Wildlife Abundant Near Site of Chernobyl Nuclear Accident, But Biologists Are Cautious About Mutation Risk

The accident was horrific . A nuclear reactor in the Ukraine exploded in April, 1986, killing people and blighting a huge area with nuclear waste. News coverage of the nuclear mishap gripped the world. Some thought the region would be a dead zone for centuries. Nearly 40 years later the exclusion zone around the destroyed power plant is not a desert but is thriving. Scientists are taking a closer and cautious look at the wildlife in the region, Genuine concerns about nuclear waste remain.

city landscape street hotel
The 1986 explosion at Chernobyl created an exclusion zone of 1,600 miles around the doomed nuclear power plant Photo by Oleh Mostipan on Pexels.com

Chernobyl is the name of a small town near the power plant, which itself became known as Chernobyl. In April, 1986 workers conducting what is called a “poorly designed” experiment at the nuclear plant made a series of mistakes. An analyst later said it was like trying to experiment on jet engines while flying. The plant exploded and an unknown number of people were killed, including emergency personnel trying to control fires. Estimates vary but perhaps 50 were killed outright and many others suffered life-threatening radiation exposure. A high-end estimate suggests 93,000 eventually died due to lingering effects of nuclear contamination. An unknown number of animals died outright or later from lingering effects. The disaster forced the then Soviet Union to create an exclusion. zone covering 1,600 square miles, an area about half the size of Yellowstone National Park.

nature animal head portrait
Eurasian lynx have returned to the area of the exclusion zone for the first time in 50 years. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Now. 36 years later the exclusion area is still off-limits to humans. But nature has made a comeback in the forbidden zone. Brown bears have returned for the first time in a century, Eurasian lynx for the first time in 50 years. Bison, dozens of types of birds and other creatures are abounding.

shallow focus photo of bear
European brown bears have returned to the region after a century of absence Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com


But the enormous success of gray wolves has astonished scientists and raised serious doubts. Attracted by the abundant supply of food, and the near total absence of humans, wolves in the forbidden zone apparently outnumber wolves in surrounding regions by perhaps 7 times. The zone is still radioactive and the worry that the wolves may be spreading genetic mutations when population pressure encourages them to move out of the zone. It is a problem that other species might share and it is under study.

One this seems certain, that the animals are thriving despite the radiation. It also seems certain that the lack of humans contributes strongly to the resurgence of animal populations.

Meanwhile the presence of humans has been a major obstacle as gray wolves seek to repopulate traditional areas of the US. Some are killed by cars and some are poisoned.


Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

Leave a Reply