over the town and radioactive dust over northern Europe. A 1,000 square mile exclusion zone remains in place around the plant.

The Transfer, Exposure, Effects project (TREE), funded by the UK government, is looking at the effects of radiation on the wider environment. The University of Salford is using camera traps to study where large animals are, how much radiation they are accumulating – and whether it’s affecting populations of predators and prey.

At the end of last year they made this remarkable discovery, the first bear recorded in eastern Ukraine.

Research continues to establish exactly what effects radioactivity is having on the ecology of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Some studies claim to have shown serious impacts, but many scientists argue the positive effects of man’s absence have been far greater than the negative ones associated with harmful radiation.

This year, forest fires in the zone have been a regular occurrence. It’s a risky problem. Wildfires can lift radioactive isotopes back into the atmosphere.