Nuclear disasters bring to mind monstrous, mutated critters. But that’s far from how radiation affects animals, studies show.
In the 60-year-long history of commercial nuclear power, there have been three major accidents: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
All of these accidents resulted in huge amounts of radiation spilling into the atmosphere, harming people and the environment.
In the case of the last two, large-scale evacuations were also carried out in exclusion zones around the nuclear power plants.
But while humans fled the creeping radiation, animals remained. For example, this fox, literally making a five-decker bacon sandwich:
How radiation affects animals after nuclear disasters
Because of its massive scale, the Chernobyl accident is considered the best case-study.
Between 9,300 and 93,000 people (estimates from the UN and Greenpeace, respectively) died from the resulting radiation, which covered 77,220 square miles and caused 300,000 people to flee. An uncounted amount of animals also died as a result of the radiation.
But fears at the time that the accident would turn the area into a deserted wasteland turned out to be ungrounded.
Researchers from Texas Tech University who studied the Chernobyl exclusion zone between 1996 and 2011 call it a “wildlife preserve” (pdf) home to an abundance of diverse species.
A 2015 research report concluded the same thing.
There has been little evidence of large-scale mutations or genetic weakness as a result of animal radiation exposure.
The Texas Tech researchers found that cesium-137, the isotope most prevalent in Chernobyl, is often mistaken for calcium in animal bodies and hence absorbed harmlessly.
At Fukushima, the most recent research also suggests that the radiation won’t have a large long-term impact on surrounding wildlife.
Not everyone agrees on how radiation affects animals, however. Timothy A. Mousseau and Anders Pape Møller, a pair of scientists who have been studying Chernobyl since the accident, have published a series of findings suggest long-term damage to wildlife.
Other researchers have criticized these findings, saying that the samples were only collected in the most contaminated area, skewing the results.
But Mousseau and Møller essentially argue that as opposed to the scientific consensus, there is no threshold (pdf) below which radiation is harmless, and that the dangers of radiation should be reconsidered.
There are two things both sides agree on. First, that the lack of humans in these areas have greatly assisted the growth of the animal population.
Secondly, that the field of determining effects of radiation on animals requires a lot more rigorous research, and perhaps new criteria for determining harm to wildlife.
Nuclear disaster areas like Chernobyl aren’t dead zones where no animals can live – but only time will tell what the long-term effect on wildlife will be.
Photo of a Chernobyl guard dog courtesy of Fiona McAllister via Flickr. Article originally published on May 26, 2014.