Asian Scientist (Aug. 26, 2013) – The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster spread significant radioactive contamination over more than 3500 square miles of the Japanese mainland in the spring of 2011. Now several recently published studies of Chernobyl are bringing a new focus on just how extensive the long-term effects on Japanese wildlife might be.
Their work underscores the idea that, in the wake of the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986, there have been many lost opportunities to better understand the effects of radiation on life, particularly in nature rather than the laboratory. The researchers fear that the history of lost opportunities is largely being replayed in Fukushima.
Given the widespread interest in using nuclear power as a means of generating energy with minimal carbon emissions, the authors believe policy-makers – and not just in Japan – need to better fund independent scientists wanting to study the after-effects of Fukushima.
The researchers have published three studies detailing the effects of ionizing radiation on pine trees and birds in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
In the first paper, published in Mutation Research, they showed that birds in Chernobyl had high frequencies of albino feathering and tumors.
Another study published in PLOS ONE demonstrated that birds in Chernobyl had significant rates of cataracts, which likely impacted their fitness in the wild.
The third paper, published in the journal Trees, reported that tree growth was suppressed by radiation near Chernobyl, particularly in smaller trees, even decades after the original accident.
Given previous work by scientists in former Soviet bloc nations, the results were not unexpected.
“There’s extensive literature from Eastern Europe about the effects of the release of radionuclides in Chernobyl,” said Timothy Mousseau, who directed the studies together with Anders Møller.
“Unfortunately, very little of it was translated into English, and many of the papers – which were printed on paper, not centrally stored, and never digitized – became very hard to find because many of the publishers went belly up in the 1990s with the economic recession that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
A large body of this work finally came to the attention of Western scientists in 2009 with the publication of “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” as a monograph in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
“That publication was a response to the World Health Organization’s Chernobyl Forum in 2006, which explicitly states that they found that the plant and animal communities in Chernobyl were doing incredibly well and have come back better than ever, because of the absence of people,” said Mousseau.
“But when you dug into the Chernobyl Forum report to find out what they based this conclusion on, there were no scientific papers to support it.”
According to the researchers, there are numerous impacts of low doses of radiation and the opportunities to study these sorts of effects in nature are once again slipping away in Fukushima, much as with Chernobyl.
“The funding for independent scientists to do basic research in contaminated areas in Fukushima is just not there,” Mousseau said.
The articles can be found at:
Mousseau and Møller (2013) Elevated Frequency Of Cataracts In Birds From Chernobyl.
Møller et al. (2013) High Frequency Of Albinism And Tumours In Free-Living Birds Around Chernobyl.
Mousseau et al. (2013) Tree Rings Reveal Extent Of Exposure To Ionizing Radiation In Scots Pine Pinus Sylvestris.
Source: University of South Carolina; Photo: Anosmia/Flickr/CC.
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