SREL research team heads to Belarus to measure impact of Chernobyl on wildlife

October 10, 2014

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Vicky L. Sutton-Jackson

Public relations coordinator, Savannah River Ecology Lab

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Aiken, S.C. - The 1986 failure of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant spewed massive amounts of radioactive material into the environment, contaminating large swaths of land in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Nearly 30 years later, scientists are still working to evaluate the long-term effects of the disaster.

Now, a team of researchers from the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory is working within the 30-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding the former power station where they are using new technologies to assess the effects of radiation exposure on free-ranging wildlife living near the now dormant reactor.

Associate research scientist Stacey Lance, assistant research scientist James Beasley, postdoctoral research associate Mike Bryne and UGA graduate students Cara Love and Sarah Webster will use the latest technology to obtain radiation exposure rates on free-ranging wildlife in the zone.

"Existing models of evaluating safe levels of radiation in wildlife are based on an unreasonable assumption that animals receive a constant steady level of exposure," Lance said. "However, contaminants are not uniformly distributed within a landscape and thus the amount of radiation an animal is exposed to can vary substantially as they move among habitats within their home range," Beasley said. The researchers explained that the larger the home range of an animal the greater the variation in radiation exposure.

The group will spend up to nine weeks monitoring the health of wildlife and gathering data from a device that combines two forms of existing technology: a dosimeter, used to measure radiation dose rates, and a GPS tracking system for large animals. The two technologies are integrated to form a new monitoring device in a collar that is placed on wildlife.

The device can be programmed at various time intervals to report precise data on the location and radiation dose of each subject.

Beasley developed the device with Thomas Hinton, former senior research scientist at SREL and now coordinator of the STAR Network of Excellence in Radioecology with the Institute of Radioprotection and Security in France. Hinton will join the team in Belarus.

The researchers tested the technology for eight months at SREL on wild pigs on the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina. Comparative data were gathered from control sites and contaminated areas.

These preliminary tests indicate the device is accurate and highly capable of detecting small changes in radiation exposure, Beasley and Lance said.

The researchers are also using remote cameras and scat surveys to estimate densities of carnivore species (including grey wolf, raccoon dogs and lynx) found within the zone. "Collectively, this research should greatly improve our knowledge of the range and variability in exposure that free-ranging wildlife experience in contaminated environments," Lance said.

This research is funded by the National Geographic Society, IRSN and the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority.

Savannah River Ecology Laboratory
The Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, a research unit of the University of Georgia founded in 1951, is located on the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina. SREL conducts ecological research to assess environmental impacts on the ecosystem, provides advanced hands-on educational opportunities to undergraduate and graduate students, and improves environmental stewardship and awareness through public outreach. For additional information about the lab, go to www.srel.uga.edu

Filed under: Environment, Wildlife, University News

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