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SC News

SC Scientists Mark the 35th Anniversary of Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

SC scientists comment on the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine.
atomically speaking
Reactor 4 at Chernobyl in Ukraine, which melted down in 1986 in the worst nuclear disaster in history.

Scientists talk about the effects on the environment 35 years after the nuclear reactor meltdown at Chernobyl in Ukraine.

Thirty-five years ago on April 26, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred when Reactor 4 melted down at the nuclear facility in Chernobyl, USSR – now Ukraine. Authorities evacuated 350,000 residents from the area for miles around. Twenty-eight people died of radiation exposure, and 5,000 cases of cancer resulted, causing another 15 deaths in the near term.

Two South Carolina scientists have made numerous trips to Chernobyl since 1998 in order to study the accident’s effects on the environment. University of South Carolina biological sciences professor Tim Mousseau, who has visited the area dozens of times, said the event was 10 times bigger than the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan 10 years ago.

“And it was hundreds of times larger than the radioactive fallout that came from the atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan to end the Second World War,” he said. “Enormous quantities of radioactivity were released, and it turned this area of several thousand square miles around the reactor zone into a kind of ghost town.” The majority of work done by Mousseau and his colleagues focused on the accident’s effects on the area’s plants and animals. There were major impacts on both the numbers and biodiversity of species, he said.

“Every rock we turn over, we find additional evidence of the constance of this environmental stress. We’ve seen changes in the coloration of animals and we’ve seen changes in fertility.” Many of the male birds in the more radioactive areas are completely sterile, according to Mousseau. Many of them also are smaller than normal, and have smaller brains.

Naturalist Rudy Mancke also made four trips to Chernobyl, and found the radiation’s effects made differences in the numbers and nesting habits of some bird species.

“Swallows, the numbers are really down,” he said. “But…this used to be farmland. There were dairies there, with lots of insects, and that’s what these birds feed on. And the white storks that build big nests out of sticks in and around buildings. They seemed to be adjusted to humans…and when the humans were excluded (much of the area is still restricted against human residence), so were those particular birds. And now, we noticed they were back using nests only where humans had come back.”

Mancke noticed that while the radiation had caused mutations in some species, others were remarkably resilient. “Nature just seems to abhor a vacuum. So even though there’s damage done, they just keep ‘sending in the troops,’ so to speak.”

The radiation was unevenly spread across the landscape around the reactors, giving some areas very high radiation levels, while others were relatively unaffected. Mousseau explained, “when the explosion happened, there was a nuclear fire that burned for about 10 days. And each day this fire was kind of like a volcano erupting, with vast amounts of radiation being injected into the atmosphere. And depending on which way the wind was blowing, and whether or not it was raining, kind of determined where the radioactive fallout landed.”

Strangely, some large animals like wolves, elk, moose and deer ended up benefitting from the accident, because when the area was evacuated, not only were humans restricted from living there, but they were also forbidden from hunting, allowing the animals to flourish.

As to what lessons can be taken from the accident, Mancke observed, “nature is resilient. Nature does not throw up her hands and scream and cry. It’s not able to do everything, but the general natural world is incredibly made, there are checks and balances that are amazing.”

To Mousseau, the major lesson to be taken from Chernobyl is that preventing accidents is the goal. “No matter how safe the technology is, there are likely to be accidents. Human error or acts of nature. There’s no way to avoid it other than to not generate the hazard to begin with.”

Both men expressed the hope that mankind has developed the wisdom to keep nuclear accidents like Chernobyl from ever recurring.

For more on the historic nuclear meltdown, see The Chernobyl Event: An Update at 35 Years, which will air on April 25 and repeats on April 26 at 7 p.m. on South Carolina ETV. Featuring a panel of commentators including Rudy Mancke and Tim Mousseau, the program, produced by ETV Education, looks back at the history of the disaster, relates why SCETV and the University of South Carolina have been involved, and focuses on the continuing studies of animals, birds and insects as it examines the lasting impact of the Chernobyl event.