The former Soviet Union was rocked by one of the world's worst environmental disasters on April 26, 1986, when Unit 4 at the Chernobyl reactor site exploded, sending a radioactive plume across the world. The former Soviet Union is still also the site of some of the world's worst radioactive contamination from its nuclear weapons program.



Decay takes a holiday: the wickedness beneath the “Chernobyl wild paradise” myth and the rotten implications for ecosystems and radiation science

Zombie forest?

April 26, 2014 will mark 28 years since the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded causing an unprecedented nuclear catastrophe. In a creepy revelation, the forests around Chernobyl are having difficulty decomposing. A recently published study indicates that forest matter in the contaminated areas around Chernobyl is taking years or even decades longer to decay than it should. In the areas with low radiation, 70 to 90 percent of the leaves were gone after a year. Where radiation levels were higher, “leaves retained around 60 percent of their original weight...”( This indicates a fundamental disruption to the natural cycle of death feeding life, and calls into question the forest’s longer-term viability. Creatures responsible for decay such as microbes, fungi and some types of insects, are essential components of any ecosystem because they recycle organic material back into the soil. Unfortunately, they do not function properly in the areas around Chernobyl, leaving a forest full of “petrified-looking pine trees that no longer seem capable of rotting.” GIZMODO

Radiation’s effect on decay processes should be expected, considering how it impacts microbes in food; or considering the results of a bizarre, cavalier and extremely ill-advised series of experiments performed using a “naked reactor” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. These experiments intentionally irradiated a number of varying materials and forest land 40 miles north of Atlanta, GA. Wood subjected to this radiation was produced in small-scale and called “Lockwood”, for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation who operated the Georgia Nuclear Laboratory. The building and land is still contaminated with radionuclides.

The lack of decomposer activity has researchers worried that nutrients which trees require for grow are not being recycled, causing trees in the area to grow more slowly.  Improper plant decay has potential implications for animal decay as well, although there do not appear to be any Chernobyl studies investigating this yet.

Stalked by Forest Fires

This lack of rotting is also causing the forest litter to pile up and become a fire hazard. Fire could not only destroy the forests further, but can spread the current radioactive contamination to other, potentially uncontaminated areas. “A devastating radioactive smoke cloud” could be carried large distances past Ukraine and right across Europe (again), putting people and farmland at further risk. Each year, Chernobyl firefighters manage up to 80 forest fires, sometimes experiencing metallic “taste” and a tingling of their skin that indicates exposure to higher radiation levels.

One fire in 1992 spread unchecked and destroyed a large area of contaminated forest. Scientists are still studying the effects of that fire and hope to use this data to pinpoint stands of vulnerable pines and other forest areas that should be cleared to lessen potential fire risk. Ukraine does not have the money to clear all contaminated forest vegetation. The lingering threat of forest fires and the inability to rot proves the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is anything but over even though the reactor leaks have long since stopped.

The research team that conducted the decay study and a number of other wildlife studies around Chernobyl, is collaborating with investigators in Japan to determine if improper decay is occurring in areas contaminated with Fukushima radiation.

Scientific fantasy versus ugly reality

As if plant matter’s inability to decompose isn’t unsettling enough, a study published in 2013 indicates that controlled experiments designed to examine the impact of radiation dose and dose rates on biological organisms may underestimate the impact by 8 to 10 times. This indicates that organisms in their natural environment are more sensitive to radiation. Perhaps this dichotomy between what happens in a controlled environment and what occurs in nature is in part due to a growing radiosensitivity among the forest’s inhabitants.

Studies examining Chernobyl animal populations living in chronic low-dose radiation (summarized by Goncharova in 1998) show an increase in radiosensitivity among those whose ancestors were exposed. This indicates that successive generations could be less able to cope with the same degree of exposure as their parents were and that, for certain animal species, there is no genetic adaptation to mutations from low-dose, chronic, man-made radiation exposure—the kind received from nuclear power whether or not there is an accident.

Importantly, a growing radiosensitivity among the individual of a population over generations would mean that research used to predict radiation damage, if based data from earlier generations, would not be reflective of damage to the current generation. Likewise, research used for long-term radiation exposure protection that relies on controlled experiments could be extremely unprotective. These two scenarios call into serious question our current radiation protection systems.

Fallen trees in Chernobyl's infamous red forest. (Photo: T.A.Mousseau & A.P. Møller)Actual in-the-field examinations of regions contaminated by radioactivity from Chernobyl also reveal evidence for increased mutation rates, abnormal sperm with reduced swimming ability, developmental abnormalities, cataracts, tumors, smaller brains in both birds and mammals, and decreased tree growth rates, a finding of fundamental importance for ecosystem functioning that likely relates to effects on the microbial community. Fewer spiders and insects including bees, butterflies and grasshoppers—live there. Animals and plants show other impacts of radiation after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in the US and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

Timothy Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, who collaborated on many of these studies, contends that, fundamentally, this evidence indicates low-dose rate exposures cause significant measurable impacts for the biota inhabiting contaminated regions of Chernobyl. Further, this evidence supports a hypothesis that suggests effects down to very low levels.  Further implications for Fukushima should not be ignored.

Humans and animals alike: healthy looking on the outside, disintegrating on the inside

Referencing studies summarized in his book, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, Alexey Yablokov states:

“Wildlife in the heavily contaminated Chernobyl zone sometimes appears to flourish, but the appearance is deceptive,” says Yablokov. “Levels of incorporated radionuclides remain dangerously high for mammals, birds, amphibians, and fish. Long-term observations of both wild and experimental animal populations in the heavily contaminated areas show significant increases in morbidity and mortality that bear a striking resemblance to changes in the health of humans – increased occurrence of tumours and immuno­deficiencies, decreased life expectancy, early aging, changes in blood and the circulatory system, malformations, and other factors that compromise health.

“All of the populations of plants, fishes, amphibians and mammals studied there are in poor condition,” he continues. “This zone is analogous to a ‘black hole’, in which there is accelerated genetic degeneration of large animals – some species may only persist there via immigration from uncontaminated areas. The Chernobyl zone is a micro-evolutionary ‘boiler’, where gene pools of living creatures are actively transforming, with unpredictable consequences. We ignore these findings at our peril.”

Dr. Yablokov’s statement deftly presents the dichotomy between what is observed by a dilettante’s eye – such as lots of members in a wild animal population -- versus what is actually happening to these members over time. What is happening to this wildlife has parallel implications for human health.

So where did this “paradise for wildlife” and “biodiversity sanctuary” myth come from? In 2006 the International Atomic Energy Agency, a nuclear power promoter and a member body of the United Nations, released a report entitled Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and their Remediation: Twenty Years of Experience. This report references the creation of a nature preserve within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and remarks Without a permanent residence of humans for 20 years, the ecosystems around the Chernobyl site are now flourishing. The CEZ has become a wildlife sanctuary…, and it looks like the nature park it has become.” From another report: “Indeed, the Exclusion Zone has paradoxically become a unique sanctuary for biodiversity.”

The Chernobyl Forum coalition makes this statement in support of “unique biodiversity” in spite of their recognition that “Genetic effects of radiation, in both somatic and germ cells, have been observed in plants and animals of the Exclusion Zone during the first few years after the Chernobyl accident. Both in the Exclusion Zone, and beyond, different cytogenetic anomalies attributable to radiation continue to be reported from experimental studies performed on plants and animals.” They conclude, however, “[w]hether the observed cytogenetic anomalies in somatic cells have any detrimental biological significance is not known.” In order to know this, one has to actually look.

The study summaries compiled by Alexey Yablokov, et al. (studies which had been mostly unavailable in the west until 2009) and the published examinations of researchers Mousseau, et al., indicate rather strongly that there is significant biological detriment to wildlife in the contaminated areas surrounding Chernobyl. And unlike these studies, the Chernobyl Forum documents provide very few references (under ten total) for any claims they make regarding the flourishing of wildlife.


Forests Around Chernobyl Aren’t Decaying Properly

Fallen trees in Chernobyl's infamous red forest. (Photo: T.A.Mousseau & A.P. Møller)

"Nearly 30 years have passed since the Chernobyl plant exploded and caused an unprecedented nuclear disaster. The effects of that catastrophe, however, are still felt today. Although no people live in the extensive exclusion zones around the epicenter, animals and plants still show signs of radiation poisoning.

Birds around Chernobyl have significantly smaller brains that those living in non-radiation poisoned areas; trees there grow slower; and fewer spiders and insects including bees, butterflies and grasshoppers—live there...

In the areas with no radiation, 70 to 90 percent of the leaves were gone after a year. But in places where more radiation was present, the leaves retained around 60 percent of their original weight..." supporting the idea of delayed decay.

The researchers worry that not only are these nutrients not being properly recycled, causing trees to grow more slowly, but the lack of decomposition is causing the forest litter to pile up and become a fire hazard. Fire can not only destroy the forests further, but can also spread the radioactive contamination now present to other, potentially uncontaminated areas.

Animals and plants show impacts of radiation after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in the US and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The researchers are collaborating with investigators in Japan to determine if improper decay is occurring because of the Fukushima disaster.


Ukraine: what happened and the current status of its nuclear power

The 6 VVERs at Zaporizhia nuclear power plant make it Europe's biggest, and the 5th largest in the world.In a guest post at the NIRS GreenWorld blog, Andriy Martynyuk, chair of the board of Ecoclub in Rivne, Ukraine, a part of the international NIRS/WISE network, has written an update about the status of nuclear power plants in Ukraine. He mentions: "All the nuclear power plants are under heavy [Ukrainian] military guard. However, Ukraine will be powerless if the Russian troops want to attack these facilities."

In addition to the four RBMK reactors permanently shutdown at Chernobyl, Ukraine also hosts 15 additional operable atomic reactors at four more nuclear power plants across the country. Nuclear power provides nearly half of Ukraine's electricity.

Of course, military attacks on atomic reactors, and the high-level radioactive wastes stored there, would not only harm the host country, but also countries downwind and downstream.

Despite this, the specter of military attack on nuclear power plants has long been warned about. Bennett Ramburg's 1980 book (published by D.C. Heath and Co.), Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy: An Unrecognized Military Peril (re-published in 1984 by University of California Press), stands as a classic.

Ramburg spoke alongside colleagues from Nuclear Control Institute and Committee to Bridge the Gap during a National Press Club briefing in September 2001, just days after the 9/11 terror attacks, warning about the risks to U.S. atomic reators. It was later documented in the 9/11 Commission Report that the attackers had originally planned to hijack 10 planes, and crash 2 into nuclear facilities. Indian Point near New York City was being eyed by lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, but he did not get the green light from his Al Qaeda superiors. Before his capture and detainment at Guantanamo, Cuba, 9/11 "mastermind" Khalid Sheik Mohammad told a reporter that the reason Al Qaeda did not attack nuclear plants in 2001 was it "did not want things to get out of hand," but that such attacks had not been ruled out in the future.

Dr. Ed Lyman at Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a study in 2004, Chernobyl on the Hudson? The Health and Economic Impacts of a Terrorist Attack at the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Lyman concluded that as many as 44,000 near-term deaths from acute radiation syndrome, or as many as 518,000 long-term deaths from cancer from persons living within 50 miles of IP could result. He also calculated that $1.1 to 2.1 trillion in property damages could result, and millions of people would have to be relocated on a long-term basis.

Also in 2004, Rory Kennedy made a film entitled Indian Point: Imaging the Unimaginable, about the risks of a terrorist attack. It featured interviews with such Indian Point-shutdown champions as her brother, Robert Kennedy, Jr., leader of Hudson Riverkeeper; David Lochbaum from UCS; and U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA, now a U.S. Senator).

As was pointed out in the film Into Eternity, the Earth's surface, beset with not only natural disasters and climate chaos, but also wars and terrorist attacks, is a bad place for ultra-hazardous high-level radioactive waste to be located. The same can be said for Ukraine's atomic reactors, given the current high social and political tension, and even military occupation by Russia of a section of the country in Crimea.


Beyond Nuclear/PSR speaking tour across MI a big success!

Alfred Meyer, PSR board memberAlfred Meyer (photo, left), national board member of Physicians for Responsibility (PSR), spoke throughout Michigan on a tour organized by Beyond Nuclear from Feb. 12-17. His presentations of "Nuclear Power: What You Need to Know about Price, Pollution and Proliferation" were dedicated to the memory of Dr. Jeff Patterson, PSR's Past-President.

Mr. Meyer is Past-President and Secretary of the board of Friends of Chernobyl Centers U.S, which works with Chernobyl Centers for Psycho-Social Rehabilitation in five Ukrainian communities greatly affected by the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, that began on April 26, 1986.

Alfred's first stop on Feb. 12, at Grand Rapids' Fountain Street Church, drew 35 attendees, despite the wintry weather. Corinne Carey of Don't Waste MI video-recorded the talk, and will post it to cable access t.v. in the near future.

Alfred had a productive day in Kalamazoo on Feb. 13th. His presentation at Western Michigan University (WMU) was attended by over 50 people, and garnered an extended interview by Gordon Evans on WMUK Radio, as well as an article by Yvonne Zipp in the Kalamazoo Gazette. Alfred also spoke at a press conference held at WMU's impressive solar panel array, launching a campus climate campaign to divest the university from fossil fuel investments. Alfred was also interviewed by Dr. Don Cooney, WMU Social Work professor and Kalamazoo City Commissioner, and Dr. Ron Kramer, WMU criminology prof., on "Critical Issues: Alternative Views" t.v. program. The interview will be aired on Kalamazoo cable access in the near future, as well as posted to YouTube.

The tour stop in South Haven (4 miles from Entergy's Palisades atomic reactor) on Feb. 14 drew 25 attendees, despite it being Valentine's Day. Kraig Schultz of Michigan Safe Energy Future--Shoreline Chapter video-recorded the talk, and will post the recording to the MSEF YouTube channel in the near future.

Ferndale in Metro Detroit on Feb. 15 drew 75 attendees. Damon J. Hartley of the Peoples Tribune did a write up and took lots of photos.

Monroe's event (within the 10-mile Emergency Planning Zone from the GE BWR Mark I, Fermi 2, as well as the proposed Fermi 3) on Feb. 16, drew 30 attendees, and garnered coverage in the Monroe News (text, PDF). The Ann Arbor (home base for PSR's new MI chapter) event on Feb. 17 also drew an audience despite an impending winter storm.

Beyond Nuclear has been honored and privileged to work with the following groups to make this speaking tour a success: Michigan Physicians for Social Responsibility; Sierra Club; Fountain Street Church; WMU Lee Honors College; WMU Environmental Studies program; WMU Institute of Government and Politics; Michigan Safe Energy Future (both Kalamazoo and South Haven chapters); Don't Waste Michigan; Ferndale Public Library; Alliance to Halt Fermi 3; Ellis Library; Don't Waste Michigan; Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes; and the Ecology Center.


Chernobyl roof collapse worries activists

The area in pink indicates the location of the roof collapse. It is about 50 meters (165 feet) away from the "sarcophagus," a shelter built shortly after the 1986 disaster to contain radiation emanating from the exploded reactor.A 6,500 square foot section of roof on the turbine hall at Chernobyl collapsed last week due to heavy snow. Public relations officials for the reactor called the event “unpleasant” but claimed radiation levels remained the same.  While claims of no radiation release seem to be verified by trustworthy sources, this is not the end of the concern for the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents.

In 1986, Chernobyl unit 4 failed catastrophically and released huge amounts of radiation to the surrounding environment. In an attempt to contain what radiation remained, boron and sand were dumped on the melted core and a sarcophagus was hastily constructed and installed. The turbine hall that suffered the recent collapse, served all of the Chernobyl reactors and is near, but not covered by, the current sarcophagus. Although officials claim the sarcophagus was unaffected by the roof collapse, they failed to comment on the structural integrity of the remaining structure or the nearby sarcophagus. 

The new 2 billion dollar confinement currently under construction on site will cover the aging, unstable sarcophagus. It is unclear what the roof collapse means for this partially-built structure, meant to last for just 100 years, although officials say this construction was also not affected. Greenpeace has expressed concern that the current sarcophagus could follow the turbine hall and collapse and in book "The Children of Chernobyl" by Adi Roche, she details this risk, given the deteriorating condition of the original sarcophagus. A collapse of part of the structures surrounding Chernobyl Unit 4 is a sign that the deterioration is advancing to an extremely risky condition.