Viewing Fukushima in the cold light of Chernobyl

Viewing Fukushima in the cold light of Chernobyl
The year of the Chernobyl disaster is evident in the color change of the wood in these pine logs harvested from the area. Credit: Adapted from the journal Trees

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, directed by Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina and Anders Møller of the Université Paris-Sud, 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 , the authors believe policy-makers – and not just in Japan – need to better fund independent scientists wanting to study the after-effects of Fukushima.

Mousseau and Møller have with their collaborators just published three studies detailing the effects of ionizing radiation on and birds in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. "When you look for these effects, you find them," said Mousseau, a biologist in USC's College of Arts and Sciences.

In the journal Mutation Research, they showed that birds in Chernobyl had high frequencies of albino feathering and tumors. In Plos One, they demonstrated that birds there had significant rates of cataracts, which likely impacted their fitness in the wild. And in the journal Trees, they showed 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 to Mousseau and Møller. "There's extensive literature from Eastern Europe about the effects of the release of radionuclides in Chernobyl," Mousseau said. "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," Mousseau said. "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."

The Eastern European compilation published in 2009 ran contrary to that positive assessment, but it lacked elements of scientific rigor in places. "It is the best summary of the papers that have been generated in Eastern Europe, and it's an important body of work for understanding Chernobyl," Mousseau said. "But there were some problems – for example, with the lack of statistical treatment. We're using these studies as a bit of a guide, but trying to do them in a thorough way, better than anyone's done them before.

"The uniform theme we find from these papers is that, when you look carefully, in a quantitative way, you see numerous biological impacts of low doses of radiation. Not just abundance of animals, but tumors, cataracts, growth suppression."

And as Mousseau and Møller detail in an editorial in the Journal of Health & Pollution, the opportunities to study these sorts of effects in nature are once again slipping away, much as with Chernobyl. "The funding for independent scientists to do basic research in contaminated areas in Fukushima is just not there," Mousseau said.

Explore further

Bird populations near Fukushima are more diminished than expected

Journal information: PLoS ONE

Citation: Viewing Fukushima in the cold light of Chernobyl (2013, August 21) retrieved 21 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Aug 21, 2013
The year of the Chernobyl disaster is evident in the color change of the wood in these pine logs harvested from the area.

I would call bullshit on that one.

The rings you see in the picture is the difference between the heartwood and the sapwood of a tree. The heartwood is usually darker, but it changes as moisture leaves the tree and sunlight causes the resins to react, as well as differences between species of pine.

Perfectly ordinary trees from anywhere can have that discoloration: http://www.rfs.or...C250.jpg

Aug 21, 2013
The year of the Chernobyl disaster is evident in the color change of the wood in these pine logs harvested from the area.

I would call bullshit on that one....
That is not the original caption, it is actually: "Fig. 3 Difference in width of tree rings in pine logs from Chernobyl.The year of the accident in 1986 is clearly visible from the change in the color of the wood" The rest of the text included: "When analyzing the level of depression of standardized growth after and before 1986, we found that growth was disproportionately reduced at high radiation levels with an effect size that was intermediate (Table3; Fig.5a). Back-ground radiation levels explained 13 % of the variance in standardized tree growth. There was a highly significant negative relationship between the change in mean growth rate and the radioactivity measured within tree cores"

Aug 21, 2013
How many studies would it take to overcome anti-nuclear energy fanatics?

The answer is it is not possible. Their fear of nuclear energy is rooted in the same unscientific sceptical thinking that is the source of global climate change and evolution denialism.

If they truly needed facts to change their mind all they'd have to do is look at France whose nuclear industry is proof positive that no matter what the dangers and problems nuclear energy might cause when well run and regulated as it is in France the harm to the civilization, the environment and the entire world is a tiny fraction of our ongoing use of carbon based fuels to run our economy.

If we had depended on nuclear energy from the start there were be no such thing as man made global climate change.

Aug 22, 2013
It's OK. We don't mind if the whole ocean is polluted. Why would we mind a little cesium in our food supplies? All these worriers!

Aug 22, 2013
How many studies would it take to overcome anti-nuclear energy fanatics?

As many as it would take to overcome the pro nuclear fanatics. Fanatics are fanatics and will not be swayed by facts.

One side will argue that technology can be made 100% safe - the other side that the history of technology (and its real world implementations) does not support that view.

Aug 22, 2013
I'm for nuclear power, I'll say it. However, I don't think it has to be large scale, don't believe it is without risk, and don't believe it should be expanded without a definite plan for storage (long term) of nuclear waste.

Smaller reactors, reactors with slower or less energetic reactions, and possibly a distributed system of well below critical mass reactors would suffice to support a distributed grid when coupled with renewable sources to supplement, provided a distributed storage system could also be developed (such as an on-a-chip water splitting coupled with a fuel cell and perhaps a solid state engine to marry multiple types of throughput...

In other words, I don't think a single magic bullet solution exists- we instead have a host of bullets, it is up to us to weight and evaluate the benefits and risks of each.

Aug 22, 2013
Viewing Apples in the cold light of Oranges.....

Good GAWD....

Aug 22, 2013
There are 2 things. The 1st is that our civilization is too immature for nuclear power to be everywhere. The 2nd is that nuclear power would be the ideal choice given that we have the technology to use our nuclear waste, so it's not really waste anymore, it's fuel that could power the United States for 200 years at its' current energy demands. The reason why we can't do this is because we aren't responsible enough and lack the insight to handle the technology...or we haven't been so far. Hopefully we will be in the future.

Aug 22, 2013
I'm for nuclear power, I'll say it.

I'm against it. For the simple reasons that we don't have a 'Plan B' when something goes wrong and that we have no solution to the waste problem.

Currently our plan B (and our approach to the waste problem) consists of: "Oh well, it's contaminated. Let's cordon it off and hope that the next 100 generations don't forget about it and pay the bills for keeping it off limits" (on land. When stuff flows into the oceans we just have to eat it)

That's not a plan (it's also economic idiocy).

If we ever figure out how to deal with nuclear spills/accidents: then it's going to be a great power source. Until we do it's no an option.
(And it very much looks like it'll be superceded by more widely/democratically available - and cheaper - power sources in the next few years)

For spacecraft (and space exploration/exploitation in general) it has a future. No environment to contaminate (and dumping that stuff into the sun is a solution)

Aug 22, 2013
I respect that we appear to differ some in tone and considerations.
Currently we accept similar risks with oil and coal - the waste goes right into the environment, spills and extraction are on a more widespread scale than nuclear, and long term effects of attempted remediation are speculative at best and not done at worst.

Right now for me it comes down to it being a possible when faced with an alternative that currently shortens the lifespan of a great many people and threatens the worlds ecosystems at large. Whether nuclear could be categorized as a "meantime" fuel with concrete disposal and sunset provisions depends on what we are prepared to trade off, how much, and when.

I do concur that disposal has to be addressed up front, prior to any potential expansion.

And sun storage isn't completely out of the question for terrestrial waste...

Aug 24, 2013
One side will argue that technology can be made 100% safe - the other side that the history of technology (and its real world implementations) does not support that view.

Although that's not what anyone is arguing - merely that the risks and consequences are vastly outweighed by the benefits, and can be made smaller still. It's the anti-nuclear crowd that is committing the nirvana fallacy by insisting that if nuclear energy is not made 100% safe then it has no use.

Also, the waste problem wouldn't be a waste problem if people didn't chain themselves to railroad tracks and protest whenever someone is trying to process the waste or do something about it. The waste problem also wouldn't be such a huge problem if some countries (like Germany) didn't apply double standards to low level radioactive waste, for simple political reasons, where special disposal is required for stuff simply because it has been in a nuclear power station regardless of how radioactive it actually is.

Aug 24, 2013
For example, concrete made with fly ash as a filler, used in residential buildings can be 30 times more radioactive than anything recycled out of a decommissioned nuclear powerplant.

One might think, well, that's horrible - we should tighten the regulations on fly ash in concrete to match that of recycling nuclear power plant materials - except that the radiation levels in the current standards are already lower than the naturally occurring background radiation. The limits for nuclear power plants are just so much tighter than for everything else, which explains why Germany has to put old hazmat jumpsuits in steel barrels and seal them in old salt mines for however long simply because they've been used by people working in nuclear powerplants.

Aug 24, 2013
Currently we accept similar risks with oil and coal

However that is local. If you look at the news from Fukushima just today there's 300000 liters (per day!) of radioactive water from a cracked cooling reservoir mingeling with groundwater and probably going uncontrolled into the ocean. Groundwater. Ocean. That's two basic sources for our food chain that can't even be 'cordoned off'.

That's an entirely different order of magnitude than CO2 and some coal dust going into the air (and we DO have the technology do retain coal dust very efficiently at the source. Coal powerplants aren't in the habit of blowing up - at least I never heard of any)
In the event of a breakdown coal powerplants don't pose an added/presistent risk.

Don't get me wrong I think we should get rid of coal ASAP, as well - for the same reason: We have no plan B for the climate, either. I do NOT think coal powerplants are tolerable. But going nuclear is fighting fire with fire.

Aug 24, 2013
Perhaps a first step would be in building reactors on geologically stable areas. Instead of on a "Ring of Fire" hotspot.

Aug 24, 2013
Perhaps a first step would be in building reactors on geologically stable areas.

You know of any? Besides antarctica I mean?
Nuclear reactors require a lot of water for the turbines and cooling. This means you have to situate them
1) Near oceans (which isn't cool in case of tsunamis - as Fukushima demonstrated)
2) Near rivers (and rivers run in fault lines, which were created - as you can probably guess - by earthquakes)

Even so. There's always the human factor
Reactors will be built by the lowest bidder (where that leads you can see with all the cracked casings in reactors all around the world recently uncovered)
They are operated by humans (where that leads you can see with Chernobyl or Lucens)

100% safe on paper does not mean 100% safe in practical application. I'm an engineer. I know. Any system you design or build will have a number of "oops, didn't think of that"-issues that will only come to light after an "oops" (e.g. again: Fukushima and generator siting)

Aug 24, 2013
Strange that the same hotheads who spew tirades about terrorism are usually pro-nuclear, since nuclear plants are the most dangerous and lucrative terrorist target

Aug 25, 2013
I bet that in a decade or two, when the first serious studies of long term effects of Fukushima arrive, death count will remain somewhere in the hundreds. Beware of fear mongering.

Aug 27, 2013
However that is local

AGW is LOCAL? Untwist that knot for me...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more