We all know the story by now. On April 26, 1986, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, on the border of Ukraine and Belarus, exploded after a botched safety test caused a power surge that couldn’t be controlled, belching massive amounts of radioactive debris high into the atmosphere.
The human impact of this catastrophe was huge: At least 237 people suffered acute radiation sickness, while the World Health Organization expects that 4,000 people will die due to radiation exposure. Not only that, but the 30-kilometer (18-mile) evacuation zone displaced 130,000 people who have never been allowed to return. Despite this being one of the worst environmental disasters the world has ever seen, there has been one surprising benefiter: the wildlife.
The immediate aftermath of the explosion within a few kilometers of the plant was brutal. Initially, everyone within 10 kilometers (6 miles) was evacuated, as the radioactive plume (containing physical bits of nuclear fuel) rained down and the reactor continued ejecting material for up to 10 days. Not much is known about the immediate effect this had on the wildlife, as attention was rightly focused on the people who lived nearby. However, an obvious impact was what is now called the Red Forest.
“The Red Forest itself is quite small at only between 4 and 6 square kilometers,” the University of Portsmouth’s Jim Smith, who is currently looking at the impact Chernobyl had on water invertebrates, tells IFLScience. Smith previously conducted the most in-depth study on mammal abundance within the exclusion zone.