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Nuclear Fallout: The Swallows of Fukushima

Until a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded on April 26, 1986, spreading the equivalent of 400 Hiroshima bombs of fallout across the entire Northern Hemisphere, scientists knew next to nothing about the effects of radiation on vegetation and wild animals. The catastrophe created a living laboratory, particularly in the 1,100 square miles around the site, known as the exclusion zone.

In 1994 Ronald Chesser and Robert Baker, both professors of biology at Texas Tech University, were among the first American scientists allowed full access to the zone. "It was a screaming place—really radioactive," Baker recalls. "We caught a bunch of voles, and they looked as healthy as weeds. We became fascinated with that." When Baker and Chesser sequenced the voles' DNA, they did not find abnormal mutation rates. They also noticed wolves, lynx and other once rare species roaming around the zone as if it were an atomic wildlife refuge. The Chernobyl Forum, founded in 2003 by a group of United Nations agencies, issued a report on the disaster's 20th anniversary that confirmed this view, stating that "environmental conditions have had a positive impact on the biota" in the zone, transforming it into "a unique sanctuary for biodiversity."

Five years after Baker and Chesser combed the zone for voles, Timothy A. Mousseau visited Chernobyl to count birds and found contradicting evidence. Mousseau, a professor of biology at the University of South Carolina, and his collaborator Anders Pape Møller, now research director at the Laboratory of Ecology, Systematics and Evolution at Paris-Sud University, looked in particular at Hirundo rustica, the common barn swallow. They found far fewer barn swallows in the zone, and those that remained suffered from reduced life spans, diminished fertility (in males), smaller brains, tumors, partial albinism—a genetic mutation—and a higher incidence of cataracts. In more than 60 papers published over the past 13 years, Mousseau and Møller have shown that exposure to low-level radiation has had a negative impact on the zone's entire biosphere, from microbes to mammals, from bugs to birds. ...

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  • More to Explore

Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and Their Remediation: Twenty Years of Experience: Report of the Chernobyl Forum Expert Group "Environment." International Atomic Energy Agency, 2006.

Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII Phase 2. National Research Council. National Academies Press, 2006.

Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. Alexey V. Yablokov et al. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1181; December 2009.

UNSCEAR 2013 Report, Vol. 1: Sources, Effects and Risks of Ionizing Radiation. United Nations, April 2014.

Chronic Exposure to Low-Dose Radiation at Chernobyl Favours Adaptation to Oxidative Stress in Birds. Ismael Galván et al. in Functional Ecology, Vol. 28, No. 6, pages 1387 – 1403; December 2014.

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