Environmental effects of the Chernobyl accident

February 19, 2013, 12:15 pm
Content Cover Image

By Andrzej KaroĊ„ from Olkusz, Poland [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This article was researched and written by a student at Texas Tech University participating in the Encyclopedia of Earth's (EoE) Student Science Communication Project. The project encourages students in undergraduate and graduate programs to write about timely scientific issues under close faculty guidance. All articles have been reviewed by internal EoE editors, and by independent experts on each topic.


The city of Chernobyl is located in northern Ukraine near the border of Belarus. Chernobyl’s lasting legacy was created on April 26th, 1986 when the fourth reactor of a nuclear power plant exploded at 1:23 AM local time, resulting in the expulsion of radioactive material and the subsequent evacuation of about 135,000 people. The aftermath of this disaster has brought about many changes to the region's {C}flora, {C}fauna, and {C}human populations. A boom in biodiversity has also been observed within the exclusion zone despite popular knowledge of Chernobyl existing in a state of ecological disrepair. Many studies have been conducted over the past 20 years to correct many of the pre-conceived notions commonly suspected by scientists since the disaster occurred. Overall, populations have emerged and flourished in Chernobyl for several reasons, the least of which being an absence of human activity.

caption By Carl Montgomery (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Chernobyl Reactor #4 (Photo by Carl Montgomery)

Environmental effects

Environmental damage was widespread immediately following the accident, stretching from fauna and vegetation to rivers and {C}lakes and all the way down to the groundwater. The extent of the damage led scientists and government officials to the conclusion that the Chernobyl exclusion zone had been subjected to enough {C}radioactive fallout to severely alter the ecological balance of the region for decades. This initial assessment could not be farther from the truth as wildlife abounds in even the most affected areas of Chernobyl no more than 20 years after the disaster.

The Red Forest

caption By Timm Suess (Flickr: Red Forest Hill) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Radioactivity warning sign on a hill at the east end of Red Forest For the story behind the picture: Chernobyl Journal on [1] (Photo by Timm Suess)

The second major plume of {C}radiation released by the Chernobyl nuclear accident was carried directly over what is now called the Red Forest. Radioactive particles settled on trees, killing approximately 400 {C}hectares of pine forest. The Red Forest is now one of the most contaminated terrestrial habitats on earth. The highly radioactive plume killed most of the Scots Pines Pinus sylvestris in the area, but Birch Betula spp. and Aspen Populus tremula are more radio-resistant. Now the pine trees are being replaced as the Red Forest recovers.


The integrity of the groundwater is another area of concern following the accident. Initial contamination of the groundwater may have been introduced by method of disposal used for the Red Forest. Much of the Red Forest was bulldozed and buried in trenches. The trenches were then covered to form long bermes. As the trees decay radiation leaches into the groundwater. Additional contamination via {C}percolation of radioactive material through the soil is not expected due to many of the {C}radionuclides being short-lived, while the longer-lived {C}radiocaesium and {C}radiostrontium were adsorbed to surface soils before they could transfer to groundwaters.

Fauna and vegetation

The fallout from the explosion had obvious adverse effects on life in the exclusion zone and the four-kilometre red forest, but the current ecological stability seen in those same regions that experienced deadly doses of {C}radioactivity in 1986 is an unexpected result. In the 20 years since the accident, the sum effect for the flora and fauna in the highly radioactive, restricted zone has been overwhelmingly positive in favour of biodiversity and abundance of individuals. For example, researchers have experienced numerous sightings of elk (Alces alces), roe deer (Capreol capreolus), Russian wild boar (Sus scrofa), foxes (Vulpes vulpes), otters (Lutra lutra), and hares (Lepus europaeus) within the 10-km exclusion zone; however, none of these taxa were observed outside the 30 km zone.

caption By Altaipanther (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Russian Wild Boar (Photo by Altaipanther, via Wikimedia Commons)

While exposure to high levels of {C}radiation do have discernible, negative impacts on plant and animal life, it is obvious that the benefit of excluding humans from this highly contaminated ecosystem appears to outweigh significantly any negative cost associated with Chernobyl radiation. The relocation of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens, while painful and unfortunate given the circumstances, have allowed ecosystems to flourish in the absence of human activity that is harmful to biodiversity.

Several proposed efforts to remediate the radioactivity in the Chernobyl environment would have a negative impact on the region’s thriving natural systems. One proposal was circulated that would burn trees and vegetation from contaminated areas to collect the {C}radionuclides and create energy. If enacted, this project would cost $30 million (U.S. dollars) and would likely increase the man-dose when compared to no remediation action.

Burning vegetative biomass would only exacerbate the movement of significant quantities of radionuclides from soils and {C}sediments. There is a critical need for quality scientific information concerning the environmental and health risks associated with nuclear accidents before major decisions regarding remediation are made.

References and Further Reading

  • Australian Uranium Association. Uranium Information Center
  • Baker, R. J. and R. K. Chesser. 2000. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster and subsequent creation of a wildlife preserve. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. 19:1231-1232.
  • Baker, R.J., M.J. Hamilton, R.A. Van Den Bussche, L.E. Wiggins, D.W. Sugg, M.H. Smith, M.D. Lomakin, S.P. Gaschak, E.G. Bundova, G.A. Rudenskaya, and R.K. Chesser. 1996. Small mammals from the most radioactive sites near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Journal of Mammalogy. 77:155-170.
  • Matson, C. W., B. E. Rodgers, R. K. Chesser and R. J. Baker. 2000. Genetic diversity of Clethrionomys glareolus populations from highly contaminated sites in the Chernobyl region, Ukraine. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. 19:2130-2135.
  • Museum of Texas Tech University, Natural Science Research Laboratory. Texas Tech University's Chernobyl Website


Flanary, W. (2013). Environmental effects of the Chernobyl accident. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/152617


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