Campus News

Research team to measure impact of Chernobyl on wildlife

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 still are working to evaluate the long-term effects of the disaster.

Now, a team of researchers from UGA’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 scientists Stacey Lance and James Beasley as well as 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 for evaluating radiation in wildlife are based on the unreasonable assumption that animals receive a constant steady level of exposure, Lance said.

In reality, radiative contaminants are not uniformly distributed within a landscape.

“Thus the amount of radiation animals are exposed to can vary substantially as they move among habitats within their home range,” Beasley said.

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 researchers also are using remote cameras and scat surveys to estimate densities of carnivore species (including gray 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.