Scientists win chance to breathe life back into Chernobyl

Roe Deer at Chernobyl CREDIT: Tatyana Deryabina

Roe Deer at Chernobyl CREDIT: Tatyana Deryabina

A leading expert on the long term environmental consequences of nuclear disasters is to lead a study to help know when and if it is safe to go back into Chernobyl’s human exclusion zone.

The results will support Ukrainian authorities in developing a timeline for when and where it will eventually be safe to start using portions of no-go land for growing crops.

An explosion at Chernobyl’s nuclear power station in 1986 is one of the largest nuclear accidents the world has seen and resulted in substantial amounts of radioactivity being released into the atmosphere.

Human exclusion of the most contaminated parts of the exclusion zone could remain in force for hundreds of years, but parts of the evacuated area now have quite low contamination levels. Some older people currently live in the zone unofficially, having refused to leave their homes. But the land can’t be officially re-used without a full assessment of the risks.

Jim Smith, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Portsmouth’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, will lead a team of UK and Ukrainian scientists developing the first environmental management information system devised for an exclusion zone following a nuclear accident.

Professor Smith has been awarded £100,000 funding by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to work with the Ukraine government and other partners in developing the system. The team include the Ukrainian State Agency for Exclusion Zone Management, the Chernobyl ECOCENTRE, the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Institute and the Ukrainian Institute for Agricultural Radiology. UK partners are the University of Salford and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Chernobyl nuclear reactor

The Chernobyl nuclear reactor

He is an expert in modelling pollution by radionuclides and is helping the country develop a plan for the future.

It is hoped the system will become the gold standard in ensuring decisions on whether and when to allow farming and other activities to resume in the zone are underpinned by safe, scientific advice.

The 4,200 square kilometre human exclusion zone around Chernobyl was put in place due to chronic radiation fall-out following the accident.

Radiation was detected across Europe and as far afield as Canada. About 135,000 residents were evacuated from the region which then became a no-go zone.

The exclusion zone also brought the loss to the country of hundreds of thousands of acres of forestry and agricultural land.

Professor Smith has frontline experience in Chernobyl and is editor and lead author of the book Chernobyl: Catastrophe and Consequences.
In 2015 he published the first long-term study of the human exclusion zone’s environmental ‘health’ which found wildlife in the Chernobyl exclusion zone was thriving 30 years after the accident, thought to be because of the absence of humans.

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