University of South Carolina

Chernobyl Research Initiative

The Earth faces unprecedented environmental challenges directly related to human activities. Perhaps the largest imminent global environmental issue, climate change, is a direct consequence of CO2 emissions stemming from the use of fossil fuels. Recently, environmental, governmental, and industrial interests have promoted nuclear energy as an environmentally friendly alternative to coal and oil-fired power plants. It has been suggested that the risks and hazards associated with nuclear energy are insignificant relative to the environmental costs of CO2 releases or the political uncertainties and national security issues related to reliance on foreign imports of fossil fuels. Much of this argument rests on the assumption that given modern technology and safeguards, nuclear disasters on the scale of Chernobyl or Mayak in the former Soviet Union could not occur again. A second assumption is that the health and environmental consequences associated with nuclear accidents or acts of terrorism involving low doses of radiation or small amounts of ingested radionuclides are very small. The central thesis of the Chernobyl Research Initiative is that both of these assumptions (and certainly the latter) are not supported by empirical evidence.

Since 1998, USC has sponsored research related to the long term ecological and health consequences of the radioactive contaminants that were dispersed over vast expanses of Europe in 1986 as a result of the meltdown and explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Given the highly heterogeneous dispersal of radionuclides across the environment that resulted from this explosion, Chernobyl is the ideal location for long term scientific studies of low-dose radioactive contaminants.  This research is important for the understanding of long term consequences of radiation for ecosystem and human health and will be instrumental in predicting the environmental half-lives of these contaminants. This research is also of significance for hazard assessment related to industrial, military or terrorist nuclear incidents, and the effects of mutagens on evolutionary responses of natural populations.  Summary of principal findings to date that are published, in press or submitted:

•	Children living in contaminated regions show significant negative impacts on blood parameters (including red and white blood cell counts, hemoglobin levels, and platelet numbers), and pulmonary function. Other parameters are currently being investigated.
•	Surveys of bird populations indicate that mutation loads in natural populations are much higher than in uncontaminated areas.
•	Literature reviews indicate that mutation rates in many different species of plants and animals (including humans) are higher than in control regions.
•	Chernobyl populations exhibit a wide variety of morphological deformities that are not found in any normal population.
•	Surveys of birds, insects, and spiders indicate that many species are either absent or in very low numbers in the Chernobyl region. Brightly colored and migratory species of birds appear to be particularly sensitive to radioactive contaminants.
•	Studies of birds indicate that some species may only persist in the contaminated regions via immigration from uncontaminated areas. Without this immigration, perceived impacts would be even higher than current projections. Media reports of a healthy Chernobyl environment with rare species of birds and mammals are likely the result of immigrants and not locally sustained populations.
•	Population and community studies suggest that antioxidants (e.g. vitamins A and E, and carotenoids) may provide protection against the mutagenic effects of radioactive contaminants.

Priorities for Future Research:
Chernobyl Ecosystem Studies
 USC now has a well established, internationally recognized track record of basic ecological and environmental studies of Chernobyl, with over eight years of baseline data for several species. Funding is needed to continue our monitoring of primary study populations and expand our coverage to include additional affected populations in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Our goals are to rigorously assess population and community dynamics of birds, insects and plants with the ultimate aim of predicting ecosystem recovery times following nuclear incidents. In addition, we are developing methods for rapid assessment of environmental impacts on DNA, populations and communities that will be valuable for monitoring following other incidents. Preliminary data indicate that parts of the Chernobyl ecosystem are presently improving and continued monitoring is essential for the development of management plans related to nuclear incidents in the future.
 The Narodichi Children Project 
We are currently seeking funding to continue our studies of children living in the Polissia region of Ukraine who are living under conditions of chronic exposure to low dose radiation. Our preliminary studies suggest many developmental and physiological effects that are detrimental to these children’s health and well-being. Much more could be learned from their further study and from the study of children living in other regions of northern Ukraine and Belarus.
Further information, including a list of publications, can be found at:

POC:  Dr. Tim Mousseau,; 803-777-5458; 803-920-7704
For more information contact Dr. Tim Mousseau or Dr. Anders Møller  or