Why Chernobyl Neighbors Are Not Dying
Surprising scientists, both people and animals are doing OK around the world’s worst nuclear accident site.
Thirty years ago, on April 26, 1986, Russian government officials evacuated people living in 1,600 square miles around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after a meltdown sent a radiation cloud over a large area (see history of the incident on PhysOrg). The “exclusion zone” was deemed too hazardous for humans. Animals, however, were not evacuated; scientists feared a great die-off and ecological disaster. A new study, though, shows a big surprise. National Geographic reports:
In a new study released Monday, Beasley says that the population of large mammals on the Belarus side has increased since the disaster. He was shocked by the number of animals he saw there in a five-week survey. Camera traps captured images of a bison, 21 boars, nine badgers, 26 gray wolves, 60 raccoon dogs (an Asian species also called a tanuki), and 10 red foxes. “It’s just incredible. You can’t go anywhere without seeing wolves,” he says.
The animals are not zombies, walking around like grotesque mutants in a horror movie. Most are doing well. There are some species with increased incidence of cataracts or albinism, but most wouldn’t notice any difference. Without hunters or human interference around, animal numbers have rebounded; it’s like a great “rewilding” experiment. Scientists are finding that radiation effects may be less severe than predicted. Surprisingly, Science Daily says, even predators are doing well, even though apex predators stand to suffer the highest radiation dosage from eating contaminated prey as well as getting it from the environment.
Beasley and his research team saw 14 species of mammals on the camera footage. The most frequently seen were the gray wolf, wild or Eurasian boar, red fox and raccoon dog, a canid species found in East Asia and Europe. Beasley said all of these species were sighted at stations close to or within the most highly contaminated areas.
“We didn’t find any evidence to support the idea that populations are suppressed in highly contaminated areas,” Beasley said.
Clingons have invaded the exclusion zone. PhysOrg says, “Defying radiation, elderly residents cling on in Chernobyl.” Former residents who called this place home, now in their 70s and 80s, continue living there, danger or not. They Ukrainian government still says the area is uninhabitable. Perhaps the residents feel that they have nothing to lose at their age.
In the aftermath of the explosion, which spewed out clouds of poisonous radiation that spread across Europe, more than 1,000 people returned to live in the officially sealed-off area.
Urupa survives off vegetables she grows in her garden as well as the food supplies brought by visitors.
Are the residents keeling over from radiation damage and cancer? Radiation levels are still high, keeping many visitors out. Thirty deaths were directly attributable to the accident; another 4,000 were feared at risk. “Serious mutations, though, happened only right after the accident.”The article says nothing about increased death rates among those living in the exclusion zone. A child born there in 1999 had anemia and had to move out, the article says, but the fact that many have lived for decades in a radiation bath is phenomenal.
How can people and animals thrive in this kind of constant danger? Actually, it’s only a matter of degree. All of us get radiation exposure every day to varying doses. Some breathe in radon gas rising from under their houses. People at higher elevations face more radiation than those at sea level. A long-distance airplane flight can deliver more radiation than a chest X-ray; pilots, therefore, expose their bodies to a great deal of radiation over their careers.
If it weren’t for protective mechanisms built into our cells, we would all die much younger from radiation damage. This is not to excuse the Russians for their carelessness at Chernobyl; radiation levels that high are unquestionably harmful. But it is partially comforting to realize that our bodies repair damage 24 x 7 and usually get it right. Whether genes are damaged from UV light, ionizing radiation or cosmic rays, cells know what to do. Science Daily says that “the human body is pretty good at repairing itself” except when we put toxins like cigarette smoke in our lungs or stand in the sun too long. Another Science Daily article praises “the complex genetic network that maintains genome integrity in normal cells.”
Here are some recent papers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the mechanisms of DNA damage repair:
- Dynamic control of strand excision during human DNA mismatch repair (PNAS): Four “evolutionarily conserved [i.e., unevolved] components” work together to fix mismatched DNA bases.
- Genome-wide kinetics of DNA excision repair in relation to chromatin state and mutagenesis (PNAS): This paper describes “Nucleotide excision repair” which is “the sole mechanism for removing bulky adducts from the human genome, including those formed by UV radiation and chemotherapeutic drugs.” Cancer can result from mutations in this system.
- Nucleotide excision repair by dual incisions in plants (PNAS): This paper should surprise evolutionists. You and your potted plant are in two different kingdoms of life, separated (according to evolution) for hundreds of millions of years. And yet, “we found that plants remove UV photoproducts from their genomic DNA through a dual-incision mechanism that is nearly identical to that of humans and other eukaryotes.”
On that note, Science Daily reports another case where humans and plants have a lot in common: “Damage-signalling protein shows parallels between plant, human immune systems,” the headline reads.
These are just a few of the built-in repair systems that keep animals, plants and people alive in a constant bath of invisible dangers. Without question, the residents around Chernobyl would be better off without the high radiation. There’s no debate that health care workers and government officials should seek to limit exposure. But thank God we are not utterly defenseless against these threats.
Update 4/22/16: Claire Corkhill on The Conversation shares interesting facts about the herculean efforts being undertaken to secure the nuclear reactor from another leak for hopefully another 100 years. “At 110 metres tall with a span of 260 metres, the confinement structure will be large enough to house St Paul’s Cathedral or two Statues of Liberty on top of one another,” she writes; but that’s not the only challenge facing engineers. It has to be hermetically sealed and moved into place without exposing human workers.
Why aren’t evolutionists happy about Chernobyl? It should provide their very best lab for seeing neo-Darwinism in action. Bathe a population of animals in radiation and watch the fittest survive. New organs and traits should develop as mutation and selection work their magic. Any day now, we should see teenage mutant Ninja turtles come marching out of the woods, with SuperGrandma flying overhead.
Genesis 11 records a steady decline of longevity after the Flood compared to the multiple centuries people lived before the Flood (Genesis 5). Abraham lived 175 years, but half a millennium later, Moses lamented the “threescore and ten” that was common in his day (Psalm 90), though he lasted to 120 years. Some creationists believe changes in the earth’s magnetic field or atmosphere during the Flood exposed the world to higher radiation levels. That and cumulative mutational load on the human genome over the subsequent millennia leaves our medical experts struggling to keep us alive a little longer.
We all get cancer every day. Our immune system and DNA damage response crews catch most emergencies. Thank God for these amazing systems that keep you alive. Treat every day as a gift, while always being prepared to meet your Maker.