Climbing Mount Chernobyl

Chernobyl Reactor 4, after the explosion

In the last century, humans have made dramatic changes to both local and global ecosystems. Some of these changes have been subtle and remained unnoticed until very recently, while others were so visible and so destructive that their names are indelibly etched into our collective consciousness. Despite a legacy of desolation, many of these places, unsafe and long-abandoned, have made dramatic recoveries. Standing tall, but not alone, among these environmental catastrophes is the melt-down of reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.


The Chernobyl disaster has been well documented over the last 25 years. A power surge caused a reactor vessel to rupture, and the resulting explosions released a plume that exposed large portions of Europe and the Soviet Union to radioactive fallout. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from the surrounding area due to radiation concerns. Following the disaster, the Soviet government established a 30-km exclusion zone around the power plant, evacuating 120,000 residents from the city of Prypiat and surrounding countryside. This exclusion zone became an “involuntary park” – and area that for environmental, economic, or political reasons has been allowed to return to return to a feral or natural state.

In the 25 years that human incursion into the Exclusion Zone was curtailed, wildlife has thrived. Animals that have been absent from the area for centuries have been spotted within the Zone, including the reintroduced Przewalski’s Horse and Wisent.  Wolves, wild boars, Roe Deer, red deer, moose, beaver, and rare lynx have all established populations within the Exclusion Zone. Plants have shown surprising resistance to radiation exposure and even the flora is flourishing. The post-disaster recovery has been so dramatic that, in 2007, the Ukrainian government established a 489 sq. kilometer wildlife sanctuary in the exclusion zone, one of the largest in Europe.

But all is not pristine with the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Despite premature reports of a thriving wilderness unaffected by radiation, there is still substantial debate regarding the long term effects of low-level radiation exposure. Reproductive rates in several bird species are lower than expected, and local variation in wildlife density corresponds to variation in radiation levels within the Zone. While the debate surrounding the Zone ecosystem focuses on whether human exclusion has allowed wildlife to thrive or radiation exposure has reduced native flora and fauna, the larger trade-off tends to be ignored.

Pre-disaster Chernobyl was not a pristine wilderness, it contained a small city, several industrial projects, a military installation, and a nuclear power plant. Were the area to be abandoned without the Chernobyl disaster, recovery would certainly have been faster and the Exclusion Zone would be even more lush, but without the disaster, the subsequent 25-year abandonment would not have happened. The question is not “is wildlife thriving within the exclusion zone despite prolonged exposure to radiation?” but rather “Is prolonged exposure to radiation more detrimental to wildlife than prolonged human occupation and exploitation?” For the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the answer is no.


In the same year the the Chernobyl disaster unfurled, another involuntary park was emerging from the wasteland of environmental devastation. The Rocky Mountain Arsenal began as a chemical weapons manufacturing plant mid-way through World War II. Mustard gas, lewisite, and chlorine gas were produced for the war effort. Later, during the Korean War, the Arsenal was used to produce GB nerve agent. Chemical weapons production was halted in the later 1960’s and Shell leased the facility to manufacture insecticides and synthetic resins. The Arsenal shut down for good in 1982 and the long contamination clean-up process began.

Balds eagles in the Arsenal. Photo by Rich Keen -

Thanks to decades of waste disposal, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal was among the worst toxic waste dump sites in the United States. The Arsenal was placed on the Superfund National Priorities List in 1987 as one of the largest and most expensive sites at the time. Unexploded ordinance, toxic waste, asbestos from old military installations, solvents, pesticides, and feedstock chemicals limited access and precluded development during the ongoing clean-up process. Environmental studies to assess the extent of the damage revealed a stunning array of wildlife thriving within the Arsenal grounds. Then-endangered bald eagles had established a winter roost, and the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated at least 330 wildlife species inhabited the area.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush created the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, a 17,000 acre area that will be slowly opened to the public as clean-up and remediation is complete. Currently, the refuge covers 12,500 acres, with the remaining land remediation scheduled to be completed in 2011. The Arsenal is currently one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the world and includes a standing heard of bison. It has been described as “the nation’s most ironic nature park”.

Wildlife thrived in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal because the civilian access to the military base was restricted. Many military facilities require a wide buffer between active bases and surrounding civilian areas. These buffers frequently become “involuntary parks”, even when used as bombing ranges, training grounds, and dump sites. Especially when located in urban areas, like the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, these buffers provide refuges for wildlife that would otherwise be smothered under concrete and urban sprawl. While the contamination produced by concentrated industrial production of some of the most toxic chemicals in use may be detrimental to ecosystem health, it still pales in comparison to prolonged human occupation and development.

Atomic Spring

Castle Bravo

At 15 megatons, Castle Bravo, an experimental dry fuel thermonuclear hydrogen bomb, was the largest nuclear device ever detonated by the United States of America. It permanently reshaped the island of Bikini Atoll, creating the Bravo Crater, and released a radioactive plume that stretched out across the Marshall Islands. Castle Bravo was one in a series of 23 nuclear detonations that occurred on Bikini Atoll from 1946 to 1958. Before that, is was used as a naval graveyard. Approximately 200 people living on Bikini Atoll were relocated to neighboring islands before the nuclear tests began. Bikini Atoll has remained unoccupied since the nuclear program ended. An attempt to return to the island in the seventies was stymied by the presence of radioactive elements in the food and water supplies. Even today, dive boats bringing tourists to the remote destination must bring their own supplies and cannot eat the fish or fruit found in the atoll.

There’s a reason the dive boats are going there, and it’s because Bikini Atoll, arguably the single most dramatically disturbed place in human history, is home to lush coral reefs and a vibrant marine ecosystem. Even the heart of Bravo Crater has been recolonized by corals. The Atoll has become a world heritage site and a celebrated (though difficult to get to) marine park. Not only has the ecosystem recovered considerably since testing ended, but biodiversity is actually higher now than before the first nuclear tests. One researcher, who came to speak at the Duke Marine Lab several years ago, even described the lagoon ecosystem as pristine. Plans are in place to create a permanent marine reserve at Bikini Atoll, which would permanently exclude re-occupation.

Imagine being displaced from your home so that someone could detonate 23 nuclear bombs where you lived, and then being told by the same agency that dropped those bombs that you couldn’t return because your presence could impact the ecosystem.

The issue of whether or not the people who were relocated during the nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll (and their children and grandchildren) can return is an important question of social and environmental justice, but the ecologic reality is that even with the detonation of 23 nuclear weapons, even with a 15 megaton hydrogen bomb that permanently reshaped the island, catastrophic destruction of an ecosystem is still less damaging than prolonged human occupation.

There is no summit on Mount Chernobyl

Chernobyl, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and Bikini Atoll created exclusion zones that removed human presence from the ecosystems. Even though all three areas suffered from massive, anthropogenic destruction, the lack of prolonged human occupation allowed these systems an opportunity to recover. Mount Chernobyl is the mountain we cannot climb, because it rises only in our absence. The voluntary or, more-often, involuntary removal of humans from an ecosystem is the extreme response to ecosystem destruction, but because it is so deeply connected to issues of power, class, and indigenous rights, it can only be an option in the wake of global disaster.

For marine systems, there may be hope for establishing exclusion zones that do not trample the rights of historic occupants. There are only a few remaining ecosystems that are essentially unoccupied by people, but they represent some of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity in the world. The deep sea is our last great frontier, our least explored region, and our most vulnerable to exploitation. Already there are many competing interests looking to extract resources from the deep sea. We have an opportunity, now, to identify regions of the deep sea of importance, that would benefit from a marine exclusion zone which restricts all human activity.

This goes against the philosophy of wise, or managed, use, where we think that by implementing management and mitigation measures we can continue to extract resources with no (or little) impact. In some cases, that may be true, but for many cases, the compounding impact of human presence vastly outweigh the effects of a catastrophic disturbance. I’d be surprised if there aren’t situations where a single, catastrophic extraction event, followed by long-term human exclusion is the better environmental choice. Isolating critical habitat from all human use may be the only route towards creating a healthier ecosystem that can withstand human pressure.

The unsettling conclusion, when it comes to environmental restoration, is that the nuclear option is the absence of us.



Balonov MI (2007). The Chernobyl Forum: major findings and recommendations. Journal of environmental radioactivity, 96 (1-3), 6-12 PMID: 17493715

WILDLIFE PRESERVE Environ. Toxicol. Chem., 19, 1231-1232

Moller AP, & Mousseau TA (2007). Species richness and abundance of forest birds in relation to radiation at Chernobyl. Biology letters, 3 (5), 483-6 PMID: 17698449

Møller, A., Mousseau, T., de Lope, F., & Saino, N. (2008). Anecdotes and empirical research in Chernobyl Biology Letters, 4 (1), 65-66 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0528

Rocky Mountain Arsenal

William Cronon (1995). In Search of Nature Uncommon Ground: rethinking the Human Place in Nature, 23-56

HAVLICK, D. (2011). DISARMING NATURE: CONVERTING MILITARY LANDS TO WILDLIFE REFUGES* Geographical Review, 101 (2), 183-200 DOI: 10.1111/j.1931-0846.2011.00086.x

Bikini Atoll

Richards, Z., Beger, M., Pinca, S., & Wallace, C. (2008). Bikini Atoll coral biodiversity resilience five decades after nuclear testing Marine Pollution Bulletin, 56 (3), 503-515 DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2007.11.018


  1. Chuck · August 30, 2011

    I was wondering when I started reading this whether you’d include Bikini. I remember reading an article about in National Geographic about how the ecosystem was thriving all the way up to reef and tiger sharks. It’s crazy to think that nuclear bombs are better for the environment than roads and houses, but it seems to be the case.

  2. MaryM · August 30, 2011

    Excellent piece, except this part: “local variation in wildlife density corresponds to variation in radiation levels within the Zone.” Those studies are severely flawed and the results don’t support the radical conclusions. Other than that, well done!

  3. Kevin Z · August 30, 2011

    Great article, a classic Thaler piece. Submitted to Open Lab.

  4. artificialhabitat · August 31, 2011

    @Kevin Z. Seconded.
    If I remember (!) this’ll be getting nominated for the next 3QD science blog writing contest when that comes around, as well.

    Very nice piece.

    One thing:

    “There’s a reason the dive boats are going there, and it’s because Bikini Atoll, arguably the single most dramatically disturbed place in human history, is home to lush coral reefs and a vibrant marine ecosystem.”

    Well, sure, but I suspect the main draw for recreational divers is the wrecks!

  5. Minz · September 1, 2011

    Wreck schmeck! I’d love to see the reefs and fish life.

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