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Chernobyl, 28 years later: birds mostly benefit

Off-topic: Geneva hosted a joint conference of theoretical physicists and rhythm-and-blues artists on the nature of forever. Among the panelists, Edward Witten had the most intelligent remarks.
Exactly 28 years ago, on April 26th, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded. I remember those weeks rather well. There would be a nearly complete silence for several day. Afterwards, the socialist media began to cover the story. My favorite journal, VTM (Science and Technology for Youth), would offer quite detailed maps showing the propagation of the radiation etc.

Chernobyl reclaimed: an animal takeover (2007)

Chernobyl has been mentioned in dozens of TRF blog posts. You may watch lots of frustrating documentaries about the accident, and so on. It was the last environmental issue in my life in which the official interpretation was "less alarming" than the reality. Since that time, all the bias was going in the opposite direction. It shouldn't be surprising: in 1986, we were still governed by folks who derived their authority from their ability to produce steel and energy, among other things. Afterwards, we would be mostly led by people who make their living out of environmentalist and similar politically correct clichés.

The accident occurred due to some obsolete technology combined with a sufficient incompetence and carelessness at the Ukrainian power plant. The Soviet authorities dealt with it in some way which couldn't be optimal but it was mostly OK. The Ukrainian independence and poverty wasn't helpful for efforts to normalize the situation over there. However, the evacuation of the people turned the zone into a paradise for wild life – bears, deer and elk, wolves, Przewalski horses, boars, snake eagles, kittens of various sorts (their stories in the video at the top are touching), birds, and many others.

Two days ago, a French-Belgian-U.S.-Japanese collaboration published a paper in Functional Ecology:
Chronic exposure to low-dose radiation at Chernobyl favors adaptation to oxidative stress in birds (by Ismael Galván et al.; full text PDF)

Chernobyl 28th Anniversary: Birds Adapt to Long-Term Radiation Exposure (popular story in International Business Times)
They captured 152 birds from 16 species by mist nets to measure their feathers and blood. The feathers showed that the amount of an antioxidant, glutathione, actually increased in the radiation (a good thing) while the blood tests indicated that the oxidative stress and DNA damage decreased (i.e. improved), too. Birds which produced larger amounts of pheomelanin and lower amounts of eumelanin were exceptions and net losers of a sort.

I suppose that swallows – and more generally, very colorful birds – are among the losers that have actually lost some antioxidants. If that generalization is true, it would mean that animal life in a higher-radiation environment tends to become less colorful.

However, in general, Nature knows what to do and even the conditions in the near vicinity of the worst nuclear accident of the history are perfectly compatible with life. I think that the absence of human interference is what the animals enjoy most. There are no pesticides, no traffic, no hunters' bullets, and no global warming propaganda over there, either. They don't really feel the radiation and they don't care. They have to live in what is given to them and natural selection adjusts their composition for them to become more resilient to the particular environmental conditions.

Needless to say, the comment that the area is "uninhabitable for the people" is just a social construct, too. People don't differ from the bears, wolves, deer, and elk at any qualitative level. Most people would be doing just fine over there, too. It's the bureaucracy that bans them over there. And it is good news for everyone else. This place should be kept as a protected museum of the European flora and fauna as our ancestors would know it centuries ago. Every century or so, a nuclear bomb should be detonated over there to make sure that people wouldn't move in anytime soon (you need 40 Hiroshima bombs to deposit the same radiation as the Chernobyl accident but no one will notice). It's a reservation that the mankind can afford.

Incidentally, the number of bacteria of various sorts has dramatically decreased over there. Activists at Beyond Nuclear present this fact as a sign of a complete Armageddon. I don't believe that. Higher life is possible even with highly reduced microorganism counts, I think. This decrease is just another part of the adaptation. If that evolution were deadly for the ecosystem, the higher animals would have already suffered, too. I think it's a basic intuition of natural selection that the life is bound to get better as the adaptation continues.

Czech nuclear news

The tender on the expansion of the South Bohemian nuclear power plant, Temelín, has been canceled (Areva, France had been previously eliminated, Russia could suffer due to the chaos in Ukraine, so the likely winner was Japanese-U.S. Westinghouse) after the new otherwise left+populist government coalition refused to offer any price guarantees to the ČEZ power utility company. So much work and hype and nothing. Nevertheless, it is still likely that there will be a new tender in Temelín or another place because Czechia seems to be destined to see its energy future inside the nuclei.

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snail feedback (13) :

reader anna v said...

"Incidentally, the number of bacteria of various sorts has dramatically decreased over there."

Maybe they are just recovering, and it might be a surface to volume ratio effect. Much more surface presented to radiation damage in comparison to higher organisms. Also the penetration length would assure total destruction of a single cell where a complex organism would sacrifice some surface layers to protect the internal organs.

reader BobSykes said...

I taught bioprocesses to environmental engineers and scientists for 37 years. Bacteria and microbes are extremely resilient, mutate rapidly and adapt to the most extreme conditions. The most extreme condition many face is atmospheric oxygen, which requires all sorts of special adaptations.

So, I do not believe that the bacterial count is reduced overall, although there may have been a shift in species due to the absence of humans and human activity, especially farming.

You really cannot trust any so-called fact produced by any environmentalist. Environmentalists are Romantics and as such are reacting against the Enlightenment and rejecting reason and science.

reader m said...

In the above link, "Activists at Beyond Nuclear", we have the disguise of reading an extreme left-wing assertion by an "international" specialist (WFT, is this a kind of pompous fool?) Linda Gunter:

“The illusion that the absence of humanity can only benefit wildlife is
trumped when humanity has inflicted man-made poisons on a fragile
ecosystem whose inhabitants are now biologically compromised by
radiation exposures that will continue indefinitely,”

It is impressive how an "international" specialist can ignore everything that she is supposed to know about (natural selection) only in order to be politically correct in the press.

I am sure that Darwin used another term to refer to what she calls inhabitants "biologically compromised". What a shame of evolution, benefiting compromised species...

reader Jiri Moudry said...

The bird article does not mention bacteria at all. The Beyond Nuclear "experts" found that plant debris piles high in an area where people don't go. Conclusion: radiation kills bacteria. (Many years ago a nuclear plant had to be shut temporarily because of an uncontrolled algae growth, but Beyond Experts don't go beyond their agenda).

reader Gordon said...

Hormesis in action. WRT the bacteria, not sure--after all, we are inhabited by ten times as many bacteria as we have cells in our bodies...our microbiome, and its function and importance to us is just now emerging.
I agree that the first reaction of the media and eco-hysterics is the chicken little response.

reader Gordon said...

Agree---the "facts" about bacterial decline are very suspect.

reader Gene Day said...

Could it be, Gordon, that the pathogenic bacteria are reduced because the fauna are healthier in the radiation zone than outside it?

reader Honza said...

Given the lifespan of bacteria, this should not be the case 28 years later. They will grow exponentially until they hit the limit in resources. The initial count (as long as they are any left) is not really important after few days.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Honzo, I don't believe that the amount of resources is the only thing that determines the asymptotic equilibrium number of the bacteria.

You know that banknotes are being irradiated to kill the bacteria. Do you really doubt that an increased level of ionizing radiation reduces the suistainable number of bacteria?

Bacteria are more vulnerable because they are small - most of their body is near the surface, and that's also where the radioactive substances like to attach. Is that wrong?

reader Honza said...

My understanding is that you can kill them all, and also remove all the organics, so that they have nothing to grow on. That keeps things clean. But as long as there are some resources available (agar, dirt,...) and there is some viable starting colony, they will fill the available space within matter of hours to days.

reader anna v said...

I think you are ignoring the continuous presence of radioactivity in the region, settling from the air, irradiating surfaces etc. The organics on the surfaces they live on would also be radioactive for a long time.

reader lukelea said...

It seems to me that radiation hysteria is on about the same level of irrationality as global warming hysteria. But I'm no expert so I could be wrong. OTH if what is really motivating environmental alarmists is their hatred of industrial civilization, or maybe of modern capitalism, then it would certainly make sense.

reader Gordon said...

Well a healthy ecosystem maginalizes most pathogens, at least inside the human, but I would not recommend unnecessary radiation even for hormesis. Your theory sounds ok, but I doubt the report that bacteria are reduced cf other organisms. I would expect them to generally be more resistant to radiation.