The fungus thriving in the Chernobyl nuclear reactor ๐Ÿ„

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The Chernobyl nuclear power station: IAEA Imagebank / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Thanks for reading my 600th blog post! Prepare yourself, there’s a lot to take in here.

I’ve been interested in the history of Chernobyl for several years, mainly after learning about the ecological experiment created from the complete abandonment of the area.

If you have the chance to watch the TV drama Chernobyl, do it. It is one of the best TV dramas I’ve ever seen.

A recent documentary covering the story of the nuclear accident Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes and the resulting clean up, is also worth watching. A warning of course that both are graphic and disturbing in their own ways.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986

Recently I have read Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy. It’s a very sobering account of all that happened in 1986 and how it all came to be. It’s so grim I can’t read it for too long without needing a couple of days off.

I’ve been reading it during Russia’s second attempt to commit genocide in Ukraine (April 2022), after Putin’s ragtag army’s failed attempt to take Kyiv and exact regime change. Russia are doing terrible things in Ukraine and the people responsible must be held accountable. I hope I live to see Putin brought to justice.

When are you going to get on to the fungi – you might ask? I promise you, we will get there eventually, and it will be worth it.

The Red Forest by Jorge Franganillo from Barcelona, Spain, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Red Forest army

It was found recently that the Russian military had been doing some pretty stupid things in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, beyond the illegal attacks against Ukrainians. Perhaps the most stupid things took place in ‘the Red Forest’, and area of extremely high radiation.

Soldiers are thought to have dug trenches in this mind-bendingly radioactive landscape as part of their special radioactive military operation. The Russian military were seeking to invade via Belarus in the north and eventually control Kyiv. Famously, they failed spectacularly, committing war crimes in Bucha, Irpin and other areas before having to retreat.

It was the case at the time around the disaster that the Soviet Union denied the full impact of the accident. In reality many thousands of people will have been contaminated by the radiation from the damaged reactor, but according to the official toll only 31 people have died. It may even be that the soldiers invading Chernobyl did not know that it was dangerous. It beggars belief.

Though those soldiers will not have fared well with the radiation, it was discovered that a species of fungus does not just do well with the radiation, it is thriving inside the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. Thriving. Inside. I know…

Radiotrophic fungi

Cladosporium sphaerospermum is that fungus. It’s usually found growing on the leaves of citrus trees, but as a radiotrophic species it appears to find favour in environments like the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Scientists are looking to use its ability to protect from the ill-effects of radiation to protect people in certain environments in space.

The unusual thing about the fungi found in the reactor was that they were not exisiting in spite of the radiation, but because of it. It does go to show that if there is a nuclear holocaust, some fungi will survive and contribute to the world that follows. That world probably wouldn’t have many humans in it.

It’s a problematic fungus for us humans in medical terms, causing a condition known as cryptococcosis.

Pripyat, Ukraine by Omar David Sandoval Sida, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Radioactive fungi: caesium-137

Far more problematic for us humans is the fact that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster released extremely dangerous levels of caesium-137 into the atmosphere. This of course directly affected ecosystems across Europe where the radiation spread. Fungi absorb their sources of nutrition from their surroundings, making them likely to absorb radiation also. This website has taken the incredible steps of listing which mushrooms are more likely to become radioactive, compared with those which aren’t.

What this all effectively means is that any lingering radiation in the environment will remain in the ecosystem because fungi will absorb it. I don’t have the information but do wonder if there are some mushrooms which may never be eaten again within a certain range of the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

This article points to a very striking impact of the radiation in woodlands in the exclusion zone. Basically, higher levels of radiation are causing a build up of leaf litter and woody debris, because fungi are inhibited and unable to perform their core ecosystem function of recycling. This means there are higher chances of fires breaking out and redistributing radioactive material.

I bet you wish you never read this post.

Thanks for reading anyway. Solidarity with Ukraine ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

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