Scientists from Spain have recreated the radiation levels of one of the most radioactively contaminated sites in the world inside a Scottish university laboratory.

The experiment was carried out to refine the criteria for radiological protection of the environment, and looked at how embryonic development in amphibians is affected by radiation and different stress source. 

The project, titled XenRad, was financed by The Nuclear Safety Council, the authority responsible for nuclear safety and radiological protection in Spain.

Leading the experiment was evolutionary ecologist Germán Orizaola Pereda, Associate Professor in Zoology at the Department of Biology of Organisms and Systems at the University of Oviedo.

Joining Mr Pereda on the project was fellow Spanish scientist Pablo Burraco, a researcher at Doñana Biological Station - an institution belonging to the Spanish Council of Scientific Research.

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Both scientists have spent years studying the effects of radioactivity in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation - commonly known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone - which was established soon after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.

The exclusion zone extends for 30 kilometres in every direction around the site of the disaster, which is considered the worst disaster in nuclear power generation history.

The incident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, on April 26, 1986, led to the release of more than 400 times as much radioactive material as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during WW2.

Speaking to El Confidencial in his native Spain ahead of the experiment - Mr Pereda said: “What we are going to do is simulate Chernobyl in the laboratory. 

“We are simulating a radiation gradient similar to that in Chernobyl, from very high levels - 10,000 times higher than normal to those that can be found on the street.” 

The Herald: Germán Orizaola inside the laboratory at the University of StirlingGermán Orizaola inside the laboratory at the University of Stirling (Image: Germán Orizaola)

The goal of the Spanish scientists was to take note of the effects of radioactivity on the survival, morphology, genetics and physiology of amphibians. 

The ongoing war in Ukraine means that the scientists are unable to conduct the experiment in situ within the Chernobyl exclusion zone. 

Instead, the scientists chose to carry out “a perfectly-controlled test” in a radiation laboratory based at the University of Stirling.

Given that the radiation emitted by the cesium source, which turns on and off, is “undetectable a few meters away”, Mr Pereda confirmed that there was no need for them to be "completely isolated". 

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The two-week-long experiment followed an extensive investigation carried out by the Spanish scientists into the Chernobyl environment that began in 2016.

The scientists detected several Eastern tree frogs (Hyla orientalis) in the Chernobyl exclusion zone with an unusual black tint, with the discovery leading them to study the role of melanin colouration in Chernobyl wildlife. 

A subsequent report on the unusual evolution of tree frog populations in the Chernobyl exclusion zone - published in 2022 in evolutionary biology journal Evolutionary Applications - suggested that Chernobyl frogs could have undergone a process of rapid evolution in response to radiation.

The results also suggested that the protective role of melanin previously detected at Chernobyl in smaller living organisms such as fungi may extend to wild vertebrates exposed to ionizing radiation. 

​Mr Pereda added: “There are international criteria on the levels at which different organisms are expected to experience the negative effects of radiation.

“We are going to work with the most sensitive phases of the life cycle, such as embryos and larvae, so we want to see if the current levels are sufficient or should be lowered.”