Thirty years of key Chernobyl research

30 years later, researchers and scientists have examined every facet of the disaster. Here are findings from 30 papers, selected by experts on the subject.

On April 26th 1986 a steam explosion blew the lid off reactor four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. This single action lead to the largest accidental release of radioactivity into the environment to date, the reactor continuing to emit radioactivity for the next ten days. In total, the explosion resulted in 350,000 people being evacuated from affected areas in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

30 years later, researchers and scientists have examined every facet of the disaster. Radio-ecologist Nick Beresford and his coauthors went through this research and selected 30 studies that they believe to be the most important Chernobyl papers.

Changing wildlife

Most people would think that the release of huge amounts of radiation would have devastating effects on the local environment. However, research presents a somewhat conflicted picture on the topic. For example, one study found that there was no evidence to imply that the ecology of lakes in the area had been compromised due to the explosion – in fact, the most contaminated lake in the area, Glubokoye, was found to have the highest richness of aquatic invertebrates.

On a less positive note, mice species were found to be more asymmetrical than normal, and both roe deer and reindeer were found to have high levels of cesium, making their meat unsafe for human consumption. Fish were also affected – predatory species within the exclusion zone are larger than their counterparts in other areas.

Forest Fires

In just two years between 1992-1994, there were about 200 forest fires in the 30 km zone around the Chernobyl reactor. These fires present a risk both to people living nearby and firefighters, as fires re-release dangerous radioactive particles into the air and distribute them over large areas, this paper finds.

Contamination

Within the exclusion zone, everything from water and soil to animal products is at risk of contamination. The big question is: how much longer will the area be radioactive? Researchers are currently looking into the rate at which the nuclear particles released from Chernobyl are dissipating and, judging by their findings, it doesn’t look like the area will be safe for people to re-inhabit any time soon.

Food

After the explosion, food, including fresh-water fish across Europe was contaminated with radioceasium and strontium. There were, however, ways to reduce exposure in the kitchen: De-boning fish before cooking could half strontium levels and freezing it lowered radioceasium concentration up to 40 percent, this report found.

Costs

Lowering radiation exposure isn’t always popular, and making it more popular, these researchers find, is costly. To reach normal exposure levels of 1 mSv per person per year with publicly accepted strategies opposed to less popular strategies costs 10.000 Euros more per person in Belarus, 3000 Euros more in Russia, and 14.000 Euros more in Ukraine. What was publicly accepted was also different for each country.

Image by Ben Adlard