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Bryansk in the Aftermath of Chernobyl by visiting scientist, J. Donald Hughes

The following is a chapter in the book: An Environmental History of the World: Humankind’s Changing Role in the Community of Life by J Donald Hughes; London and New York: Routledge, 2002 (available in paperback); used by permission of the author.


Sitting in my friend's apartment kitchen, I look through a stack of school children's drawings and paintings from the Bryansk Region, the section of the Russian Republic that received the highest level of radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. One depicts two little hedgehogs in a forest, with suspiciously dark clouds overhead. The first hedgehog has picked some mushrooms, a favorite activity of all Russians. The other hedgehog asks, "Zachem ty nesėsh' gribok? On zhe radioaktivnyi," that is, "Why are you picking mushrooms? They're radioactive." The first replies, "Kushat' khochetsa," "I want to eat." A second drawing shows a girl with a basket crying beside a sign prohibiting entrance to a forest due to a high level of radiation. Yet another is of a swan flying into a radioactive cloud and coming out with soiled wings. Then there is an imaginative painting representing mutated insects and animals, including a dragonfly with two heads. Finally, a drawing by a seven-year-old girl shows an empty school playground, with a pony looking at it and saying, "Gdye dyeti?" "Where are the children?" The answer is that they have all been evacuated because their homes are too radioactive to live in.


The explosion of the reactor core at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant on April 26, 1986, was the most serious accidental release of radioactivity to the atmosphere to date. The explosion took place due to a series of error made by the operators, who wished to make some tests at a time when they were shutting down the reactor for annual maintenance. They deliberately, perhaps ignorantly, shut off several of the safety mechanisms that could have prevented the accident, one after another. Some of the later disastrous blunders were made in attempts to cover up earlier ones. Therefore it was human error rather than faulty design of the power facility, a water-cooled steam reactor, that was at fault. The explosion injected about fifty tons of nuclear fuel into the atmosphere in the form of finely dispersed particles, creating an enormous atmospheric reservoir of long-lived radionuclides, in addition to seventy tons of fuel and 700 tons of radioactive reactor graphite that settled nearer the site of the accident. Heroic firemen, some of whom died of exposure to radiation, kept the flames from spreading to other reactors. Officials did not give immediate warnings to the local population or to the world. The first announcement on Soviet television came two days later, twelve hours after high levels of radioactivity were detected in Sweden and Finland. Radioactive fallout polluted natural ecosystems and human food sources in large portions of Europe and the USSR. There were measurable amounts throughout the Northern Hemisphere. For example, an increase of 6,574 picocuries per liter of rainwater recorded on May 12 in Washington State was more than 140 times the background level measured immediately before the Chernobyl cloud reached the USA. Soviet authorities knew what had happened, however, and took actions of various kinds. Although winds at first carried the plume of radioactive pollution westward toward Europe, a later shift in weather patterns carried a dangerous cloud toward Moscow.There are reports that the Soviet Air Force seeded the clouds to precipitate the radionuclides before they could pass over the capital. Whatever the cause, large amounts of this material fell on the western section of the Bryansk Region, in the area around and to the west of the city of Novozybkov, where levels of soil contamination well above forty Curies per square kilometer have been confirmed. Novozybkov is about 175 kilometers (110 miles) northeast of Chernobyl. Bryansk itself, the regional capital located about halfway between Moscow and Kiev, recorded a relatively low level of fallout.

Evacuations began near Chernobyl within twelve hours of the accident, proceeding with little warning or preparation of the populace. The number of people evacuated is unclear; the Soviet government in 1987 reported that over 90,000 had been relocated, and the number given for Ukraine in 1994 was 130,000. Authorities shut from public entry an area within a radius of thirty kilometers (nineteen miles) of the power plant, including many villages. The reactor then was enclosed in a "sarcophagus" of concrete below and around it, which was, however, never completely sealed, and a smaller release of radioactivity to the atmosphere continued. A research area, the Polesski Radiation-Ecological Nature Reserve, was set aside to study the effects of radiation on the local ecosystem, and scientific monitoring began very soon after the accident.

In the Bryansk Region, thousands of people were evacuated from the villages with the highest levels of contamination. The scenes of desolation were poignant; empty houses stood with open doors. A child's doll lay on the sill of a broken window. Many of the evacuees were resettled in other regions and provided jobs and housing, but the arrangements were unsatisfactory to a considerable number of them. Children from the radiation districts went to new schools only to discover that their classmates shunned them because they were afraid they might radiate on them, and called them "glowworms." Some families returned and reoccupied their former homes. A typical comment was, "It's better for us to live in the radiation zone with reasonable living conditions." But they did not appreciate the extent of the danger to them and their children. The village folk living near a Pioneer camp in the western Bryansk Region that had been closed due to very dangerous contamination took bricks and timber from the camp buildings and used them to add rooms to their houses. As the months passed, the incidence of various illnesses and deaths resulting from exposure increased among those who had stayed in the radiation zone as well as those who returned.

The official government figure of deaths due to the Chernobyl accident is thirty-one, all of them workers at the nuclear power plant. But the real figure of those whose lives were shortened by radioactivity will never be known; it is in the thousands and still increasing. The incidences of thyroid cancer, leukemia, and other radiation-related illnesses are higher than normal among the exposed population. Children, since their bones and other organs are growing, are more liable to accumulate radionuclides and to suffer from their effects. A small coterie of dedicated teachers working in the radiation district reports that children are also more likely to appreciate the dangers of radiation than their parents, who want to continue living as they always have and are unwilling to make behavioral changes that will help to lessen the degree of exposure. Of course, the children do not like to be told not to eat vegetables from their gardens, play in the forest, or to fish or gather berries and mushrooms there, either. Avoiding some forms of exposure is next to impossible; levels of radioactivity in milk fluctuate widely, rising sharply in the summer when cattle are grazing in the fields. The situation is such that people must either stop their normal interactions with the ecosystems within which they live, or ingest radionuclides and accumulate exposure to radiation.

One of the problems of coping with life in a zone of heavy fallout is the extreme variability of levels of radioactivity over a short distance, even a few yards. A brave member of the faculty at Bryansk Pedagogical Institute, Dr. Ludmilla S. Zhirina, an ecologist, started a non-governmental environmentalist organization named "Viola." She and her associates
provided school children and their teachers with Geiger counters and encouraged them to make maps of the villages, fields, and forests where they live, showing the localized readings. If they found that a playground had a high Geiger counter reading, the school could pave it with a layer of shielding material. A second problem emerged, however, as they discovered that the readings changed over time, and not just because of nuclear decay. Many radioactive particles can and do move. They blow as dust in the wind and rainwater carries them. Burning autumn leaves from radioactive trees makes radioactive smoke that contaminates other places. Peat, common in much of the region, rapidly concentrates radioactivity, and spreads it when used as fuel. Dr. Zhirina wrote and distributed a pamphlet telling school children and their families how to protect themselves as much as possible from radioactivity. But people who live in communities that will be heavily contaminated for the rest of their lives can only be "protected" in a relative sense. The simple measures that are possible will probably prove ineffective over a long period of time.

Virtually nothing can be done to protect the local ecosystem as a whole, of course. The effects of serious radioactive contamination on an entire ecosystem over a large area have been little studied, and many questions need answers. Scientists have studied the degree of radioactive contamination in various parts of the affected ecosystems, but it seems that these parts are only the tip of the iceberg, and the interaction of various forms of damage is not well understood.

One such study, a survey of soils in the Bryansk Region, showed that there was considerable contamination of agricultural lands by cesium-137 over an area of 720,200 hectares (1,779,600 acres), or about forty percent of the total. In addition, about 415,400 hectares (1,026,500 acres) or thirty-five percent of the very extensive forests were contaminated. The three most important radioisotopes studied were cesium-137, which behaves chemically much like potassium, strontium-90, which resembles calcium, and iodine-131. Living tissue readily absorbs all three of these elements. A number of other radioisotopes came down in the fallout. Cesium-137, the most prevalent long-lived pollutant, has a half-life of 30 years, which means that half of the amount of that isotope deposited in the fallout from
Chernobyl will still remain in the year 2016, and one-quarter in 2046. It is not easily leached out of soil by water. During the six years after the accident, it tended to persist in the upper layer of soil. A Ukrainian study showed that in undisturbed forests, more than ninety percent of the amount originally measured remained in the top fifteen centimeters (six inches) of forest litter and soil. Strontium-90, with a half-life of 28.8 years, is more mobile in the environment, and very dangerous to vertebrates because as an analog of calcium it collects in the bones and bone marrow, and may cause leukemia. Iodine-131, the substance released in the largest quantity at Chernobyl, has a half-life of eight days, but is extremely dangerous due to its tendency to lodge in the thyroid gland and ovaries. Other studies showed that some radioisotopes were readily absorbed by plants, and affected forest trees in many ways. Dr. Zhirina had begun dendroclimatological studies of the forests in the Bryansk Region before the accident, and was therefore able to make comparisons of the situation before and after. The effects varied considerably with the tree species and intensity of radiation, and sometimes in surprising ways. Conifers such as pines suffered more noticeably than deciduous trees, which could shed some radioactivity with the annual leaf loss. The common Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) often died; in the most contaminated zones, about forty percent of these trees had died within eight years. Many surviving pines showed yellowing of needles and loss of needles and branches, and often drying out of the upper part of the crown. They were more susceptible to diseases and fire. Wood vessels showed abnormal growth patterns. Young trees under
forty years of age showed higher damage than older trees, and artificial pure pine plantations were more vulnerable to radiation than stands resulting from natural regeneration. At the same time, as many as one-third of the pines in some test plots seemed outwardly non-radiosensitive, and in slightly more than twenty percent a marked increase occurred in the width of annual rings, just the opposite of what one might expect. The cause of this growth spurt is unknown, but a possible reason is less competition from other trees that had died or weakened. It might instead be a more direct result of radioactivity, perhaps analogous with the accelerated growth of cells in cancer. It should be noted in passing that some herbaceous plants in the contaminated zone have been observed to grow to abnormally large size. In the case of annual plants, this could be due to radiation-induced mutations.

Norway spruce (Picea abies) exhibited forms of damage similar to those in pine. Spruce tends to grow in moist locations where moss grows on the lower parts of the tree, and investigators found that mosses are active accumulators of radiation and increase the local level of radiation. Trees with moss tended to suffer more radiation damage.

In the common oak (Quercus robur), a slowing of growth occurred, especially in the spring, when the buds opened comparatively late over a four-year period of observation. The number of living cells in the cambium layer under the bark decreased markedly in the year after the accident, and then gradually returned to a more normal state year by year. Microscopic examination of vessels in the new wood from the test plots with higherlevels of radiation, however, showed progressive deterioration. Before 1986, they were small and round in cross section; in 1987 they enlarged and became elliptical; in 1988-89 they were so large that adjacent vessels often merged, and in 1990-93 they became so irregular in shape that they appeared to be relatively non-functional. Other scientists noted changes in the shape of oak and maple leaves, making them more asymmetrical and with fewer and less defined lobes.

Long before the Chernobyl event, ecologists knew that radiation accumulates in the food chain. Plants are at the lower end of the food chain, of course, and animals accumulate higher levels of radioactivity in their tissues, with the highest doses occurring in top predators. Although studies are not complete, it is possible that this might result in differential population loss, or local extinctions of species such as foxes, ermines, hawks, and eagles. Migration of birds, mammals, fish, and insects into and out of the more contaminated zones would produce changes in the ecosystem, and possibly would allow replacement of losses, but also might spread radionuclides into other areas.

In the Bryansk Region, biologists have carefully measured concentrations of cesium-137 in fish. There is an increase of radiation levels of about two to three times for every step up the food chain, so piscivorous fish such as pike and perch show more radioactivity per unit weight than bottom-feeders like roach and white bream. The highest levels of cesium-137 (up to 15,000-21,000 becquerels per kilogram of muscle tissue wet weight) were found in carp in the Kozhany reservoir, which is two to three times the maximum noted in fish of the Kiev reservoir, much nearer Chernobyl and downstream from the accident site. Since cesium behaves chemically like potassium, fish in water with low potassium concentrations will accumulate more cesium-137 and therefore more radioactivity. Lake fish are more contaminated than river fish, generally speaking, and freshwater fish are more contaminated than marine fish. Marine fish measured in 1965, before Chernobyl but after many bomb tests in the atmosphere, had a cesium-137 It has long been observed that radiation affects genetic material, producing random mutations in genes. The results of the mutations appear in following generations of animals and plants. In 1954, as a student in botanical genetics at the University of California at Los Angeles, I was given maize seeds descended from others that had been irradiated by a bomb test in the Pacific to grow in the laboratory. A mutated gene caused the maize plants to grow to several inches in height completely lacking the green coloration of chlorophyll. After a few days, the white plants acquired chlorophyll and turned green. This is only one example of myriads of possible mutations. Very few of the mutations produce changes that are advantages to the organism. Most of these random mutations are disadvantageous; indeed, many result in infertile seeds or premature death of offspring. Others produce a wide range of gross abnormalities, including missing limbs and other parts of the body.

In the Bryansk Region and other areas affected by fallout, published reports appeared including photographs of malformed births among domestic animals. In contaminated areas in neighboring Byelarus, the most common deformities among calves and foals included two heads, absence of the anal opening, up to three legs, eyes, ears, ribs, or hair, and deformities of skull, spine, legs, or internal organs. Such births are many times more common than before the accident; one study showed a rise from 0.07 percent of total births in 1987 to 9.9 percent in 1989. Unfortunately they are now common among humans as well at an elevated rate; children born long after the event have suffered its effects and will suffer them for generations to come. In the context of ecosystems, it is to be expected that similar genetic effects are being manifested in wild animals of virtually every species. Rises in frequency of chromosomal aberrations and morphological abnormalities have been observed in plants. Genetic mutation is one of the most important components of the coevolutionary change by which the various species in an ecosystem adapt to one another. A significant change in its rate will have an unpredictable effect on the functioning of the ecosystem and on the
humans who are part of it. More studies of the effects of radioactive contamination on ecosystems are needed, and could be done in regions affected by other releases as well as Chernobyl.

In order to understand those effects fully, it is important to look at other sections of the landscape that have not experienced extreme radiation in the same or similar ecosystems in order to make comparisons. These zones could serve as scientific controls. Fortunately, at least one such tract in the Bryansk Region, the Bryansk Forest Nature Reserve, 11,774 hectares (29,094 acres) on both sides of the largely unpolluted Nyerussa River was set aside by the Ministry of Culture in 1987. This reserve is in a fortunate area of very light radioactive fallout, and thus might well serve as a place for comparative studies with another forested area that has, in contrast, a high exposure, such as the Polesski Radiation-Ecological Nature Reserve mentioned above. Nature reserves (zapovedniki) had been created in Russia even in prerevolutionary times, and were renewed and expanded for their scientific value after the revolution with the approval of Lenin's government. They were neglected and almost destroyed during the Stalinist period, but revived after 1953. One of the purposes of a nature reserve was to serve as anetalon, an undisturbed model of how nature works without human interference, a standard, a baseline or reference point. The zapovedniki were created specifically as scientific reserves, and were intended to be kept free of human interference. Thus a Russian nature reserve is an attempt to preserve intact a fragment of an ecosystem. Unlike a national park, it is closed to all entry except by its protection staff and by scientists for study. Hunting, cutting of trees, mushroom gathering, and all commercial activities are excluded. Educational activities might be permitted, but the exigencies of history have made that use unlikely up to the present. There is some public criticism of the strict rules that nominally protect nature reserves. But they serve as an examples of the idea that representative areas, large enough for the survival of complex
ecosystems, should be protected and used only for the purpose of trying to understand the other forms of life on Earth and the whole of which humans are only one, though frequently a damaging, part.

The Bryansk Forest Nature Reserve contains an interesting, varied, and picturesque landscape, with old-growth oaks, coniferous forest, marshes andmeadows. It has historical as well as natural importance, since the Bryansk Forest was the scene of vigorous resistance by Soviet partisans behind Nazi lines during the Second World War, with loss of a great number of lives. In the years before the reserve, it was not undisturbed by any measure, but it is probably as good an example of the local forest ecotype as could be found. It has forty species of mammals, including European elk, deer, wild boar, bear, and an endangered bat. There is a rich bird population, including about 200 species, five of which are listed in the Red Book of Endangered Species. The rare black stork, near the limit of its range, is a shy bird that in the early 1990s was the subject of an ongoing study by Igor Shpilenok, the director of the reserve. He had several scientists on his reduced staff doing ecological investigations, including Yuri Fedotov's analysis of wetlands and Sergei Kossenko's survey of biodiversity. Their work was hampered by the economic conditions; their salaries and appropriations were long delayed and inflation put many if not most items out of reach.

"Why do we need this nature reserve?" is a question seen more than once in the Bryansk newspaper in regard to the reservation, which is located a hundred kilometers (sixty-two miles) south of the city. Setting aside a reserve, with rules drafted on a high governmental level, is not sufficient to guarantee the purpose of preservation and scientific study. It also takes public support. I once remarked to a Russian friend that his nation had many wonderful environmental regulations, but they often seemed not to be effective. He responded, "We have a saying: paper can tolerate anything." Crippling environmental degradation was inherited from the old Soviet regime. Decentralization and political upheaval in the early 1990s disabled the central authorities and left much of the nation's natural wealth in the hands of corrupt or apathetic local officials who were accountable to no one beyond their districts. Russia had not yet found a way to stop the continuing devastation of its environment during the transition period which promised to be lengthy. But the problems of unenforced environmental legislation and poorly funded environmental agencies have not been limited geographically to Russia or historically to the 1990s.

The Bryansk Region offers one example of a problem of worldwide dimensions that will continue to affect the history of the community of life in future centuries. Chernobyl was by no means the only major injection of radioactive material into the environment. Since the first test of an atomic bomb in 1945, the entire biosphere has been subjected to pollution by radioisotopes that have raised the background radiation above naturally occurring levels. Nuclear technology, from its invention in World War II and the demonstration of its destructiveness on Hiroshima and Nagasaki through the rest of the century, had two major aspects affecting the environment: weaponry and power generation. The issue of radioactive pollution emerged in the 1940s and 50s, as atmospheric testing of weapons by the United States, the USSR, Britain, and later France and China produced fallout of radioisotopes around the world, causing concern about the effects of radiation on humans and important if lesser concern about effects on other organisms. An American bomb test in 1954 exposed 290 Marshall islanders and 23 Japanese fishermen on the boat Lucky Dragon to high levelsof radiation, and caused at least two deaths in the short term. Other boats were contaminated, and radioactive fish were monitored in the Pacific. But these were publicized events; radiation damage to people and livestock in Nevada and Utah was hushed up for years. Untold numbers of animals were placed in test sites so that the effects of exposure to explosion and radioactivity could be studied, and tests on human subjects have been revealed recently. In addition, death and injury to wildlife in these areas was observed after the tests. The toll among wildlife in various test sites around the world, and the contamination of island and desert environments with nuclides, was severe.

Not a test, but an accident involving release of radioactivity was a fire at the Windscale military reactor in Britain in 1957. An accidental explosion of buried radioactive materials at Kyshtym in the Urals followed early the next year. It contaminated forests, farms, and cities, but was kept secret by the Soviets and the full extent of damage to ecosystems and the human population is still unknown.

Leading scientists and public figures proposed a ban on testing in the atmosphere, oceans, and space, but a conference of experts failed to reach agreement. Then in 1962, with the American blockade of a Soviet attempt to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, war between two nuclear powers came close. People around the world were aware that such a war would have effects on them as radioactive particles would be carried by currents in the atmosphere and deposited by precipitation in distant places, as had happened with the more than 500 tests already held. An Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963 by the United States, the USSR, Britain, and more than a hundred other nations. France and China, wanting to continue tests, refused to sign. Underground tests, permitted under the treaty, continued for a number of years. A non-proliferation treaty of 1968, intended to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations, was ratified by most nations, but avoided by those most likely to join the nuclear club. India, a non-signer, conducted an atmospheric test in 1974. Several nations kept their capabilities secret, and even some signatories were suspected of trying to get their own bombs. Other treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the breakup of the USSR in the 1990s, seemed to reduce the danger of nuclear war, but the weapons remained along with the possibility of use by extremist national leaders or terrorists or of a renewed confrontation between the great powers.

Studies in the 1980s emphasized the potential worldwide environmental effects of a major nuclear war. Not only blasts and radiation would do damage, but also the tremendous quantities of dust and smoke particulates from the explosions and the firestorms they would produce in cities and forests. The atmosphere would become more turbid, blocking the sun's rays and cooling the surface. Climatic disturbances could be expected. Some scientists suggested that a "nuclear winter," with temperatures far below normal, would result. Many plants and animals would die due to darkness and cold, in major regions agriculture would become impossible for months or years, and the effect on natural ecosystems would be almost incalculable. The environmental consequences of nuclear war potentially constitute one of the most catastrophic results of human activity on Earth, and might well bring that activity, as well as that of many other species, nearly or completely to a halt.

A second aspect of nuclear technology with an impact on ecosystems is power generation. Electricity was experimentally generated in 1951, and commercial power later became available. Nuclear energy seemed safe and inexpensive, without some of the pollution problems of fossil fuel, and nations throughout the world decided to use it. By 1987, there were 417 plants in operation in twenty-seven nations, generating 17% of the world's electricity, with 120 additional units planned. The nations with the highest generating capacity were the United States, France, the USSR, Japan, Germany, Canada, and Britain. However, orders for new plants had almost disappeared in many nations. There had been no new licenses in the United States since 1978. Costs had been higher than expected, the problem of storage of long-lived radioactive wastes--there is no way to decontaminate them--was troublesome, and the number of accidents involving core damage was disturbingly high.

Some radioisotopes have exceptionally long half-lives and will remain dangerous after thousands of years. "There is no precedent in technology for the long periods of time for which risk assessments are required in radioactive waste management...or the amounts of radioactive materials that should be permitted to enter the biosphere in future millennia."

Radioactive wastes have been treated in a number of unsatisfactory ways: storage on-site, injection through wells into deep rock formations, and dumping in containers onto the seabed. International restrictions now forbid disposal at sea, but are difficult to enforce. At present, the recommended method is storage in underground chambers excavated in stable formations of rock or salt. There are difficulties with estimating future problems of earthquake faults and ground water pollution, and one limiting factor in democratic societies has been the unwillingness of people to allow such facilities, not to mention the plants themselves, to be located near their homes; the acronym used for the phenomenon is "NIMBY" ("Not In My Back Yard").

Equipment failure and human error produced an accident in 1979 at the Three Mile Island plant, Pennsylvania, which destroyed 35% of the reactor core and caused release of radioactive material to the environment. Although damage to humans and the ecosystem was small, the potential danger was clear to the public. The devastating 1986 accident at Chernobyl shook the world even more. As Mikhail Gorbachev remarked, "A splinter of experience is better than a whole forest of instructions. For us, Chernobyl was such a splinter." That and dozens of less serious accidents may have put a temporary or permanent end to the growth of the nuclear power industry around the world, except possibly in France, where in 1991 almost eighty-three percent of commercial electricity was generated by nuclear power plants, and perhaps a few other nations that were firmly committed to it.

Historically, the artificial raising of levels of radioactivity has had an as yet unmeasured effect on the functioning of ecosystems and on the biosphere as a whole. Radiation occurs naturally in the form of cosmic rays that reach the Earth from space, and ores of such elements as uranium, thorium, and radium. Ecosystems have evolved in the presence of generally low levels of background radiation. Before the mid-twentieth century, they had almost no experience of higher levels. Eventually there may be adaptations by plants and animals, and ecosystems also, to conditions of higher radioactivity, but what those adaptations might be can only be suggested until decades have passed. The available evidence indicates serious disruptions of the community of life.

How did it happen that modern humans decided to introduce active substances into the ecosystems of which they are an inextricable part, substances which are degradable only over long periods of time and for which organisms and natural systems lack means of resistance? One answer is that humans thought of themselves as separate from the rest of the biosphere, so that they would be protected by distance or by dilution of the dangerous substances. But radioactive products were carried in the atmosphere to every part of the Earth. Another answer is that they intended to isolate radioactivity within safe containers such as nuclear reactor core protection systems, concrete sarcophagi, or safe buildings at plutonium production plants, all of which have since, in some times and places, ruptured or leaked. Every form of technology experiences accidents from time to time. The nature of human beings is to learn by trial and error, but inevitably if unpredictably to make human errors. Inescapably, Pandora will open the box.