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Ruined amusement park in Pripyat, Ukraine

Are Humans Worse than Chernobyl?

Nearly thirty years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the region's animal population is thriving. Whatever the effect of radiation, the effects of human habitation seem to have been a lot more damaging to nature than one of the twentieth century’s worst environmental catastrophes.

PORTSMOUTH – Nearly 30 years have passed since the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and the scientific community is still arguing about the impact radiation is having on the ecosystem surrounding the reactor. Recently, together with other scientists, I studied the animals in the human exclusion zone around the plant.

The results were shocking: whatever the impact of radiation on animals may be, the effects of human habitation seem to have been a lot worse. The site offers a stark reminder that humans’ simple, physical presence in a habitat is more damaging than one of the twentieth century’s worst environmental catastrophes.

We studied animals in the nearly 2,200-square-kilometer (850 square miles) sector of the exclusion zone in Belarus called the “Polessye State Radioecological Reserve.” Before the disaster, this area was home to 22,000 people in 92 villages, and the land was farmed and exploited for its forest resources. In the days after the accident, the area’s human residents were evacuated with their farm animals to protect them from high levels of radiation.

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