Analysing the fallout of radioactivity in the shadow of Chernobyl

The date is 26 April 1986. The world is going about its business when an explosion rips through one of the reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union. Instantly, thousands of lives are changed, and the continent of Europe – and beyond – is left to manage the literal and metaphorical fallout of large quantities of radioactive particles released into the atmosphere.

Almost 30 years on, the effects of the disaster are still being felt by those who existed in its shadow, and the homes and villages once lived in by the plant’s workers lie abandoned, with estimates that some areas will not be safe for human habitation for another 20,000 years.

“It is an eerie thing to see,” says PhD student Emily Vernon, who spent a week in the irradiated zone in September. “There are books and children’s toys left on the ground, but one of the most iconic images is of a funfair that was just about to open when the plant exploded. The rides and attractions have never been used, but are preserved that way. It’s a reminder – like an innocence lost.”

Emily was one of 25 PhD students invited to the field trip in southern Ukraine, all part of the RATE (Radioactivity and the Environment) collaboration, an £8.6 million, five-year research programme that covers three major consortium projects to address unresolved issues concerning environmental activity. Each is funded jointly by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the Radioactive Waste Management Directorate, the Environment Agency and the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

“The overriding public image of Chernobyl is that everything was destroyed in 1986, but that isn’t the case,” says Emily, who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of York before undertaking a masters degree at the University of Exeter. “We were carrying around Geiger counters and, in some areas, you stepped off the roads and the radiation levels jumped, so the effect on humans is still apparent. But all around there are trees and wildlife that survive in this environment – it is far from being the barren wasteland everyone imagines.”

Emily is working alongside Professor Awadhesh Jha, from the School of Biological Sciences, as part of the TREE (Transfer – Exposure – Effects) consortium research group. This multidisciplinary project, involving eight UK and overseas institutions, is investigating the effects of ionising radiation on wild species, combining laboratory and field settings. This could prove vital in assessing the effects of planned or accidental releases of radioactivity in different ecosystems.

“The first year of my PhD focused predominantly on optimisation of techniques that will demonstrate the damage or changes radiation can potentially cause to DNA in bivalve molluscs,” Emily says. “But ahead of starting detailed experiments, the Chernobyl trip provided me with a unique opportunity to see the impact of radiation on organisms in a nonlaboratory environment, because while the region is largely uninhabitable for humans, certainly for any length of time, it is home to a wide array of wildlife.”

Among those who have made an unlikely home in Chernobyl are mussels, inhabiting one of the reactor’s former cooling ponds. Tissue samples are being collected from the mussels and will be sent to Emily for analysis. Through lab and field experiments, Emily hopes to be able to demonstrate how the impact of radionuclides on the DNA is affecting the organisms, and in so doing, identify the full impacts that existing toxic waste – and any future releases of radioactivity – might have.

Emily says: “The aim is to see if the DNA of the organisms is affected (broken) and if the expression of key genes involved in DNA damage and repair and cancer induction has changed. As humans share many genes with mussels, the study will have biomedical implications for us.”

Professor Awadhesh Jha, who has been to Chernobyl twice as part of a UK government team, and who also organised an international symposium on environmental radioactivity here at the University in 2013, feels that in order to dispose of the accumulated nuclear wastes safely, and to meet the tough targets for reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases, there needs to be a renewed attempt to commission
new-generation nuclear power plants in the UK and around the world.

He says: “The PhD students working under the RATE umbrella are all part of a multidisciplinary effort to build strong UK-based capability. This research environment has the potential to create a network that will have much greater longevity than the RATE project itself, and this will not only move the science and economy forward, but will also ensure that the health of humans and the environment is protected.”

Emily Vernon. PhD title: Assessing the impact of ionising radiation on aquatic organisms

The Genetic Toxicology and Ecotoxicology Research Group

Working across a wide range of themes including cancer biology, radioecology, molecular and in vitro toxicology, ecotoxicology and aquatic biology

Find out more about the group and its projects