“Would you be interested in investigating whether bank voles near the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl have cataracts?” - Veterinary Practice
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“Would you be interested in investigating whether bank voles near the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl have cataracts?”

Well, I guess you could call it a holiday of sorts. It was hot, for sure. But this resort, if you could give it that epithet, was not just thermally hot. The boots and overalls I took with me had to be left there because they were too radioactively contaminated to bring back home.

Let me go back to a phone message I got just before Christmas: “Would you be interested in investigating whether bank voles near the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl have cataracts?” To my mind there can be only one answer to such a question – absolutely. Six months later, I found myself on a plane to Kiev ready to meet the rest of the research team. Unfortunately, just after I landed, a thunderstorm wiped out the airport radar so the majority of the researchers didn’t make it to Ukraine until the next morning.

With a couple of other researchers who had arrived on time, I was taken into the Ukrainian countryside, where gradually fewer cars passed by and the sunflower-covered fields gave way to wilderness. It has been 30 years since the disaster, which depopulated the whole area – well, as far as people are concerned that is – and left the area as a haven for wildlife uninterrupted by humans (apart from researchers like me, and Americans coming on their day-long tours!).

After the checking of passports and reams of paperwork, we were allowed into the protected zone. I had the opportunity to explore the near-deserted town with trees growing through the roofs of what were once beautiful houses. The few residents I met all seemed to scowl at me in a most ferocious way. I quite unjustifiably presumed that this was just their temperament, until the leader of the group arrived the next day and strictly forbade us to walk around outside without a police guard. I was definitely persona non grata.

As we started work investigating the rodent population, we passed into the Red Forest, an area still highly contaminated but an amazing wilderness. Some have reported finding mutations in wildlife, and cataracts too, but our work failed to confirm this. Ironic that even in an area where human involvement in the form of the worst nuclear disaster in the world would seem to be as bad as it could get, nature bounces back when people stay well clear.

As far as humankind is concerned, it is still a nightmare; a memorial with all the signs of towns and villages evacuated after the disaster shows just what an impact the reactor meltdown had. Now the people working in the hotel stay for two weeks at a time before leaving for two weeks far away.

The food doesn’t change though – eggs, eggs and more eggs, interspersed by reconstituted chicken – presumably those whose egg production had dropped. The feral dog population and their night-time howling was pretty constant too. So not quite a holiday in the normal sense of the word, but a remarkable trip!

David Williams

Fellow and Director of Studies at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at the vet school in Cambridge.

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