Populations of large mammals show no evidence of being affected by the continuing radiation in the exclusion zone around the nuclear power plant in Ukraine, close to the Belarus border, which was hit by an explosion and fire in 1986.
Around 116,000 people were permanently evacuated from the 4,200 sq km exclusion zone around the power plant, with villages and towns left to go to ruin.
Three decades on, a scientific study published in the journal Current Biology has found abundant populations of mammals, the most sensitive creatures to the impacts of radiation, in the area.
Using helicopter surveys, researchers in Belarus found that elk, roe deer, red deer, and wild boar populations within the exclusion zone are similar to those in four uncontaminated nature reserves in the region, while wolf numbers are seven times higher.
And studies involving assessing tracks in new-fallen snow of roe deer, fox, wild boar, and other animals including lynx, pine marten, and European hare, found numbers were not reduced in areas with higher radiation.
The study found said that while the extremely high dose rates of radiation in the immediate aftermath of the accident significantly hit animal health and reproduction, they recovered quickly and there was no evidence of long-term effects on mammal populations.
While individual animals may be affected by radiation, overall populations are benefiting from the absence of people and hunting, forestry, and farming which are likely to have kept wildlife numbers low before the accident, the researchers reported.
Lynx have also returned to the area, having previously been absent, while wild boar are taking advantage of abandoned farm buildings and orchards for shelter and food.
One of the study’s authors, Professor Jim Smith of Portsmouth University, said that the nuclear accident had very severe social, psychological, and economic consequences for the local communities which had to be evacuated.
However, Prof Smith said: “In purely environmental terms, if you take the terrible things that happened to the human population out of the equation, as far as we can see at this stage, the accident hasn’t done serious environmental damage.
“Indeed by accident it’s created this kind of nature reserve.
“We’re not saying radiation is good for animals, but human habitation and exploitation of the landscape is worse.”