Friday, April 22, 2016

Horsing around about Chernobyl

My car is old, and the odometer shows quite a few digits.  The dishwasher at home has problems, but it works.  A couple of undershirts (the banians, in the old country language) are a tad frayed.  The pair of brown shoes that I wear to work has the beginnings of holes on the under side.

But, I have no plans to replace any of these, and more, unless the situation compels me to.  For a simple reason--I am crazily concerned about the environment in my own way.

As long as the car gets me around reliably, as long as the dishwasher works, as long as ... replacing them will simply mean material consumption, which is one of the biggest threats to the environment for the future generations.  As I often joke with students, it is really not my problem but theirs, yet I am doing my best to make sure I don't worsen things for them and their children.

On Earth Day, I read this short commentary in the Scientific American about nuclear energy.  The subtitle says it all: "How an award-winning filmmaker who created the definitive Earth Day documentary learned to love nuclear power in an age of global warming."  Of course, I have blogged in plenty that summarily excluding nuclear power from the energy discussions was a huge mistake. But, that ship has sailed, as they say.

The opposition to nuclear power ramped up after the disaster at Chernobyl.  The accident happened thirty years ago--on April 26, 1986.  To mark the thirty years, and in time for Earth Day, National Geographic has a lengthy report.
This year will mark the half-life of cesium-137, one of the most widespread and dangerous of the radionuclides released. That means the amount of cesium has dropped by about half in the 30 years since the accident, decaying into the short-lived barium-137m.
An important milestone in understanding what happens the day after.
Marina Shkvyria watches for animal tracks as she walks toward an abandoned village in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the area sealed to the public after a nuclear power plant exploded here 30 years ago, on April 26, 1986. Spotting one, she crouches and runs her finger over the toes of a wolf print in the loose sand.
It may seem strange that Chernobyl, an area known for the deadliest nuclear accident in history, could become a refuge for all kinds of animals—from moose, deer, beaver, and owls to more exotic species like brown bear, lynx, and wolves—but that is exactly what Shkvyria and some other scientists think has happened. Without people hunting them or ruining their habitat, the thinking goes, wildlife is thriving despite high radiation levels.
In our popular imagination, the forbidden zone is not one that we would think as something that supports plants and animals, right?  Yet, it is now a thriving wildlife refuge.  Radiation "is not holding back Chernobyl wildlife populations."
The combined territory of the exclusion zones in Ukraine and Belarus caused by the Chernobyl disaster is a little more than 1,600 square miles, making it one of the largest truly wild sanctuaries in Europe.
But what it means for animals to be rebounding in Chernobyl has become the scientific equivalent of a boxing match, with the latest blow delivered Monday when Beasley put forward a study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
Beasley's following comment is pretty darn interesting:
“I would argue that for many of those species [the effects of radiation], even if they’re there, probably aren’t enough to suppress populations to the point where they can’t sustain themselves,” says Beasley. In the zone, “humans have been removed from the system and this greatly overshadows any of those potential radiation effects.”
Essentially, this means that human populations have a bigger negative impact than radiation.
... While Beasley stops short of calling the landscape “ruined” by radioactive contamination, he knows that it will be there for centuries or millennia, in the case of plutonium. But, without humans around, his findings show that the wildlife seems to be doing all right.
We humans are a much bigger threat to the wildlife than radiation is!  Now, that's plenty to think about on this Earth Day.

Caption at the Source:
The Przewalski's horse nearly went extinct, but in an effort to save the species it was introduced into the area around Chernobyl in 1998 and to other reserves worldwide. Without humans living in the area, the horse population has been increasing.

3 comments:

Mike Hoth said...

I read about this effect a few years ago. It's sad and distressing that what we would call a disaster area is safer than what we would call civilization. It's worse still that some day we might tear down that sanctuary to rebuild a concrete jungle.

Ramesh said...

No surprise there. Habitat reduction because of man's relentless expansion into everywhere is the largest cause of animal population decline, especially those in the wild. BUT

That is to gloss over the effects of radiation on the animals itself. Because the area is off bounds to humans, we simply do not know how it is affecting the animals, for, they are not immune to radiation. Science fiction has long explored this area - the greatest risk to humans, from their own activities, is the threat of large parts of earth becoming radioactive. Small probability, but catastrophic consequence. But that doesn't take away the argument for nuclear power on which we are on the same side !

Sriram Khé said...

From what I read, it seems like scientists are engaged with understanding how the radiation affects the flora and fauna there. It seems like despite the radiation, they are doing well and thriving--now that there are no humans and "civilization" anywhere in that area.
Of course, such radiation levels are no way ok and we should do everything possible to avoid a disaster like this. I do not mean to minimize the real threat of the nuclear fallout--locally and globally. Even today's paper has a story on how the poor who are outside the exclusion zone are affected because they eat mushrooms that are radiation-contaminated. The suckers gets us through the food chain too.

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