Contaminants as Tracers The Chernobyl Nuclear Accident

Besides using radioactive isotopes which are intentionally introduced to study ecological processes, such studies can also be conducted using radioactive environmental contaminants which are released following nuclear weapons detonations or nuclear industrial accidents. In this sense habitats which have received contaminant input can become important sites for studying the structure and function of ecological processes. In some cases, if they can be protected from public access, such sites may be more valuable if protected and left alone for research, thus avoiding expensive and often highly disruptive cleanup operations which may, in some circumstances, be more harmful to resident plant and animal communities than the contamination itself.

In the case of the Chernobyl nuclear accident of April 1986 in the Ukraine, important basic as well as applied ecological information has been obtained from studies within the 30-km radius exclusion zone surrounding the site of the now destroyed nuclear power plant. Many species of native wildlife have now been found to flourish in greater numbers within this zone than in areas outside it - thus suggesting that any negative effects from the radioactive contamination to which they were exposed were not nearly as harmful as was their prior exposure to the presence of human exploitation and development. Studies of migratory waterfowl using the vast wetlands within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone have now shown that the biological transport of radioactive contaminants in the bodies of these birds has followed a strikingly different pattern (predominantly toward the southwest to southern Europe and north Africa) than did the physical transport of the same contaminants by atmospheric processes, which was primarily toward the northwest and over polar regions.

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