The Chernobyl accident was 400 times worse than Hiroshima. Following two explosions and a fire at Chernobyl’s nuclear Reactor 4 on April 26th, 1986, massive amounts of radioactive material, primarily Caesium-137, were released as airborne particles and carried by winds across Europe.
The deadly radiation affected millions of people and led to radiation-related thyroid and brain cancer cases not only in Ukraine, but also Russia and Belarus, Bulgaria, Greece, Finland and others. In Norway and Sweden heavy fallout in the contaminated warm air collided with cold weather fronts, causing radioactive rain to cover the countries.
The radiations effects have now been studied across Europe for the last 30 years. During this time, major discoveries have been made, as well as over-exaggeration reported about the fallout’s effect.
In the Ticino region of Southern Switzerland one man, Mario Camani, who was the head of local environmental protection office, said it was not the radiation itself, but fear, that caused more damage. Here’s what Camani said in an interview to Swissinfo.ch.
"The exaggerated reactions that followed the disaster led to something very serious. They probably led to more deaths than the one’s caused by the effects of the radiation. Because of the fear of having a disabled child – a fear among mothers, but perhaps, a greater fear among doctors who were counseling them to have an abortion."
From movies and other fictional sources, it’s easy to think that exposure to radiation will cause animals to sprout a third leg or grow deformed in some way. However, wildlife in Chernobyl exclusion zone has been flourishing, with wolves, wild boars, red foxes and raccoon dogs taking over the human free areas. For years now, scientists have been studying the effects of radiation on the animal population.
Professor Timothy Mousseau from the University of South Carolina has been exploring these mechanisms in the exclusion zone since 2000.
In an interview with Nuclear Hotseat on YouTube, he said that first thing he noticed around the nuclear plant was a significant number of barn swallows that had patches of white hair.
"Nothing really striking – no three-headed monsters or anything like that, but these birds were extremely unusual, they were pale to begin with, but they also had these patches – what we’ve been calling “partial albino.” There are other names for this phenomenon, but everybody sort of understands “partial albinism” when you say it.”
However, not all of the radiations effects are so benign. Dr.Mousseau and other researchers say that many birds, as well as mammals have been affected by a similar disease.We documented an increase in the rate of cataracts in the eyes of the female [rodents].
"We documented an increase in the rate of cataracts in the eyes of the female [rodents]. We published a paper on the birds of Chernobyl 2 or 3 years ago, showing again that the cataracts in the eyes were in much higher levels in radioactive areas. Now are seeing this also in the rodents."
While the most serious radiation already damaged Europe in the weeks after the explosion, new threats still remain. If and when there will ever be forest fires in the region, the contaminated dirt and fauna will again be flushed into the sky as dangerous airborne particles and could threaten any number of countries across Europe.
For those who live in and are tourists to the exclusion zone, most notably to Pripyat, the ghost city left abandoned after the accident, the main danger is the gamma and beta radiation of the leftover Cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years. Even today it’s still present in the soil, water and any other materials such as concrete or wood. And even with a multi-decade half life, the area around Chernobyl will remain inhospitable to humans for the next thirty thousand years.