In the small hours of a grey, Saturday morning on the 26th April 1986 the world’s worst peacetime Nuclear disaster was rapidly unfolding. All of this happened in total secrecy as the media blackout of the iron curtain across the Soviet Union remained fixed firmly in place.

Considered the world’s worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl has left a legacy that is still being felt today. Thousands upon thousands of people were immediately affected, whilst the first responders who dealt with the rapidly escalating emergency paid the ultimate price of bringing the disaster under control by losing their lives as they valiantly fought to limit the impact of Chernobyl and its radioactive fallout beyond its immediate borders.  

During routine tests, in which emergency safety and power regulating systems were intentionally disabled, a combination of design flaws and human error resulted in a sequence of uncontrollable reaction events. This created a massive fire which took 9 days to control and led to the release of radioactive cloud into the atmosphere precipitating radioactive molecular debris onto parts of the USSR and Western Europe.

The number of immediate deaths that happened as a result of this accident is still hotly disputed and remains contested to this day. Many brave men and women died as part of their efforts to get the situation under control but, with the Soviet Union heavily controlling the press coverage, it was initially claimed only two people died as a result of the disaster.  

Chernobyl, the town from which this disaster takes its name, was immediately evacuated and an exclusion zone created that covers 2,600 sq km in Ukraine and 2,100 sq km in Belarus: the largest, intentionally created no-man’s land in human history.

The human toll remained the focus of the debate for many years to come and it was not until relatively recently that attention has shifted to the impacts of this nuclear disaster on the ecology and wildlife of the region.

Chernobyl Rewilding Reserve

So what have the authorities in the Ukraine and Belarus done with this massive, uninhabitable site in the middle of Eastern Europe and how have their actions shaped the environment around Chernobyl today?

From Disaster to Refuge – Natural Rewilding At Work

Each country has taken a different path with the inheritance of this huge radioactive no-man’s land. Ukraine has created an eerie tourist attraction with an annual visitor rate of over 50,000 people year. For a tourist resort on a site in which people were evacuated to avoid radioactive fallout, that’s pretty good going. Visitors can see the nuclear reactor, enclosed in its ominous sarcophagus, whilst the ghost town of Pripyat provides a jaw-dropping insight into the historical past of 1980’s Soviet Ukraine. Tourists can wander round the town, pondering the violent events of the past whilst nature slowly, imperceptibly extends its green fingers round the human settlements, tools and toys dropped in haste as people fled.

Belarus, however, has taken a different and altogether more natural approach creating the world’s first radioecological reserve: Polesie State Radioecological Reserve

This reserve was established within two years of the disaster on 18 July, 1988, and instantly became one of the biggest natural reserve’s in Europe and one of the biggest areas in the world devoid of human habitation. Without realising it at the time Belarus also began the biggest accidental rewilding project in the world. The entire population of 22,000 people who lived within the exclusion zone across 96 settlements was evacuated and the area was left to its own peace, solitude and natural devices.

So what exactly has the wildlife and plant-life been up to in the last forty years in Europe biggest natural reserve?

Effectively, Nuclear disaster pushed out people in the area creating a vacuum and if we can be sure of one thing it’s that an eternal principle of mother Earth is that nature abhors a vacuum. So, gradually, overtime and completely oblivious to the radioactive fallout in the region, the animals and ecology moved right back in.

Chernobyl Rewilding Reserve - fox

The reserve in Belarus now provides a space for the apex predators and large mammals such as wolves, bison and bears to freely roam the natural landscape as they did centuries before. These big apex species are propped up by the spiderweb of ecosystems and ecology, including all the small mammals and up to 231, of the countries 334 bird species, that can also be found here.

But how has nature managed to thrive here when people had to flee? What is damaging for people must surely be damaging for wildlife?

In the first year following the disaster soils around the site were massively contaminated, leading to the mass deaths of invertebrates. The forests immediately around the accident location, up to a radius of 2-5 sq km, turned red, giving the coniferous trees there the nickname of the Red Forest, as they rapidly died following intense radiation poisoning.

However, the absence of people proved an irresistible lure to wildlife and whilst radiation inevitably had consequences for wild animals, in some areas of the exclusion zone the radiation levels actually dropped dramatically within months of the disaster and wildlife and plant-life was able to take root and bounce back.

By the late 80s aerial surveys, whilst not entirely accurate, were beginning to show wild species of elk, roe deer and wild boar on the increase.

In the 90s further tests led Ecologists from the US and Ukraine to conclude that the presence of small mammals such as voles, mice and shrews was similar in number inside the exclusion zone to the levels of small mammals outside the exclusion zone. The study examined and found:

Within the exclusion zones, 355 specimens representing 11 species of small mammals were obtained, whereas 224 specimens representing 12 species were obtained from outside the exclusion zone. It is concluded that the diversity and abundance of the small-mammal fauna is not presently reduced at the most radioactive sites.

In 2015, Jim Smith at the University of Portsmouth worked alongside colleagues from across the UK, Russia, Germany and Belarus to publish the details of a comprehensive review of tracked wildlife in the exclusion zone to date. By assessing the tracks of animals including elk, wolf, wild boar, roe deer and foxes they found that animal population were equal to, if not in excess of wild animal populations outside of the exclusion zone. In fact Smith believes wild wolf populations might be up to 7 times higher inside the exclusion zone.

Smith later published a comprehensive review of his work in Chernobyl: Catastrophe and Consequence. Rudolf M. Alexakhin, Health Physics, 2006 reviewed the study as:

one of the first … comprehensive books on the Chernobyl accident and its consequences, and remediation countermeasures in the affected area. Logically constructed, based on extensive experimental material, and elucidating all major aspects of the accident’s effects on the environment and human health, it is a great contribution to the solution of problems of radiation safety, radioecology, health physics, and the protection of biota and human health from ionizing radiation.

Rudolf M. Alexakhin, Health Physics, 2006

The absence of humans has seemingly led to the abundance of wildlife. A five week survey of the area in 2016 reinforced these findings, profiled in the National Geographic, the survey detailed how, in spite of high radiation levels, wildlife including moose, dear, beaver, owls, brown bear, lynx and wolves is thriving. Observations from across the board, including scientists, visitors, locals and those living on the edge of the exclusion zone have reported horses running free in the woods, wolves howling in the cold crisp nights, beavers constructing their domains and owls watching on.

Rewilding Planet Earth

Scientific Debate Rages On

However, Scientists have not agreed universally on how radiation has affected wildlife – exactly how healthy animals are within the zone has been a subject of intense scientific debate.  

There is continuing argument over the health of certain species and how radiation might have impacted upon them, leading to mutations in their offspring and issues with their health. There is of course universal agreement that radiation is bad for all types of living things; but the debate is centred around the nuances of the radioactive fallout and whether or not this has led to the decline of the health and number of certain species.

Studies have measured the inferior health of invertebrates. One study found, even after 20 years, “declining abundance of invertebrates with radiation near Chernobyl” and it’s still not clear to this date, exactly how radiation has affected the wildlife populations within the exclusion zone of Chernobyl.

This study is complicated by a myriad number of factors influencing how high the radiation levels are in any one species. For example, mushrooms concentrate radiation as do the voles that feed on them. How this radioactive material congregates up the food chain depends on the eating patterns of the predators further up the food chain. Marina Shkvyria, a wolf expert at the Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences, takes another view, pointing out in National Geographic:

“I would argue that for many of those species [the effects of radiation], even if they’re there, probably aren’t enough to suppress populations to the point where they can’t sustain themselves,” says Beasley. In the zone, “humans have been removed from the system and this greatly overshadows any of those potential radiation effects.”

Marina Shkvyria,vUkraine’s National Academy of Sciences

And its this point that really brings the argument home. The scientific data and anecdotal observations clearly show that for many wildlife species numbers are on the increase. Health has undoubtedly been impacted and radiation will continue to make it’s presence felt decades, and centuries, after the Chernobyl disaster.

But when it comes down to it; the thriving presence of large wildlife, and nature’s supremacy, at the site of Chernobyl in both the Ukraine and Belarus demonstrates one clear principle in this accidental rewilding project – out of both nuclear radiation and the presence of humans, as far as the natural world is concerned, we’re the lesser of two evils.

With this perspective in mind Chernobyl not only provides an opportunity for us to study the impact of radiation on wildlife it also provides one of the most pure examples of what happens when human beings are completely removed from a natural environment. After all there is no-where else in the world where such a large area of land has been designated off limits for people. Chernobyl was a tragedy of unspeakable proportions and yet it speaks to us about the resilience of wildlife but also the need for us to replicate this right around the world (rewilding, not nuclear disaster!).

On the dawn of the 26th April 1986 the residents of Eastern Europe were facing annihilation. Over 40 years later this very same disaster can lend us inspiration; it can show us what can happen when human influence is removed from a natural system and why this accidental rewilding project can be a template for the rest of the world.