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Earth Power Science Technology

Forests Around Chernobyl Aren't Decaying Properly 167

An anonymous reader writes "Smithsonian Magazine has an article about one of the non-obvious effects of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown: dead organisms are not decomposing correctly. 'According to a new study (abstract) published in Oecologia, decomposers—organisms such as microbes, fungi and some types of insects that drive the process of decay—have also suffered from the contamination. These creatures are responsible for an essential component of any ecosystem: recycling organic matter back into the soil. Issues with such a basic-level process, the authors of the study think, could have compounding effects for the entire ecosystem.' The scientists took bags of fallen leaves to various areas around Chernobyl and found that locations with more radiation caused the leaves to retain more than half of their original weight after almost a year. They're now beginning to worry that almost three decades of dead brush buildup is contributing to the area's fire risk, and a large fire could distribute radioactive material beyond Chernobyl's exclusion zone."
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Forests Around Chernobyl Aren't Decaying Properly

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  • Controlled fires (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Lisias ( 447563 ) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @03:57PM (#46494289) Homepage Journal

    Controlled, man initiated fires can be the solution.

    Problem is: who will do the task, and how to keep it controlled?

    And yet, the area to be safely burnt at one time can be so small that the time needed to carry on the task can be impracticable.

  • Fire = Good (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @04:14PM (#46494393)

    The fire "risk" is natures form of healing. By re-distributing the radiation the area can heal.

    We humans take issue with the idea of the radiation spreading outside "the zone" but nature doesn't.

  • Re:Solution... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @04:26PM (#46494471)

    They're not sterile but it's not merely one organism that attaches early to the leaf that is responsible for the decay. It's a collection of different organisms that each take their share of the organic matter for their own needs. Hence the note of various fungi and insects. Notably, a large part of plant root systems are often heavily intertwined with fungi which either directly or indirectly take part in the breakdown of organic matter around the plants. Hence, just dumping soil onto a new area might not be enough.

    To me the more interesting aspect is just how the plants themselves are fairing as one of the major supposed risks of nuclear fallout is precisely the way it results in uptake of dangerous radioactive material into food. But if the root system and fungi system underground have been largely buffered because the surface fungi/insects die before being able to do the necessary processing...then the plants themselves may be perfectly safe to consume (properly rinsed off, of course) but fail to restore themselves which would quickly turn the area into a desert once a fire occurred.

    So, for all the risks of fallout, perhaps Planet of the Apes (the original one) had it right.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @05:46PM (#46494909)

    Don't know about anyone else, but I find this to be not at all surprising. Back in the 1960s the US did experiments with using radiation to preserve food. Seems if you zap all the decay organisms there is nothing left to drive the decomposition process. As an industrial process it is still used in some limited situations but the general hysteria about radiation pretty much eliminated this as a wide-spread technique. The results around Chernobyl suggests the same process works there as well -- the higher the level of radiation the better preserved things are. Be patient... the right bugs will eventually get in there, may just take a while.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 15, 2014 @05:56PM (#46494941)

    Look, I don't want to ruin your cynical train, but the study looks plausible, as in "common sense" plausible. Even if it, of course, needs to be double-checked, there is no reason to "disbelieve" it without giving it the attention it deserves.

    What is triggering your "disbelief" alert here? Radioactive material enter the ecosystem via the trees. Trees die, their leaves fall every autumn. Radioactive material goes back to the ground, causes problem with fauna and fungi. Living organisms are known to be able to cope with radioactivity, but at the price of some energy expense to fight mutations (in higher organisms, tumors), which mean they can't spend as much energy as usual to do what they usually do, that is decompose organic matter and generate nutrients back into the cycle of life.

    And of course, if a fire starts, all the radioactive material contained into flammable materials (leaves and tree remnants) will soar into the sky, since the decay of the said flammable materials take longer than usual... This again seems plausible.

  • Re:Fire = Good (Score:4, Interesting)

    by x0ra ( 1249540 ) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @06:59PM (#46495273)
    Nature even had fission reactor, on earth, operating for a few hundred thousand years, cf. []
  • by Tailhook ( 98486 ) on Saturday March 15, 2014 @09:19PM (#46495895)

    For Fukushima you're talking about a far smaller dose.

    That's not the case. The total radiation released by Fukushima Daiichi is far smaller than Mayak or Chernobyl, but there are concentrations of radiation (from Cs-137 and Cs-134) as high as 30M Bq/m2 [] in the several kilometers of land Northwest of Fukushima Daiichi. This is equivalent 0.8 millicuries which puts it into the ballpark of the Urals EURT areas of 1.8-3.4 millicuries that were studied by the Soviets; high enough to measurably effect the life cycle of saprophage.

    Only one problem, during the terrorist attack the entire building was destroyed by a volcano.

    The land around Fukushima Daiichi does not fit your terrorist+volcano analogy. The land and around the plant is foothills and the water did not get far inland. The plant itself was build only after the site had been graded to within ~10m of sea level (which is probably the single biggest mistake implicated in the whole event.) So the surface fallout may be studied just fine.

    The sea around Fukushima Daiichi may also be meaningfully studied despite the tsunami. One need only establish control areas that are similar to the Fukushima Daiichi area but well away; kilometers or tens of kilometers north and south of the plant and relatively free of radioactive contaminants. Post tsunami recovery of organisms may then be studied and comparisons between Fukushima Daiichi and these control areas can be made.

    FYI: this work has been started and is ongoing. Unlike the Soviet case we won't have to wait decades for the cover-up to finally fail and the results to appear, either. Japanese and Western researchers are eager to publish about Fukushima Daiichi.

  • Re:Fire = Good (Score:4, Interesting)

    by macpacheco ( 1764378 ) on Sunday March 16, 2014 @03:38PM (#46500181)

    I don't agree with your quoted cost for Fukushima cleanup.
    The pattern so far has been of wildly inflated and some fully made up numbers about Fukushima, so I don't agree with any predictions until they actually materialize.

    >Very little of that was directly due to the aircraft though, most of it was self-inflicted damage due to the way the US responded.
    The same argument can be made that the Fukushima exclusion zone is much larger than necessary and that nuclear power plant remediation procedures are far more costly than necessary. Should we accept that the LNT model is wrong, the real procedures that will have to be undertaken would be reduced by about 75%.

    The reality is if the LNT model were right, there would have been about a hundred times more cancers from Chernobyl than actually happened.
    Remember the prediction of millions of cancer deaths from Chernobyl ?
    Countries no longer under the influence of Russia that were very close to Chernobyl report very little cancers compared to the dire predictions. So the massive cover up doesn't quite pan out.
    And there is people living back in the Chernobyl exclusion area, in defiance of the military blockade, people drinking radioactive water.
    If the LNT model were right, they would have cancers by the buckets, which isn't actually happening.
    The reality is the only real serious risk in both Chernobyl and Fukushima are Thyroid cancer from radioactive iodine, which has an 8 day half life, so 99.99% is gone in 80 days (10 half lives means 99.99% is gone).
    Our bodies deal with radiation all the time. We have radioactive Potassium-40 and Carbon-14 in our bodies decaying all the time. We breathe radioactive Radon all the time, cause it seeps from Thorium decay inside the earth.
    We can avoid fire in order not to get burned.
    We can't avoid radiation, it's everywhere.

    Nuclear is the safest energy source out there, and it doesn't have to be expensive, if we stop with the sensationalism and approach it with responsibility and sobriety.

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling