Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Chernobyl Exhibit at USC

By Judit Trunkos
McKissick Museum is located on the historic USC Horseshoe and is known for featuring exhibitions that emphasizes research and the evolution of science.  McKissick presents an exhibit on environmental research titled “USC Chernobyl Research Initiative: 25 Years After the Disaster.”  The exhibition is presented by USC professors who have visited Chernobyl on multiple occasions.  Professors TimMousseauand and Rudy Mancke’s (yes, the well-known naturalist) work in the field is showcased on the museum’s third floor through May 6.
On April 26, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident took place in Chernobyl, Ukraine (part of the former Soviet Union).  The explosion occurred during a systems test, and engineers were unable to operate the emergency shutdown system.  A series of explosions sent a plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and over an extensive geographical area.
The toxic plume drifted over large parts of the Western Soviet Union, Eastern and Central Europe, Western Europe, and Northern Europe.  Large areas in today’s Ukraine, Belarus and Russia had to be evacuated, with over 336,000 people ultimately resettled.  Shockingly, the Soviet government failed to warn millions of citizens in the nearby countries of Hungary, Poland and former Czechoslovakia, who took to the streets for Labor Day celebrations on May 1.
Despite the accident, Ukraine continued to operate the remaining reactors at Chernobyl for many years.  The last reactor at the site was closed down in 2000, 14 years after the infamous accident.  Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus have been burdened with the continuing and substantial decontamination and health care costs of the Chernobyl accident.  Fifty deaths, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers, are directly attributed to the accident.  An additional 4,000 deaths were caused by the explosions, and the affected region is still a high cancer-risk area.
Since 1998, USC has sponsored research related to the long-term ecological and health consequences of this catastrophic nuclear accident, thanks to donations by USC alumni William E. Murray, Sherry Beasley and Bruce Coull.  The research at Chernobyl is important for the understanding of long-term consequences of radiation and ecosystems and human health, and it will be instrumental in predicting the environmental half-lives of these contaminants.
In 2003, Professor Mancke and Jim Welch shot an episode of SCETV’s “NatureScene” at Chernobyl.  This episode documented the conditions of plants and animals living in the affected area.
The “USC Chernobyl Research Initiative” exhibit showcases the research conducted by Dr.Mousseau and his colleagues on the ecological impact of Chernobyl, including plants and rocks collected in the area, together with images taken of affected areas and animals.  As a result of their continuous trips to the area, USC has over eight years of internationally-recognized baseline data for several species.  The goal of this long-term research is to be able to predict ecosystem recovery after a nuclear blast.  This research is also of significance for hazard assessment related to industrial, military or terrorist nuclear incidents and the effects of mutagens on evolutionary responses of natural populations.
In a recent study, published in the journal PLoS One, Dr. Mousseau and his colleagues studied 550 birds belonging to 48 different species living in exclusion zones set up around the site of the accident.  The researchers found that due to the nuclear accident, small brains, such as young bird brains, were particularly impacted.
“This suggests that many of the birds with smaller brains are not surviving to the next year, perhaps related to decreased cognitive abilities,” says Dr. Mousseau.  “Not only are their brains smaller, but it seems they are not as capable at dealing with their environment as evidenced by their lower rates of survival.”
Stressed birds often adapt in difficult environmental conditions by changing the size of some of their organs.  Perhaps for obvious reasons, the brain is the last organ to be sacrificed in this manner, meaning the radiation could be having worse impacts on other organs of the birds.  Dr. Mousseau says there is information in the medical literature to suggest that low-dose radiation can also be harmful to humans, including recent studies on children in northern Ukraine, who have higher rates of neural tube defects and related neurological disorders than other children in uncontaminated regions of Ukraine and Europe.
Thanks to the great work of Jill Koverman, Chief Curator of Collections and Research of the McKissick Museum, and Erika Shofner’s research and assistance, the “USC Chernobyl Research Initiative” exhibit points out the significance of the disaster and the importance of the research conducted by USC professors.  The exhibit portrays some of the collected plants and rocks and serves as a great multidisciplinary show for students and visitors combining anthropology, environmental studies, biology and political science.
To learn more about “USC Chernobyl Research Initiative” visit:  http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/chernobyl/Chernobyl_Research_Initiative/Introduction.html.

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