Radioactive Mussels

The Dneiper river is the fourth largest river in Europe and runs from northern Russia south to the Black Sea, through Belarus and the Ukraine. In the last century it has been dammed up to make reservoirs, electricity, and a shipping channel. Arguably these dams were not feats of engineering genius, but poorly done causing as many problems as solutions. Compounding the risk associated with catastrophe, cities have been built with high urban concentrations of housing in the flood plains. Those cities rely on the reservoirs for drinking water and rural farmers for irrigation of the arid lands closer to the Black Sea.

We learned this month what happens when 500 year flood comes barreling down a river engineered like that. In South Carolina it is common to engineer a river like the Dneiper. They build a dam and reservoir every few miles, causing the river in between to lazily move along toward the ocean in thin rivulets. But when one dam breaks, the others are likely too as well, since the dammed up water comes rushing down the river to slam into the next dam, joining forces with more water to crush the next dam and the next, and the next. This also floods out all of the neighborhoods along the way that didn’t think they were in a flood plain.

Because of the dams, the normally fast river and its tributaries are slowed down and become more like settling ponds for radioactive sludge and other chemical and industrial waste. Just north of Kiev, is the wasteland of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The Kiev reservoir is shallow and highly contaminated, so badly that no one dares drain it and disturb the sediment. The cooling ponds and tributaries have been dammed up and pumps circulate water. Further down river are the remains of a yellow cake factory closed in the 90’s. The waste was poorly managed, barely contained and will pour out with the break of a dam or the flooding of the pools. I wonder if someday we’ll all carry Geiger counters to tell us what water and food is safe to consume. Your mushrooms, mussels and mudfish maybe full of radioactive contaminants.

This river is thought to be the origination and ancestral home of the invasive species of zebra mussel that is plaguing the St. Lawrence sea channel now in North America. There are zebra muscles in the contaminated cooling pond at Chernobyl. The mussels cover the radioactive sediment in the pond that can never be drained or dredged. Pumps circulate water from the river into the pond so that water levels in the pond don’t change due to evaporation. Zebra mussels can grow in very dense clusters, weighing in at 3 kilograms per square foot. That is a lot of mussels at less than an inch per mussel. And they absorb strontium 90 into their shells like it was calcium. Some shells are 50% strontium. And since these waters are the original home of these zebras there are actually predators there that eat them and accumulate their radiation. These fish can then introduce that radiation from the bottom feeders into the food chain.

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