Grad students first inside Chernobyl exclusion zone

July 23, 2009

Grad students first inside Chernobyl exclusion zone

A group of McMaster grad students has been given the distinction of being the first students permitted inside of the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

Part of a field trip to Ukraine and Belarus organized by Medical Physics and Applied Radiation Sciences to study the effects of nuclear radiation, the group included grad students from diverse academic backgrounds, including geography, history, nuclear safety, nuclear sciences, and public health.

"Having so many different types of people with us really brought different perspectives to everything we did," said Nghi Phan, a PhD candidate who used his opportunity at Chernobyl to study radioactive clean-up using plants and fungi. "We had people studying history give us the political side of things and public health researchers explain the impact that the delay in evacuation had. It gave us a very well-rounded experience."

But a broader understanding of the Chernobyl incident wasn't the only thing the students left the former Soviet states with; they also came away very thankful for the scientific resources they have at their disposal on campus back home.

"They're attempting high- level research with facilities and equipment that are nowhere near what we have at McMaster," added Phan of the area scientists he and his colleagues were able to meet with. "But they're still making great strides. It makes you want to work even harder once you're home."

Brainchild of Carmel Mothersill, professor in the Department of Medical Physics and Applied Radiation Sciences, the trip was offered through the department as part of a course in which students are expected to complete papers or presentations on aspects of the Chernobyl disaster. The International Union of Radioecology, which sponsored the trip, will publish the students' work on their web site later in the year.

The 30 km area that encloses the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the worst such accident in history, is officially uninhabitable. Nevertheless, it is home to a rather diverse mix of residents, including a functioning nuclear power plant, nuclear safety research installations, formally evacuated residents who have returned despite the dangers, abandoned military vehicles, vagabonds and an ever-growing population of wolves, boar, deer and other animals.