Beginning just a few months after the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant in March 2011, scientists began studying the biological effects of the radiation on local wildlife, and the first reports are not encouraging.
The Journal of Heredity has published several articles summarizing these studies, which found broad negative impact -- including genetic damage, population declines and disruptions of the mechanisms that help organisms repair exposure to radioactive material.
The victims range from birds to butterflies and even plants.
“A growing body of empirical results from studies of birds, monkeys, butterflies and other insects suggests that some species have been significantly impacted by the radioactive releases related to the Fukushima disaster,” the lead author of one such study, Dr. Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina, said in a statement issued by the American Genetic Association (AGA).
The AGA says these first reports provide “baseline for future research” on similar disasters involving ionizing radiation, and have at least one important element in common: the hypothesis that chronic, low-dose exposure to radioactive material leads to genetic damage in plants and animals and increased mutations in both reproductive and non-reproductive cells.
One study published in the journal studied radiation’s effects on Japan’s most common butterfly, the pale grass-blue butterfly. Specimens culled from the Fukushima area, as well as their offspring raised in laboratories, showed stunted size and growth, high mortality and genetic disfigurement.
Similar effects were found in larvae that had not been directly contaminated but had fed on vegetation from contaminated plants, according to Joji Otaki of the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, who was involved in AGA study.
Another study that looked at a variety of other species in the Fukushima area reported serious drops in the population of birds, butterflies and cicadas, all due to exposure to radioactive material. It said longer-term studies at Chernobyl, Ukraine, the site of a severe nuclear accident in 1986, could help forecast the long-term effects on animal and plant life affected by the Fukushima meltdown.
In fact, there were many delays in gathering of biological samples affected by the Chernobyl accident, which severely diminished the information that could have been gathered about the impact of that disaster. This lesson was not lost on the researchers studying the Fukushima accident, the AGA said.
Mousseau said the delays at Chernobyl underscore the need for early and continuous monitoring of any site of an accidental release of radioactive material.
“Detailed analyses of genetic impacts to natural populations could provide the information needed to predict recovery times for wild communities,” Mousseau said. “There is an urgent need for greater investment in basic scientific research of the wild animals and plants of Fukushima.”
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com