The accident at the Chernobyl, Ukraine, nuclear reactor on 26 April 1986 released large amounts of radiocesium and other radionuclides into the environment, contaminating much of the northern hemisphere, especially Europe. In the vicinity of Chernobyl, at least 30 people died, more than 115,000 others were evacuated, and consumption of milk and other foods was banned because of radiocontamination. At least 14,000 human cancer deaths are expected in Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine as a direct result of Chernobyl. The most sensitive local ecosystems, as judged by survival, were the soil fauna, pine forest communities, and certain populations of rodents. Elsewhere, fallout from Chernobyl significantly contaminated freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems and flesh and milk of domestic livestock; in many cases, radionuclide concentrations in biological samples exceeded current radiation protection guidelines. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) in Scandinavia were among the most seriously afflicted by Chernobyl fallout, probably because their main food during winter (lichens) is an efficient absorber of airborne particles containing radiocesium. Some reindeer calves contaminated with 137Cs from Chernobyl showed 137Cs-dependent decreases in survival and increases in frequency of chromosomal aberrations. Although radiation levels in the biosphere are declining with time, latent effects of initial exposure--including an increased frequency of thyroid and other cancers--are now measurable. The full effect of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident on natural resources will probably not be known for at least several decades because of gaps in data on long-term genetic and reproductive effects and on radiocesium cycling and toxicokinetics.
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The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident: ecotoxicological update