How a nuclear disaster can be good for ecology

It is an article of faith for most greens that nuclear power is an ‘environmental’ issue. Ergo, nuclear power is bad for ‘the environment’ and should be replaced with ‘clean, renewable power’ like windmills and solar panels. This is in effect what the German government has agreed to do, under pressure from its resurgent Green Party, in phasing out nuclear by 2022. (Ignore for the moment the fact that in reality this will almost certainly lead to a vast increase in fossil fuelled carbon emissions.)

The truth, insofar as ecological science can establish it, is rather different. Here is what Robert Baker and Ronald Chesser, two ecologists studying biodiversity around Chernobyl, wrote more than ten years ago in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry:

Mention of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster usually brings thoughts of death, destruction, cancer, massive economic loss, and other negative images. Clearly, the economic impacts have been devastating for the Ukrainian economy, and the harmful effects such as elevated cancer rates in humans and the killing of pine trees in the Red Forest are real. However, the sum effect for the flora and fauna in the highly radioactive, restricted zone has been overwhelmingly positive in favor of biodiversity and abundance of individuals. Our 12 expeditions to the most radioactive areas of these zones reveal that animal life is abundant. Parts of the 10-km exclusion zone around Reactor 4 are strikingly, yet deceptively, beautiful. Only the clicks and whistles of our electronic equipment indicated that the habitat was contaminated with radioactivity.

Of course, this is not to say that radiation in and of itself somehow benefits wildlife. What brings the big boon to biodiversity is the removal of humans from the equation. Baker and Chesser reported frequent sightings of moose, deer, foxes, wild boar and river otters inside the 30-kilometre Chernobyl exclusion zone Рwhereas in the still-cultivated area outside the zone, the only wildlife they saw was a single rabbit.  The researchers concluded:

… the benefit of excluding humans from this highly contaminated ecosystem appears to outweigh significantly any negative cost associated with Chornobyl radiation

and that

… typical human activity (industrialization, farming, cattle raising, collection of firewood, hunting, etc.) is more devastating to biodiversity and abundance of local flora and fauna than is the worst nuclear power plant disaster

Why this ecological knowledge has failed to penetrate amongst self-professed ‘environmentalists’ is a mystery. In the popular imagination the area around Chernobyl is a blighted wasteland, a mental picture kept alive by the apocalyptic (and superlatively unscientific) myths put about by the likes of Greenpeace. Take the recent piece by the Observer’s Robin McKie, who – as far as I can tell – visited Chernobyl on a stage-managed Greenpeace press tour and penned an obedient piece titled ‘Chernobyl 25 years on: A poisoned landscape‘. Employing the traditional scary imagery, he writes:

The Ukrainian steppe is still frost-burned and the trees leafless at this time of year. There are no buds on branches and little hint of greenery, a combination that only enhances the eerie desolation inside the 30km exclusion zone around the reactor…

But the clue to why McKie saw a ‘poisoned landscape’ lies in the first sentence: he went in winter. When I visited last summer, I saw a very different scene – the vibrant profusion of vegetation was extraordinary, as was the noise of bird calls and buzzing insects. It seemed like life was exploding everywhere.

So on, inevitably, to Fukushima. Once again, this is not an ‘environmental’ disaster in any sense in which the word is commonly understood. There will be no discernible ecological impacts, despite the substantial amounts of radiation that have been released through the triple meltdown and containment failures seen immediately after the tsunami. Unlike with Chernobyl the contamination of surrounding areas is not serious enough to require the permanent evacuation of its human population, so the benefits to wild plants and animals will be minimal. At sea – where most of the radiation went – the impact could well be positive if it reduces the fishing pressure for which Japan is notorious in terms of its impact on marine ecology.

But what of the effects of the radiation itself? Here, work done on Chernobyl is fascinating, and to facilitate understanding of the ecological effects of radioactivity the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry has compiled a free-to-access virtual issue of papers published over the years which shed some light on the subject. Some of the highlights:

Meeks et al, studying voles around Chernobyl, find that high genetic diversity is unlikely to be a result of increased mutations driven by radiation, but more to do with geographical isolation and other factors

Boonstra et al find a ‘hormetic’ effect of additional gamma radiation in a field experiment, suggesting that radiation at two to five times background levels can have beneficial effects on the health of voles

Sugg et al examine catfish from the cooling pond at Chernobyl, which are highly contaminated with radiocaesium, and find greater amounts of DNA damage – but no actual impact on what is otherwise a thriving population in a “tremendously productive ecosystem”.

Many of the papers are rather technical, but well worth perusing nonetheless – and no doubt ecological studies from the Fukushima region will add usefully to our knowledge base on this issue. But at least let one myth be permanently laid to rest: that a nuclear disaster is necessarily an ecological disaster, or even an environmental one.

© Mark Lynas
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