July 30, 1998 AIKEN, S.C. -- On July 22 an agreement between the United States and the government of Ukraine was signed establishing a permanent international radioecology laboratory in the city of Chernobyl near the site of the 1986 nuclear accident. The object of the five-year agreement is to establish the scope of cooperation between the two governments in the conduct of field oriented research and state-of-the-art analysis on a year-round basis at a laboratory to be called the International Radioecology Laboratory (IRL) in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine. The agreement was signed during the summit meeting between U.S.-Ukraine Binational Commission headed by Vice President Gore and Ukrainian President Kuchma.
The agreement calls for cooperation between the two countries -- laboratories and contractors through exchanges of scientific and technical information; exchanges of scientists and technical experts; the conduct of joint scientific research and the widest possible dissemination of research results.
The joint project between Ukrainian and U.S. scientists is an outgrowth of research directed by Dr. Ron Chesser, a senior research scientist and genetics professor at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) in Aiken. SREL works under a cooperative agreement with the Department of Energy on the Savannah River Site. Chesser has studied the effects of the Chernobyl accident on wildlife since 1992. Chesser says, "The unfortunate accident at Chernobyl has created one of the world's most unique and vital experimental regions. We have involved nationally and internationally renowned scientists to evaluate the environmental and genetic impacts of the chernobyl accident. Researchers from the University of Georgia, Texas Tech University, Oklahoma State University, Illinois State Museum, Texas A&M, and Colorado State as well as Ukraine and Russia have been actively involved in our research programs there. This new laboratory will greatly consolidate our efforts and enable effective field and laboratory experiments to be conducted.
"Hopefully, our work can dispel many myths associated with life in radioactive environments. When most people think of Chernobyl, they envision a nuclear desert with two headed frogs, giant worms, and creatures like Godzilla wandering about. We see none of that. There are no monsters. The Chernobyl zone is actually a very beautiful place with thriving wildlife communities. Without a Geiger-counter, you wouldn't know you were in a highly contaminated place. Thus far, our genetic studies have shown very few long-lasting impacts due to the high radiation. Most of the effects, however, are very subtle and require precise and intensive methods to uncover. While some effects are obvious, such as large tracts of dead pine trees, and over one hundred abandoned villages and towns, the legacy of environmental radiation, such as that released by Chernobyl, is definitely not a nuclear desert."
The new International Radioecology Laboratory will consist of laboratories, analytical equipment, offices, and lodging for visiting scientists. The Ukrainian government is providing the buildings and paying for the renovation and utilities for the facility. The U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Operations Office, is providing the necessary equipment for the lab, its transport to Ukraine and much of the expertise to operate the lab throughout the year.
Chesser says establishing laboratory facilities in Chernobyl is important to the continued success of the work now underway. "A permanent lab has been a dream of mine since 1993 when the idea was first raised," he said. "Our work there has suffered from not having a permanent facility from which to base our operations," he says. He points out that without laboratory equipment, a place to stay, or ready access to field sites, the work has been made more difficult.
Chesser commends the Department of Energy for being proactive in learning as much as possible about radiation and its effects on the environment and humans. He said studies conducted at the lab are designed to have high relevance to the Department of Energy and to Ukraine.
Some people think this is just their problem, Chesser says of the accident in the former Soviet Union, but, in fact, it is a global problem, whether we like it or not. Chesser notes that the radiation from the explosion at the nuclear reactor was dispersed all over the world and affected people in many European countries as well as in the former Soviet Union.
"This lab is so exciting...we know so little about the chronic effects of high amounts of radiation," says Chesser. "At Chernobyl we can study the entire range of radiation doses, from the very low to the extraordinarily high, and learn how organisms may adapt to such challenges."
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The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.
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