Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters: What happens to nuclear exclusion zones when humans leave?

The terrifying, dystopian vision of a society dealing with nuclear fallout has been a rich vein for literature, films and games since the Cold War ended. Thankfully, apart from the Manhattan Project, nobody has pressed the nuclear button, so the narrative device of a nuclear apocalypse remains largely theoretical.

Largely, but not completely. Nuclear power stations differ in scale, and intent, but accidents still require humans to evacuate or face the consequences. To date, there have been just two level 7 nuclear events: the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, and the Fukushima meltdown in 2011. The former has left an abandoned area of 1,004 square miles, while the latter has limited human life for 310 square miles.

In the case of Chernobyl, due to the uneven levels of radiation, experts have no definitive answer as to when it will be viable for humans to return. Estimates range from 20,000 years near the blast site to 20 years in the more secluded regions.


Despite this, the nuclear exclusion zone around Chernobyl has a surprising number of residents – the majority of them are not human, but not in the sense science-fiction predicted. A recent University of Portsmouth study has revealed that wildlife in the region is booming.

Chernobyl: wildlife is thriving

“Despite the inherent health risks involved, animal populations are at a similar level to Ukraine’s unaffected areas – elk, deer, wild boar and wolves are seemingly thriving.”

Despite the inherent health risks involved, animal populations are at a similar level to Ukraine’s unaffected areas – elk, deer, wild boar and wolves are seemingly thriving. Does that mean the area is safe? Not necessarily, but it may mean that we’re being a little over-cautious in our distance. “We know that radiation can be harmful in very high doses, but research on Chernobyl has shown that it isn’t as harmful as many people think,” said Professor Jim Smith from the University of Portsmouth.

The surprising take-home is that wildlife numbers in the region are probably significantly higher than they were before the 1986 disaster, but that has more to do with humans being deadly than the radiation being safe for animals. Or, as Professor Smith puts it: “This doesn’t mean radiation is good for wildlife, just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming and forestry, are a lot worse.”chernobyl_dollshead

There are still people in Chernobyl’s nuclear exclusion zone, of course. Known as the samosely (“self-settler” in Ukrainian), the gradually dwindling population either refused to leave, or left and returned without waiting for the government to give the all clear. Exact numbers are difficult to pinpoint, but the figure is estimated to have dropped from 612 in 1999 to 197 in 2012. A CNN report claims that the majority of inhabitants are women in their 60s, the men having died years before due to “overuse of alcohol and cigarettes”. Why do they risk it? One samosely puts it bleakly: “Radiation doesn’t scare me. Starvation does.”

The recent horror of Fukushima

Fukushima, on the other hand, is more complicated. In terms of scale, despite being a level 7 event, it’s small compared to Chernobyl, although the number of people who were evacuated is similar (around 300,000). The radioactivity from Fukushima was said to be, at most, 900 PBq in 2011. In contrast, Chernobyl hit 5.2EBq – over five times the radiation. Indeed, Fukushima was originally ranked as a level 5 event, as the Japanese government treated each reactor as a separate incident, only upgrading it to level 7 a month afterwards.fukushima_abandoned

Not enough time has passed since the accident to confidently assess the health of those caught in the Fukushima meltdown’s surrounding area, and estimates differ. Even if 30 years had passed, coming up with an agreed number of deaths caused by the accident would be insanely difficult. Some people will develop cancer without exposure to radiation, and screening for thyroid cancer – an abnormally high metric from Chernobyl – risks conflating benign growths, which will be both harmless and symptomless, with the life-threatening variety. Getting an overall death toll for Chernobyl, even 29 years later, has proved impossible, with estimates inflated by anti-nuclear activists. A figure of 4,000 eventual deaths is sometimes mooted.

“Currently, its population stands at under 300 people – a fraction of the 7,400 who used to to call it their home.”

There are many reasons – radioactivity aside – why Fukushima isn’t likely to match that number, a detailed breakdown of which can be found here. Chief amongst those is the speed of the evacuation and distribution of prophylactic iodine. In short, far fewer people were exposed in Japan than Ukraine.

And, just four years after the disaster, certain regions’ populations are beginning to get the official clearance to return home – although not everyone is rushing to take the government up on its offer. The town of Naraha is amongst these, but it’s mostly the elderly who are making the trip home. “We’re too old to be worried about getting cancer from radiation exposure. I expect a lot of older people will return, but not their children or grandchildren. It’s going to be difficult to raise children here,” one returning resident told The Guardian. Currently, its population stands at under 300 people – a fraction of the 7,400 who used to to call it their home.fukushima_meltdown_town

Fukushima: returning home

They will find a quieter place when they return – and not just on the ground, either. A grim study analysing the number of birds shows a sharp decline in numbers of over half the species assessed, suggesting that, even as radiation levels decrease, the danger to avian life might not have completely dissipated. The signs also don’t look good for plants, insects and animals, which were oblivious to the accident and the need to vacate urgently. However, the Japanese government is doing its best to play down concerns over food radioactivity and the safety of the region – most recently by providing peaches and sake from the region at an exhibition in Milan.

“In one case, a local farmer left, and then returned out of compassion for the animals left behind.”

Of course, there are some people who never left. Though smaller in number than Chernobyl’s samosely, the residents’ reasons are typically the same: they’d rather live a short life in familiar surroundings, than a long one in a place that will never be home to them. In one case, a local farmer left, and then returned out of compassion for the animals left behind, as reported in the following Vice documentary. “I had no choice but to stay,” he said.

Whether or not the 300,000 relocated people will decide to return to the region in significant numbers is still up in the air. If they do, they’ll return to somewhere simultaneously familiar and completely alien. A region that, as the photographs show, remains frozen in March 2011.

WATCH THIS: Every nuclear explosion mapped by country

Images: Guido van Nispen, LaVon, Sergey Kamshylin, EnolaBrain81, Fotokon.

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