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Chernobyl: Environmental dead zone or eco-haven?

By Matthew Knight, for CNN
  • Chernobyl nuclear disaster forced the evacuation of a 30 kilometer zone around the site
  • Ongoing study of seeds shows signs some plants can adapt to radiation
  • Nature has filled the void left by humans to create "sanctuary of biodiversity" according to U.N.
  • Scientists working in the area disagree, saying radiation has led to decline in wildlife

CNN's global series i-List takes you to a different country each month. In January, we visit Ukraine and look at changes shaping the country's economy, culture and social fabric.

(CNN) -- The abandoned ruins of the town of Pripyat near the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, at Chernobyl in northern Ukraine, have been crumbling away for almost a quarter of a century.

The absence of humans has seen nature seemingly flourish in the town's deserted streets, squares and buildings, apparently defying the radiation that leaked out when reactor number four exploded on April 26 1986.

But how true is this picture?

New research is showing that some plant species appear to be able to adapt, despite high levels of toxicity.

Scientists studying the seeds harvested from soybean and flax plants grown inside (five kilometers from the power plant) the exclusion zone found them to be relatively unaffected by radiation.

Martin Hajduch from the Institute of Plant Genetics and Biotechnology at the Slovak Academy of Sciences said: "We detected very low radioactivity in the seeds. In the stem or leaves there is radioactivity, but it is somehow blocked and doesn't come to the seeds."

In the stem or leaves there is radioactivity, but it is somehow blocked and doesn't come to the seeds
--Martin Hajduch, Slovak Academy of Sciences

Hajduch and his colleagues in Ukraine conducted a proteomic study (examining the structure and function of proteins) of the plants and found that the seeds harvested inside the exclusion zone compared favorably with ones grown in non-contaminated soil outside.

"I cannot recommend eating something from Chernobyl, but I think it will be possible at some stage," Hajduch said.

He's encouraged by the recovery plants are making at Chernobyl -- an area he describes as "full of life."

The Chernobyl Forum -- a collection of eight U.N. agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency -- published a report in 2005 examining, among other things, the environmental legacy of the disaster.

Plant and animal populations had grown since the disaster, they said, and the exclusion zone had "paradoxically become a unique sanctuary for biodiversity."

But some scientists disagree with the U.N.'s assessment.

Biologist Anders Moller from the University of Paris Sud in France has been examining the effects of radiation on animals around Chernobyl for two decades.

"Areas with higher radiation have fewer animals, survival and reproduction is reduced, sperm are abnormal and have reduced swimming ability. Abnormalities are commonplace and mutations rates are much elevated," Moller said.

Recent studies of bird life in the area by Moller and Tim Mousseau from the University of South Carolina revealed abnormality rates running as high as one in 10. A rate Moller says is "astonishing."

Last year, Moller and Mousseau published the results of the largest census of animal life in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It revealed, contrary to the Chernobyl Forum's 2005 report, that biodiversity in insects, birds and mammals is declining.

Not all species are affected by radiation in the same way according to Moller. Some birds -- including migrant species and long distance dispersers -- are more vulnerable to radiation than others, he said.

Hajduch said animal numbers in the exclusion zone are probably higher now than before the accident. But that's because there are no humans there hunting or fishing.

"But if you look at how many species of animals are in the area, I think it would be less," Hajduch said.

According to Chernobyl.Info, run by the U.N.'s Development Program, over 40 different types of radioactivity were released after the accident.

Cesium remains the most widely dispersed isotope while concerns remain over long-term contamination from strontium and plutonium.

Cesium and strontium have a half-life of around 30 years. Plutonium, however, has a half-life of 29,000 years.

The recent decision by Ukraine's government to sanction official tours to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, coupled with the upcoming landmark anniversary, will mean that more tourists will probably visit than ever before.

Chernobyl tourist Ruben Solaz, who took the stunning gallery images above on a summer trip to the site in 2008, described his visit as a "very touching, hair-raising" experience.

Few who enter Chernobyl's "zone of alienation" would disagree.