From disaster zone to living laboratory: Chernobyl provides test bed for UGA researchers

Wolves roam a flat deserted landscape in the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone
The presence of major predators in the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone, like the wolves pictured here, indicate to scientists that wildlife is thriving in the contaminated area. (Photo by Jim Beasley)

Thirty-eight years ago, the city of Pripyat, Ukraine, was rocked by the explosion of a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. In the days following, families fled their homes and a region filled with a bustling city, numerous villages, and agricultural communities became, almost at once, deserted.

Imagine a place like that today.

Is it a wasteland? Something out of a horror movie? Are the animals and wildlife mutated? Are they even there at all?

The truth is rather amazing.

Contrary to expectation, a unique diversity of wildlife now graces the land. Without a human presence, plant life has flourished and taken over structures. Animals have made habitats in structures that were once houses, office buildings, or schools. Many areas almost resemble a nature reserve.

“In the decades that have elapsed since the accident, radiation levels dropped due to radioactive decay, and we have seen the resurgence of a diverse community of wildlife within the exclusion zone” said Jim Beasley, a professor and researcher in the and the (SREL).

Since the founding of SREL in 1951, UGA researchers like Beasley have studied radioecology, which delves into the presence and impacts of radioactivity in ecosystems.Chernobyl and Fukushima, Japan, which also experienced a nuclear meltdown in 2011, have provided perfect environments for this research.

Going to Chernobyl

Former UGA researcher Tom Hinton, who collaborates with Beasley, has had his career bracketed by these two accidents.

“I got into radioecology after hearing about how fallout from nuclear weapons testing in faraway China showed up as iodine spikes in the thyroids of Colorado deer,” Hinton, now retired, said. “It made me realize what a small world we live in and how radiation can affect places around the globe. It’s not isolated to places like Chernobyl and Fukushima.”

Hinton pursued radioecology for his doctoral degree in the 1980s at Colorado State University. It was during this time, in 1986, that the Chernobyl incident occurred. Three years later, while researching in Switzerland, Hinton had an opportunity to be one of the first UGA scientists to begin research in the exclusion zone.

Jim Beasley sets a wolf trap in the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone.
Jim Beasley sets a wolf trap in the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone. (Photo courtesy of Jim Beasley)

“That same year the Berlin Wall fell, so foreign scientists could finally go into former Soviet territory and do research,” Hinton said. “From there, the European Union established a major research program between Soviet scientists and Western scientists to study the Chernobyl accident. I had a very small part in that exchange.”

Hinton spent the rest of his career studying Chernobyl while working from three different continents. He stayed at SREL until 2009, then coordinated a Network of Excellence in Radioecology for six years at the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) in France, then moved to Japan as a professor at Fukushima University.

While at IRSN, Hinton developed a new tool that reconnected him with UGA and recently hired ecologist Jim Beasley.

Beasley specialized in wildlife ecology but hadn’t applied those techniques to the field of radioecology at the time.

“He and I got to discussing some of the big issues in radioecology research, particularly about previous studies that made some assumptions about an animal’s external exposure to radiation,” he said. “At the time, there wasn’t a good tool to validate those assumptions.”

Through that collaboration, the two developed a unique collar with a GPS tracker and active radiation dosimeter to quantify external dose rates in free-ranging wildlife.

Radiation exposure occurs two ways: internal or external exposure. Internal exposure occurs when an animal eats contaminated food or drinks contaminated water. External exposure occurs by crossing paths with other contaminated things like plants or soil.

Hinton explained that a passive dosimeter would only produce an estimate of radiation exposure after it was taken off an animal, integrating the average dose over time. With an active dosimeter, scientists can measure radiation exposure over short periods of time, sending the dose rates through a satellite to the scientist’s computer.

“We could type in the collar number, and we would find out where the animal is located and its external dose rate at that point in time,” he said.

In 2012, Hinton, Beasley, and a group of international researchers traveled to Chernobyl to deploy the new collars on wolves in the exclusion zone.

Since then, they have teamed up with researchers around the world to deploy the collars on other species, like wild boar in Japan, reindeer in Norway, and bear in Sweden.

A map displays the countries of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. A circle encompasses the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone.
This map displays the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone, which spreads from Pripyat, Ukraine, outward towards parts of Belarus and Russia. (Image courtesy of Jim Beasley).

Where animals thrive

Going to Chernobyl was a polarizing experience, Beasley said.

“You have this beautiful landscape surrounded by human tragedy as you make your way through. There’s abandoned houses and people’s belongings left behind,” he said. “It’s all very emotional, because on one hand they’re terrible human and environmental tragedies, but on the other, they’re unique opportunities to understand what happens when humans move out of landscapes.”

At the time, Beasley and other scientists held a common belief that populations were more depressed in areas of higher contamination. Once they placed the collars on the wolves in the exclusion zone and initiated other studies to estimate populations, however, they found that wasn’t the case at all.

Populations of large mammals had increased after humans abandoned the landscape. They were widely distributed throughout the exclusion zone, including even the more contaminated areas around the former plant.

“Species like Eurasian lynx and brown bears have naturally colonized the area,” Beasley said.

In an odd turn, Chernobyl had become a safe haven for scientists to reintroduce endangered species like the European Bison and Przewalski’s horses, a rare and endangered species native to the steppes of Central Asia.

Recently, Beasley and Hinton have collaborated with international researchers to track wolf movement patterns across the exclusion zone to better understand how protected areas like Chernobyl influence wolf movements and compare the findings to more populated areas or agricultural lands.

“Wolves need huge territories to persist and by protecting these areas for wolves, we’re protecting areas for smaller species that may not use as much space,” Beasley said.

“You have this beautiful landscape surrounded by human tragedy as you make your way through. There’s abandoned houses and people’s belongings left behind. It’s all very emotional, because on one hand they’re terrible human and environmental tragedies, but on the other, they’re unique opportunities to understand what happens when humans move out of landscapes.”

– Jim Beasley, Professor in the Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources and the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory

While animal populations have been able to flourish, it isn’t a perfect solution for wildlife protection, especially when it comes to endangered species. Beasley explained that there is still a lot of work that needs to go into understanding how an animal experiences radiation exposure and then connect it to the observed effects.

“We know that high doses of radiation exposure cause biological damage to organisms, and there are likely damaging effects that we’re not aware of at this point,” he said. “So even though this landscape has shown to have conservation value, there is a lot we still need to study in terms of any consequences of chronic low dose radiation exposure.

“At the end of the day, Fukushima and Chernobyl remain important living laboratories for understanding the effects of radiation exposure on wildlife.”

With the success of the collars, Beasley and Hinton eventually continued studies together in Fukushima before Hinton retired in 2018. In Fukushima, the team applied similar research methods and studies in the area, focusing on the wild boar population instead of wolves.

Compared to Chernobyl, Fukushima went through a more drastic change due to the highly dense population in the area.

“It is a haunting place, and also a very sad place because you drive through these abandoned villages and see how people were living there one day and the next they had to abandon everything in place,” Hinton said.

Challenges of research abroad

Both Beasley and Hinton have worked all over the world, from Africa and Japan to Guam and Chernobyl.

“When you work abroad, the logistical challenges you already have are scaled up,” Beasley said. “There are many things you take for granted when working on projects locally that require several months of planning and numerous additional layers of challenges to carry out overseas.”

Researchers like Beasley work with UGA’s to set up international trips. Some of the hurdles they face include language barriers, permitting challenges, and getting equipment shipped overseas.

Working in a nuclear exclusion zone that is largely closed off to the public only amplifies those challenges. The researchers can only be in the exclusion zone for short periods of time, due to the high levels of radiation in the area.

“I think one of the main reasons there are fewer studies on large mammals in those types of landscapes is because large mammals are difficult to capture and get large sample sizes under the best of circumstances, so in Chernobyl working with these species is a real challenge,” Beasley said.

The most recent trip Beasley had planned for Chernobyl was in 2020, where he planned to assist a postdoctoral student in their research. Early that year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic put those plans on hold.

When they were preparing to reorganize the trip in 2021, the Russia-Ukraine war began to escalate in Ukraine, halting any further research in the area.

Since then, Beasley and other international scientists have had to rely on existing datasets to continue studies.

“I’m optimistic that we might be able to get back into the field again through collaborations with the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency ,” Beasley said. “There are scientists in Belarus and Ukraine who are also working on Chernobyl-related projects through this agency and, while we haven’t been able to get new data, putting our datasets together allows us to stay engaged.”

Future of the research

As the Chernobyl accident approaches 40 years, the area has seen monumental change in just the past four.

“It’s hard to say how the area will continue to change over the next 10 years with the war going on,” Beasley said. “We don’t know how long it’ll last, but I mostly worry about the people who live in Ukraine, rather than the research.”

In Fukushima, there is a silver lining: In recent years, the Japanese government has allowed some to move back into their homes, with various challenges. Beasley recalled reading a about a man who moved back to his former home, but discovered there are now macaques living in it. However, as far as wildlife is concerned, Beasley doesn’t envision a grand change taking place and that it will continue to be uninhabited by people.

“Ten years is another 10 years of radiation decay of the radioactivity in the environment,” he said.

By understanding the effects of radiation on wildlife, we can better understand the effects of radiation on humans. Everyone is exposed to radiation nearly every day, from traveling via plane to simple medical procedures.

“Radiation is something that’s pervasive around us at very low levels,” Beasley said. “By studying the impacts of exposure and using these landscapes as models, we could better understand the broader implications beyond just Japan and Eastern Europe.”