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Radiation is for the Birds… at least at Chernobyl

The control room of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant at Pripyat. Photo credit goes to: RIA Novosti

The control room of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant at Pripyat. Photo credit goes to: RIA Novosti

Twenty eight years ago yesterday brought about the worst nuclear disaster to date, I am [of course] talking about Chernobyl. Chernobyl was supposed to be the flagship of a peaceful atomic energy program by the USSR. It’s easy to think with everything going on in the Ukraine now, that the incident is far in the past and is never coming back, neither of those is the case.

Chernobyl happened for several factors, the major problem was the lack of shielding, designed to contain the reactor in case something were to happen. To save money [in my opinion due to economic issues] they did not build shielding. Of course, something happened, an experiment with reactor four sent it into meltdown. That caused the pressure to build until the minimal shielding failed, then the reactor exploded.

The slow reaction to the explosion, led to enormous amounts of radioactive gases escaping from the reactor [Not so fun fact, it took about a day before the former USSR realized how bad it really was]. For two weeks they tried to seal the reactor and contain the radiation, that led to the construction of the infamous sarcophagus,designed to finally seal in the radiation. One that is, unfortunately failing, so a new “container” needs to be built.

The first half of the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement, or NSC. Photo credit goes to: AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLIY STEPANOV

The first half of the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement, or NSC. Photo credit goes to: AFP PHOTO/ ANATOLIY STEPANOV

To this day, the radiation is too high for people to live in the area, only short visits are recommended because of the amount of exposure that comes with staying long-term. Very little life has managed to come back to the area, mostly trees which have been studied because of the decomposition rates of the dead leaves [they are slower because of the lack of decomposers in the soil]. That hasn’t stopped the birds however, they have returned and are flourishing despite the radiation.

[Loony hint: Radiation exposure causes genetic mutation, a high energy particle hits the DNA causing free radicals, a charged particle that, as its name implies is free to move around. Free radicals are not bad when they are controlled, but radiation exposure cases too many free radicals for the body to handle. This is why effects can last long after exposure, you are still dealing with the free radicals that the body can’t control.]

Scientists were confused with how the birds dealt with the radiation, they assumed [correctly] that they had to increase antioxidant production to contend with the radiation. As it turns out, this also had positive health impacts for some of the birds. In fact there was only two birds species that were impacted negatively by the radiation — the great tit, and the barn swallow — both produce a pigment in their feathers that requires antioxidants to create, so there isn’t enough left over to contend with the radiation.

What is exciting about this discovery — this is the first known example of wild animals adapting to chronic radiation exposure. Which once again proves that nature finds a way, even when we dirty things up to the point where we can’t live in it.



Already know your antioxidants from your free-radicals? You probably want the full study — here!

Galván I., Bonisoli-Alquati A., Jenkinson S., Ghanem G., Wakamatsu K., Mousseau T.A. & Møller A.P. (2014). Chronic exposure to low-dose radiation at Chernobyl favors adaptation to oxidative stress in birds, Functional Ecology, n/a-n/a. DOI:

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