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 – whereas 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.

7 comments

  1. hector balint says:

    It remains to be seen how much radioactive material is going to go into the sea as a result of the accident so we can only guess what the effects on marine life will be. However this article would seem to suggest that the Red Herring is doing very well.

  2. I wrote something similar on my blog recently, objecting to the term “dead zone” used in a Japan Times article. That dead zone is not dead.

    The indisputable observation that flora and fauna thrives around Chernobyl seems to be another argument against the highly questionable “linear non-threshold” theory of radiation damage. If plants and animals have no problems with the radiation, what makes humans so special that they need to evacuate? Another question that theory can’t answer.

    • M says:

      “If plants and animals have no problems with the radiation, what makes humans so special that they need to evacuate?”

      That’s because if 1 out of 10 animals die from radiation, or the average animal loses 10% of its lifespan due to radiation, the ecosystem shrugs and moves on. That’s still way better for animals than a human-dominated habitat. But that would be unacceptable for a human society.

      (plus… cancer takes a while to develop. If you are worried about being food for a hawk, you’re not so worried about radiation induced-cancer)

    • That makes sense if the premise is right (“if 10 percent of animals die”).

      I have no way of knowing that. It would probably need some research effort to find out.

    • More people = more needs = more destruction + old technology = bad environment

      Using nuclear is not bad if we use it temporarily until we have better technology, same like fossil fuel. If we keep using them, the nature and us cannot “heal” it self in time we destroy them slowly.

      More people + new green technology = better environment.

      Its true that we are not civilized enough to be able to please ourselves and keeping the nature healthy, but one day we will learn, probably the hard way.. But its the only way..

  3. M says:

    With regards to the main article: “environmental disaster” to me includes human impacts. “ecological disaster does not”. Therefore the last line of the article (that the myth can be laid to rest that a nuclear disaster is an ecological disaster, “or even an environmental one”) should, in my opinion, delete that last clause: I agree that it isn’t an ecological disaster, but I think the arguments in this article give no insight into whether it is an environmental disaster or not.

  4. Tom says:

    Hi Mark,

    Completely agree that Chernobyl is a good case study for how ecosystems flourish when human domination of the landscape is taken out of the equation.

    However, the logical implications of what you say, as a pro-nuclear and environmental campaigner, on the topic are astounding. Should we dot nuclear plants all over the planet, with lax safety standards, in the hope they blow up? I think you’re slightly confused on this topic..Perhaps, instead, we should take the example of the Chernobyl exclusion zone and figure out how to replicate it without resorting to disaster.

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