University of Salford scientist to study radioactive wildlife in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

A scientist from the University of Salford is leading a team which will be finding out how the high levels of radiation at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in Ukraine affect some of the region’s large mammals, such as deer and foxes.

Over five years, the team led by Dr Mike Wood will be investigating how much radiation the animals are exposed to and developing models which can be applied to other nuclear-impacted sites.

The project team will be working in the 2,600 km2 Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) which was set up in 1986 following the catastrophic fire and explosion at the town’s nuclear power plant. The research will be carried out using a state-of-the-art satellite navigation system to track large mammal movements.  Mammals will be fitted with collars containing sensors that will measure the external radiation dose received by these animals as they move through the CEZ.

Given the high levels of radiation in the CEZ, the scientists will follow a range of safe working practices.  These include wearing clothing that can be left in the Zone and carrying monitoring equipment to ensure that time spent in areas with high radiation doses is restricted.

Dr Wood, from the School of Environment & Life Sciences said: “The 1986 disaster contaminated areas of the CEZ to different levels and provides a unique natural laboratory in which we can study how animal movement through the environment affects external radiation exposure. 

“We will also develop DNA and radiation detector technologies to study the dietary composition of these animals and the internal dose they receive from ingestion of radionuclide-contaminated food. 

“Accurate quantification of radiation dose is essential for investigating possible relationships between radiation dose and effects in wildlife – a major area of international scientific debate, which has gained increasing public profile through the international nuclear renaissance and events at Fukushima.”

The study findings will allow the team to validate and, where necessary, further develop current computer models used by regulators and industry for assessing the impacts of ionising radiation on wildlife.  The DNA and radiation detector technologies developed within the project will also be valuable for studying the transfer of radionuclides through human food chains.

The project team includes UK scientists from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the University of the West of England and international collaborators from the University of Comté (France) and the International Radioecology Laboratory (Ukraine).  These scientists are collaborating within a wider consortium studying the transfers and effects of radioactivity in the environment.  Funded by a £2.5m research grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), this consortium includes the Universities of Lancaster, Nottingham, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Stirling and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre. 

Over the next five years the consortium will be undertaking a variety of experiments and field studies within the CEZ.  The team will also be building UK and international capacity to respond to contemporary environmental radioactivity challenges, such as the management of radioactive waste and the legacy of Fukushima.  Dr Wood is also the Doctoral Training Co-ordinator for the capacity building aspects of the project.