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Thinking outside the exclusion zone
April 21, 2006 8:26 AM   Subscribe

The BBC reports that twenty years on "the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power station is teeming with life." Lynx, eagle owl, wild boars, horses, wolves—even signs of bears which haven't been seen here in centuries. British scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock (recently discussed here) speculates whether "small volumes of nuclear waste from power production should be stored in tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by greedy developers." Lovelock describes Chernobyl as "a nasty accident that took 45 lives." This article in the New Scientist claims that that the death toll may ultimately reach 60,000.
posted by 327.ca (49 comments total)

 
Lovelock was the guest speaker at a resort I ended up at last summer. He's as crazy as trousers full of ferrets.
posted by docgonzo at 8:31 AM on April 21, 2006


[Sorry for the crappy FPP formatting. Should also have included a [via].

The BBC article has links in the right sidebar to recent photos of the Chernobyl region. (See this 2004 post for more.) And for one of the most interesting murder mysteries of recent years, don't miss "Wolves Eat Dogs" by Martin Cruz Smith.
posted by 327.ca at 8:32 AM on April 21, 2006


Heh, beat me to it, I was planning to post this once I had a chance to dig up supporting links. I hadn't got much further than this BBC story - The Chernobyl nightmare revisited. This is fun too - Ghost Town Chernobyl Pictures - Elena's Motorcyle Ride through Chernobyl

Really interesting stuff.
posted by MetaMonkey at 8:36 AM on April 21, 2006


Way to think outside the box!
posted by fungible at 8:37 AM on April 21, 2006


Gah, beaten again.

Well take this:

Chernobyl at damninteresting
Phytoremediation: Using Plants to Clean Soil
posted by MetaMonkey at 8:38 AM on April 21, 2006


aaah now i see the title i suck
posted by fungible at 8:38 AM on April 21, 2006


"small volumes of nuclear waste from power production should be stored in tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by greedy developers."

I don't think an idea like this is necessarily as crazy as it appears at first blush.

Keeps the animals thriving, and keeps the humans out.

It seems to go against common sense, but Chernobyl seems to be defying conventional wisdom.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:47 AM on April 21, 2006


"Small volumes of nuclear waste from power production should be stored in tropical forests. . ."


I, for one, welcome our radioactive, mutant army ant overlords.
posted by Axandor at 8:54 AM on April 21, 2006


Thriving? How about at second blush?

From that first link: "He has found ample evidence of DNA mutations, but nothing that affected the animals' physiology or reproductive ability. 'Nothing with two heads,' he says. "

Not exactly thriving -- just not two-headed. And just the ones he found. Nobody knows what the result of all of this DNA mutation will really be on the wildlife.
posted by Cassford at 9:00 AM on April 21, 2006


But she too argues that the benefits to wildlife of removing people from the zone, have far outweighed any harm from radiation.

Humanity, far more harmful than radiation? Sounds about right.
posted by signal at 9:02 AM on April 21, 2006


Fascinating. Thanks, 327.ca.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:04 AM on April 21, 2006


1. I, for one, am deeply disappointed that none of the mutations include eye lasers.

2. I find it odd that I am the first one to make this observation, what with all these posts.

3. Trouser full of mutant ferrets. Duh.
posted by graymouser at 9:08 AM on April 21, 2006


If a pair of trousers full of ferrets is wrong, I don't want to be right.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:11 AM on April 21, 2006


Not exactly thriving -- just not two-headed. And just the ones he found. Nobody knows what the result of all of this DNA mutation will really be on the wildlife.

True. But we're learning something from this, right? Smaller species reproduce quickly and twenty years can represent twenty or more generations (thousands in the case of mice). We're not only not seeing anything two-headed, but these animal populations appear to be flourishing.
posted by 327.ca at 9:19 AM on April 21, 2006


According to a previous Mefi post, Elena may be less than honest.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 9:39 AM on April 21, 2006


Part of this I think is due to the fact that radiation is a slow killer at low levels. For most mammals, getting though the first breeding season is good, and getting though two or three is lucky.

Although as an evolutionary biology study, it would be interesting to see if the higher mutation rate leads to a shift from K-strategies (few offsping with high parental demands) to R-strategies (many offspring with lower parental demands). K-strategies work well if the parents can change their behavior to reduce offspring mortality. For example, mother bears protecting offsping from male bears. R-strategies work by playing the odds in the hopes that at least one survives to reproductive adulhood.

We're not only not seeing anything two-headed, but these animal populations appear to be flourishing.

Populations and ecosystems can evolve around almost any form of stress. Of course one wouldn't expect to see large numbers of two-headed organisms. That does not mean that higher levels of radiation does not have a significant impact on the populations in that area compared to other areas.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:43 AM on April 21, 2006


Okay, so think about Yucca Mountain for a moment; nobody in the area wants the waste, and nobody wants to live anywhere near it. Unfortunately, it's in a very arid climate.

If there's a large area where wildlife thrives and people don't yet live, perhaps that would be a better place for waste storage...?
posted by davejay at 9:45 AM on April 21, 2006


Part of my interest in this subject comes from a lecture I went to a few days ago by Tim Flannery.

In his opinion, global warming is advancing at such a rate that, as a "bridging technology," we may be forced to consider greater use of nuclear power. He pointed to India and China as examples of developing societies with huge demands for energy. If China continues burning coal at its present rate, the impact on global warming will be catastrophic.

China and Japan are jointly developing small-scale nuclear reactors with lower-risk technologies. They are not risk-free—waste storage and security would be ongoing concerns—but Flannery's point is that we need to be realistic and weigh those risks against the inescapable effects of greenhouse gases.
posted by 327.ca at 9:57 AM on April 21, 2006


Forget the two headed aspect, i want to know if any of these creatures are larger than normal.
posted by quin at 10:06 AM on April 21, 2006


The general gist of it:

"I have wondered if the small volumes of nuclear waste from power production should be stored in tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by greedy developers". -Lovelock

Yes, radiation is bad for animals of all kinds, not just humans. However, radiation is less bad for wildlife than humans are.
posted by mek at 10:08 AM on April 21, 2006


quin, you seem to be saying that radiation can turn normal lizards into enormous, manure-filled bombs.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 10:24 AM on April 21, 2006


Remember, most animals evolved when the Earth was significantly more radioactive than it is now. The ability to deal with radiation is probably still latent in the gene pool, possibly even in humans. Stressing organisms with radioactivity will undoubtedly kill a lot of them, but as the links are showing, later-generation critters are becoming extremely rad-resistant, extremely quickly. This suggests that's it's an existing defense mechanism, not something brand new.

We've known for a long time that humans are uniquely susceptible to radioactivity... part of the set of mutations that created us included a very bad cell-repair mechanism, compared with most other lifeforms.

We tend to incorrectly project the bad effects on humans onto all lifeforms, when in fact that may not be the case at all.

This is part of the reason I strongly believe nuclear power is a good idea; if there are problems, HUMANS pay the price, not everything in the ecosystem. And, as people are pointing out here, a bad radiation accident is BETTER for the environment than letting humans continue to live there. We are a thousand times more dangerous to wildlife than nuclear power.

Even after worldwide nuclear war, the Earth would be green and beautiful again within fifty to a hundred years.
posted by Malor at 10:30 AM on April 21, 2006


Hey, it's only humans that live long enough to give a shit about cancer. Lets save the planet by irradiating it!
posted by Artw at 10:50 AM on April 21, 2006


kind of reminds me of the Penguins in the minefelds
posted by edgeways at 11:04 AM on April 21, 2006


Metafilter: as crazy as trousers full of ferrets.
posted by snofoam at 11:07 AM on April 21, 2006


Malor: Remember, most animals evolved when the Earth was significantly more radioactive than it is now. The ability to deal with radiation is probably still latent in the gene pool, possibly even in humans.

Um, what? Most living species on Earth have evolved in the holocene along with homo. Even so-called "living fossils" have doubless been affected by evolutionary pressures over time, as the modern Everglades are not the same environment as Jurassic swamps.

Stressing organisms with radioactivity will undoubtedly kill a lot of them, but as the links are showing, later-generation critters are becoming extremely rad-resistant, extremely quickly. This suggests that's it's an existing defense mechanism, not something brand new.

Actually, the links don't show this or make the claim of "extremely rad-resistant" documenting multipe chrosmosmal and morphological disorders. And while I agree that these adaptations are not "brand new" we do know that 20 years is long enough for a shift in gene frequencies to take place for most species.

We've known for a long time that humans are uniquely susceptible to radioactivity... part of the set of mutations that created us included a very bad cell-repair mechanism, compared with most other lifeforms.

The first I've heard about this, and sounds suspicious to me. Eukaryotic mechanisms for manipulating DNA originated in deep deep time in the past and are roughly the same for most eukaryotic organisms. I couldn't find supporting evidence for this claim.

We are a thousand times more dangerous to wildlife than nuclear power.

Certainly, nothing beats wholesale habitat loss in terms of disruption to an ecosystem. Ecosystems can also evolve around the massive overuse of pesticides, herbicides, homones and antibiotics. That doesn't mean that these things don't have a negative impact, and can be used willy nilly.

People seem to be fixated on the paragraphs reporting growing populations, and missing the paragraphs reporting deformed trees, and DNA defects.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:11 AM on April 21, 2006


This is fun too - Ghost Town Chernobyl Pictures - Elena's Motorcyle Ride through Chernobyl

Wasn't the photoessay from the girl who claimed to have ridden around on a motorcycle through Chernobyl later exposed as a fraud?
posted by dr_dank at 11:27 AM on April 21, 2006


The idea of irradiating rain forests to keep them from being developed is incredibly ill-advised. Most of them are in third-world countries, and third-worlders are generally too uneducated to appreciate the danger of radiation and often too desperate to care about it. Furthermore, everything else is horribly wrong with that plan. It's an ethical disaster; I can think of no better way to collectively give the finger to the people who live in these areas. They might burn down the forests anyway just to get revenge.

Malor: We've known for a long time that humans are uniquely susceptible to radioactivity... part of the set of mutations that created us included a very bad cell-repair mechanism, compared with most other lifeforms.

If humans have a very bad cell-repair mechanism, why is our lifespan longer than nearly all animals? Even in zoos, most of them won't live as long as humans, not even with comparable medical care. Of course a few have equivalent or even longer lifespans, but most don't.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:46 AM on April 21, 2006


You guys are missing the benefits. If we irradiated wildlife wholesale, we increase the odds that a beneficial mutation and speciation will occur and we could finally point to creationists and say "Look an animal evolved right before our eyes, STFU"
posted by Megafly at 11:56 AM on April 21, 2006


Wasn't the photoessay from the girl who claimed to have ridden around on a motorcycle through Chernobyl later exposed as a fraud?

Seems to be
posted by MetaMonkey at 12:05 PM on April 21, 2006


signal's got the point - normal human activity is much worse than a nuclear disaster from the point of view of natural processes. It doesn't need to be that way, but there's a lot of changes we make and a lot of re-tooling that needs to be done...
posted by dinsdale at 12:05 PM on April 21, 2006


Some day in the not so distant future, the radiation-soaked semi-intelligent creatures that have replaced man will analyze their circumstances and say, "This couldn't have happened by accident. There must be a radioactive God."
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:19 PM on April 21, 2006


If humans have a very bad cell-repair mechanism, why is our lifespan longer than nearly all animals? Even in zoos, most of them won't live as long as humans, not even with comparable medical care. Of course a few have equivalent or even longer lifespans, but most don't.

Mainly because we're top of the food chain, and there's a lot of us. Anything that does try to treat us like a food source often doesn't live that long afterwards. Include territory disruption that keeps animals away from us in that.

Another is size. There aren't that many mammals that are bigger than us, and those that are generally have very good lifespans. Elephants live up to 70 years if poachers don't get them, and blue whales can hit 80 years if whalers don't get them.

I think you underestimate medical technology. Improvements in child care and assisted-birth have massive raised our children's survival rate. Animals in zoos don't get that much in terms of geriatric medicine, whereas we go to great lengths to keep people alive in old age.

I don't know whether our cell-repair systems are better or worse than other species, but I do know that out technology and ability to shape our environment to our own needs does greatly improve both mean lifespan, and individual survivability. Consider that a vast number of deaths are self/species-inflicted through poor diet, smoking, driving accidents, environmental pollution and of course war - it shows that many deaths by natural causes have been surpressed or avoided.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:21 PM on April 21, 2006


Megafly: Speciation has already occurred right before our eyes, both in the lab and in the wild. It makes no difference - if creationists and flat-earthers were paying any attention to the world and the evidence in it, they wouldn't be clinging to the views they do. Evidence and proofs are irrelevant to someone with their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:31 PM on April 21, 2006


There is a T-shirt design in here somewhere.

I'm worse than
a nuclear disaster


or something like that :)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:33 PM on April 21, 2006


ArkanJG:
I think his point is not about death from environmental causes, but aging itself, ie, how many generations can cells successfully reproduce before they fail (ie until we die of old age). Human lifespan in the absence of environment-caused deaths is long, this could not happen without robust and error-resistant cell reproduction.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:38 PM on April 21, 2006


-harlequin-:
understood, but I'm pointing out that it's difficult to compare ourselves to other species because of the environmental disparities. Zoos don't really compare to the pampered lives your average westerner enjoys. Large mammals absent major predators (including us) often live long lives - if other animals had the same advantages we do, we may well not be anywhere near as top of the lifespans as we are, so it's not an automatic discredit to the idea that our cell repair is not as great - i.e. we survive despite bad self-repair because of other advantages. Cancer is the most common killer after all, and that is generally a failure of cell division and a failure to regulate faulty division - and medical tech does make it often survivable, which is an advantage animals don't have. Would be interesting to know at what rate non-wild animals get cancer, now I think about it.

"A lot of birds are nesting inside the sarcophagus," he adds, referring to the steel and concrete shield erected over the reactor that exploded in 1986. Starlings, pigeons, swallows, redstart - I saw nests, and I found eggs."

Maybe cancer isn't as big a problem for birds, or maybe environmental factors kill them before cancer might. I can't say that I'd want to deliberately put radiation sources in an area to keep people out though, that rather seems like nailing a toddler to the floor to stop it running into traffic.
posted by ArkhanJG at 3:25 PM on April 21, 2006


In a similar vein, Bikini Atoll and its environs are said to have among the healthiest coral reef ecosystems and particularly shark populations in the world since taboo and fear of radiation have kept fishermen away since we blew it up testing nuclear bombs.

In the USA, places like Rocky Flats and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are becoming nature preserves home to thriving populations of eagles and other species otherwise being pushed out by human sprawl.

Maybe I should get a "Nuke the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge" bumper sticker.
posted by bradhill at 3:27 PM on April 21, 2006


ArkhanJG: understood, but I'm pointing out that it's difficult to compare ourselves to other species because of the environmental disparities

It's not so hard to compare ourselves to other species that a conclusion cannot be drawn. Look at dogs; a dog is very lucky if it makes it to 15, and it will be obviously aged if it does (cataracts, bad joints, geriatric diseases.) A human at 15 is not even fully matured. A lot of rodents are lucky if they make it to 3. If I am not mistaken, most large herbivores (horses, cows) make it into their twenties or thirties at best.

As for having a superior environment and better geriatric care, that cannot explain why a dog is old at 15 and a human is not even full size. Also, the pets of the rich and rare zoo animals get care that is probably better than most of the humans on the planet get.

Sure, there are a few animals that live longer. My point was that poor cell-repair mechanisms are not consistent with our species having a lifespan that is above average for mammals (far above average if you consider bats and rodents.) Even before modern medicine, people routinely made it to their thirties, which is pretty long for an animal, even among large animals. A poor cell-repair mechanism would result in faster aging and higher cancer rates that would be inconsistent with a normal lifespan, much less an especially long one.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:42 PM on April 21, 2006


It's certainly true that smaller mammals than us age quicker, and the smaller you go, the less time before gentrification becomes unstoppable. It's possibly more useful to compare exceptional animals of equalish size (size does affect lifespan across the mammal kingdom) to limit environment factors. One donkey lived to 63. Hippos and horses can live to 50+. Humans can live to 120, which does appear to indicate we're a long lived species on the face of it. Your point about pampered pets versus people in the poorest areas is well made also.

I'm not saying I agree that cell-replication is especially flawed in humans, I'm just saying it's not a slam-dunk conclusion to me that humans have equal or better cell-repair abilities because they live longer than dogs or rodents. Limits on lifetime cell division, or mechanical joint operational lifetime is not quite the same thing as resistance to mutation/runaway replication caused by radiation (Malor's original argument) , but I'll certainly admit they're related.

I would like to see cancer-rate comparison across species, as I suspect that may well prove that humans have as-good protection against say, radiation damage, compared to other animals, and thus definitely prove Malor wrong. Not much joy finding such a study yet, but I'll keep looking. I'm curious, if nothing else.
posted by ArkhanJG at 5:01 PM on April 21, 2006


THere have been cancer rate comparisons across species and humans have a far higher rate. The only mammals that have anything near the same rates are longlived species that are exposed to the same types of pollutants we are at the same or higher rates. Some domestic species that are bred for colors that aren't common in nature, like albinos or cremello or gray horses also show elevated rates of skin cancers but often don't live long enough to die from them.

The only wild mammals I know of (and this certainly isn't a comprehensive survey) that have human level rates of cancer are the beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River. They have a roughly human lifespan and exhibit many of the same cancers we do, particularly cancers of the reproductive tissues. Almost all of the carcasses found in the last 20 years have had extensive or metastatic tumors. This is extremely unusual for a wild population.

There's tons of articles on it, try www.scirus.com.
posted by fshgrl at 5:19 PM on April 21, 2006


To bolster my position slightly, I did find this

"Why are human data preferable to data on animals or tissue cultures for most purposes?
Most scientists prefer to base risk estimates for humans on human data wherever possible. This is because in order to apply animal or tissue culture data to humans, scientists must extrapolate from one species to another or from simple cellular systems to the complexities of human physiology. This requires adjusting the data for differences among species in life span, body size, metabolic rates, and other characteristics. Without actual human data, extrapolation provides no guarantee that there are no unknown factors also at work. It is not surprising that there is no clear consensus as to how to extrapolate risk estimates from one species to another. This problem is not unique to radiation effects; there are countless examples of chemicals having very different effects in different species, and humans can differ quite significantly from animals in their reaction to toxic agents."
posted by ArkhanJG at 5:19 PM on April 21, 2006


btw The St. Lawrence is a toxic cesspool and human populations in the area also exhibit high cancer rates.
posted by fshgrl at 5:20 PM on April 21, 2006


Ah, thanks fshgrl. Interesting that we may well be cancer-prone after all. will dig into that site for my edification.
posted by ArkhanJG at 5:23 PM on April 21, 2006


Arkhan, it's more than likely (like 99% certainly) our environment that makes us cancer prone not our genes. The whales in the St. Lawrence live a human-ish lifespan and are exposed to human levels of environmental toxins, therefore the theory goes they have human-ish rates of cancer.

Although it's possible that medical science allows people who are genetically prone to disease to live on and reproduce thereby increasing overall cancer rates it is also true that most cancers kill people who are at or past the age of reproduction so it's unlikley that they would have had an effect on reproduction even pre-modern science.
posted by fshgrl at 5:36 PM on April 21, 2006


On the subject of lifespan:

'So let us look upon that clock on the wall, not as measuring minutes, but rather heartbeats of the creature watching it. It turns out that all animals live for roughly a billion heartbeats. With a heartbeat clock, our lifetimes would all be roughly the same. Well, not exactly ... we humans are statistical outliers. We mature far more slowly than other creatures and our hearts typically beat around three billion times. However, that's still the same order of magnitude as the rest of the animal kingdom.'

It is clear that humans are the thing that cause the most damage to the environment. Why is it so difficult to imagine that they might take responsibility for their actions and attempt to live in harmony with the other species on the planet?

Some cultures which do this have lasted an order of magnitude longer than our derivative of the consume and die variety. Human beings can do it, and you would have thought with our technology and knowledge we might be better at it rather than worse.
posted by asok at 5:54 PM on April 21, 2006


asok: Why is it so difficult to imagine that they might take responsibility for their actions and attempt to live in harmony with the other species on the planet?

I'm pretty sure six billion humans couldn't live in harmony with the environment, even if they wanted to. That's just too many people to support without large-scale modern agriculture. Also, good luck getting people to give up modern technology and transportation.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:56 AM on April 22, 2006


not agriculture, permaculture!
posted by dinsdale at 12:38 PM on April 22, 2006


Chernobyl Children's Project
posted by amberglow at 11:43 PM on April 22, 2006


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