Chernobyl's Hot Zone Holds Some Surprises

The nuclear crisis in Japan has evoked memories of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Robert Baker, a biologist at Texas Tech, who co-directs the Chernobyl Project, has been studying mammals in Chernobyl for two decades. Baker tells Linda Wertheimer his group has found next to no signs of radiation poisoning or cancer in subsequent animal generations there.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The nuclear crisis in Japan has evoked memories of Chernobyl, the 1986 Soviet disaster which was the worst-ever accident at a nuclear power plant.

For a closer look at this comparison, we've turned to Robert Baker. He is co-director of the Chernobyl Project at Texas Tech University. Since 1994, he has been studying small animals that live in the ground around Chernobyl.

Dr. Baker, welcome.

Dr. ROBERT BAKER (Co-Director, Chernobyl Project, Texas Tech University): Well, thank you.

WERTHEIMER: What led you to make the decision to go and study Chernobyl? Obviously, there were some very serious, radiation-related injuries and even deaths. But what did you want to look at when you went to Chernobyl?

Dr. BAKER: I really didn't know what to expect. And I'd seen the cover of Time magazine saying that there was going to be a nuclear desert. And when I went over there the first time, it was really shocking because certainly, it didn't look like a nuclear desert in my mind.

But my goal was to understand what all those kind of things did to the wolves and the mice and all of the birds and mammals that are there.

WERTHEIMER: Now, as I understand it, you're not finding long-term genetic problems.

Dr. BAKER: We have not been able to document a genetic load, a mutational load that has increased. I'm not telling you that it's not there, but I'm telling you that it's small.

WERTHEIMER: Small enough that you can't separate it out from what happens naturally?

Dr. BAKER: What we really need to do is the experiment where we bring these mice into the lab and we breed them and we can see if they have a shortened life expectancy or any of the number of things that decrease the quality of life from a genetic standpoint. But we don't know if this Chernobyl environment has really produced an inferior bank vole.

WERTHEIMER: Bank voles are teensy, weensy little rodents that...

Dr. BAKER: They're cigar-looking cigar-shaped things with a red real reddish color on their back, and they're about four inches long. And, in fact, those voles are radioactive. You can catch one and you can get the Geiger counter and, I mean, it screams. But they seem to be able to do their lifecycle things and all without great consequences. If you didn't have a Geiger counter, you would not be able to tell that there was an effect.

WERTHEIMER: What about large mammals? Have you looked at large mammals?

Dr. BAKER: Oh, the wolves are doing really well there, the moose. We have not seen red deer, but our trail cameras have picked them up. So we think that there are more we wrote a paper in which we said the world's worst nuclear power plant disaster and creation of a wildlife preserve.

WERTHEIMER: Dr. Baker, when you look at a situation like the one they have in Japan now, where a giant set of reactors is sitting on the banks of the ocean in the middle of what appears to be fairly rich farmland, what would be your that means your assessment would be that everything around there is going to recover?

Dr. BAKER: Well, it certainly will recover in time. I'm sure that there will be in 10 years, there will be mice and mammals moving back in and doing very well. But it may be that for growing food that we want to feed to our children, that won't be acceptable for 100 or 300 years.

WERTHEIMER: Hm. Do you think we should rethink a relationship to radiation as humans? I mean, do you think we should be as afraid of it as we clearly are?

Dr. BAKER: There's a World Health Organization that said that 150,000 ladies who were pregnant at the Chernobyl meltdown had an elective abortion. And the data for the children that were born to the women that did not have an elective abortion that were pregnant in the same time and in the same space do not show an elevated birth-defect rate. I think fear was the greatest yes, I think we need to rethink the fear factor.

WERTHEIMER: Dr. Baker, thank you very much.

Dr. BAKER: Well, you're welcome. Thank you very much.

WERTHEIMER: Professor Robert Baker is co-director of the Chernobyl project at Texas Tech University. We reached him in Lubbock.

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