“And now every year, with radiation, with dust, with rain, with something else, it’s destruction, destruction.” -Maxim Dondyuk
What comes to your mind when you hear the phrase nuclear explosion? You will probably imagine the disastrous portrayal of the past atomic incident in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or perhaps some random apocalyptic movie scenes. While the word Chernobyl might not seem familiar to you yet, it’s still a fact that is worth knowing.
Chernobyl ‘86 was indeed a massive disaster caused by small-scale human error, prompting numerous fatal environmental damages, up until now. But of course, while Chernobyl might take a hundred years to fully recover, it is still progressing, thanks to nature’s capability to rejuvenate through its own, fascinating mechanism.
Now that 35 years have passed after the tragedy, let’s drive back to Chernobyl 101: the tragedy, recovery, and remedy of one of the world’s most well-known radioactive havoc.
Everything started from an accidental explosion in a nuclear power plant reactor, precisely the 4th reactor, during a scheduled reactor testing in Chernobyl, Ukraine. While the explosion brought fire towards its surroundings for nine days non-stop starting on April 26th, 1986, exposed metals corroded and knocked down buildings, plants and animals vanished, let alone humans. At that time, you could find nothing but city ruins and debris, as there was barely a single living thing surviving. Even if some did, most of them suffered from long-term injuries.
Right after the incident was spread, the Chernobyl nuclear explosion became an international sensation in no time. Concerns arose and evacuation of approximately 300.000 people was done immediately in an attempt to evade any other possible harm that threatened lives. An exclusion zone was established 300 kilometers away from the main coordinate where the disaster happened.
A report showed that 237 workers around the incident area–all of them suffered from radioactive hazards–28 died within the first three months, followed up by more death cases afterward. The clinical injuries recorded among patients were intestinal damages, skin lesions, thyroid cancer among children, and several psychological trauma. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the end of everything. As radioactive microparticles fluttered in the air, the report of cancer diseases in the population caused by frequent exposure to carcinogenic substances escalated. At that time, it was best to keep the previously prosperous city out of everyone’s reach, so for a while, Chernobyl was left uninhabited by humans.
While humans stayed away from the contaminated zone, other living beings had no chance but to be trapped within the established manmade isolation. Before the incident occurred, bird populations in the area were abundant. Yet, after radioactivity tarnished their habitats, many cases of eye cataracts in birds started to shoot up. Life was harsh for these birds as their visual function plays a significant role, both in mobilization and food-hunting. This inability leads to other consequences that you might have never thought about. As expected, Chernobyl birds that suffered from eye cataracts were swept out of existence, and the case wasn’t even easier for fruit trees which sharply decreased in the amount.
Interestingly, in the water ecosystem, especially fish, there wasn’t that much high-level radiation impact recorded. Still, while contaminates are dispersed all over the place, there was no guarantee that the water was relatively much safer. Through observations, researchers discovered that the fish living in the contaminated area had high levels of accumulated radioactive substances in their bodies. Even so, two fish species that are being studied, roach and perch, were reportedly safe from any physiological or reproductive complications. Nonetheless, when these fish are consumed by animals or humans, it would be another different case.
Aside from plants and slightly bigger animals, insects such as bumblebees, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and spider webs were also found during the early recovery stage of the tragedy. However, it can’t be said that these colonies weren’t affected by the sudden environmental change, as a study has shown that the population of those insects in the radiated area decreased compared to the areas which weren’t contaminated. Luckily, the population increased back into stability after around two years post-incident.
Researchers also highlighted how every area had different contamination levels, which leads to various impacts on these insects, including genetic mutation. Scary as it may sound, it is very common that mutants could be found everywhere in any place exposed to radioactivity. But, compared to mammals or humans, genetic mutations in insects are considered beneficial rather than pernicious.
Adapting to an unstable habitat–particularly Chernobyl–would be much harder than we thought because we tend to hinge on other living beings–plants and animals–which were barely sufficient enough to support humans since they were also struggling to live in a contaminated atmosphere. In fact, we’d better not get too rash to set our foot in while the territory is at its reviving phase.
Now, through its remains, Chernobyl has become a remembrance of the world’s worst nuclear tragedy. The victims, the losses, and the disasters it had gone through allow us to learn that damage could take one second to wipe out a whole city, yet for it to heal, a hundred years might not be enough.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” -Lao Zi
Written By: Sekar Arumsari Subagia
BBC. The bold plan to give Chernobyl a new life. Future Now. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170103-the-bold-plan-to-give-chernobyl-a-new-life-
Cannon, G. & Kiang, J. (2020). A review of the impact on the ecosystem after ionizing irradiation: wildlife population. International Journal of Radiation Biology. doi: 10.1080/09553002.2020.1793021
Sedacca, M. (2018). Recovering Lost Photos of Life Before the Chernobyl Disaster. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/31/lens/recovering-lost-photos-of-life-before-the-chernobyl-disaster.html
Thompson, S. (2019). How plants reclaimed Chernobyl’s poisoned land. The Conversation. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190701-why-plants-survived-chernobyls-deadly-radiation