Biological effects of Fukushima radiation on plants, insects, and animals

August 14, 2014, American Genetic Association
This is a pale grass blue butterfly, one of the most common species of butterfly in Japan. Recent research has revealed major impacts on this species from the radiation leaks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Credit: Joji Otaki, University of the Ryukyus, Okinawa, Japan

Following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown, biological samples were obtained only after extensive delays, limiting the information that could be gained about the impacts of that historic disaster. Determined not to repeat the shortcomings of the Chernobyl studies, scientists began gathering biological information only a few months after the disastrous meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan in 2011. Results of these studies are now beginning to reveal serious biological effects of the Fukushima radiation on non-human organisms ranging from plants to butterflies to birds.

A series of articles summarizing these studies has now been published in the Journal of Heredity. These describe widespread impacts, ranging from population declines to genetic damage to responses by the repair mechanisms that help organisms cope with radiation exposure.

"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," stated Dr. Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina, lead author of one of the studies.

Most importantly, these studies supply a baseline for future research on the effects of ionizing radiation exposure to the environment.

Common to all of the published studies is the hypothesis that chronic (low-dose) exposure to ionizing radiation results in genetic damage and increased mutation rates in reproductive and non-reproductive cells.

One of the studies (Hayashi et al. 2014) documented the effects of radiation on rice by exposing healthy seedlings to low-level gamma radiation at a contaminated site in Fukushima Prefecture. After three days, a number of effects were observed, including activation of genes involved in self-defense, ranging from DNA replication and repair to stress responses to cell death.

"The experimental design employed in this work will provide a new way to test how the entire rice plant genome responds to ionizing radiation under field conditions," explained Dr. Randeep Rakwal of the University of Tsukuba in Japan, one of the authors of the study.

Another team of researchers (Taira et al. 2014) examined the response of the pale grass blue butterfly, one of the most common butterfly species in Japan, to radiation exposure at the Fukushima site. They found size reduction, slowed growth, high mortality and morphological abnormality both at the Fukushima site and among laboratory-bred butterflies with parents collected from the contaminated site.

Multiple sources of exposure were included in the butterfly study. "Non-contaminated larvae fed leaves from contaminated host plants collected near the reactor showed high rates of abnormality and mortality," explained Dr. Joji Otaki of the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, Japan. Some of their results suggested the possible evolution of radiation resistance in Fukushima butterflies as well.

A review of genetic and ecological studies for a range of other species at both Chernobyl and Fukushima (Mousseau 2014) revealed significant consequences of radiation. Population censuses of birds, butterflies, and cicadas at Fukushima showed major declines attributable to . Morphological effects, such as aberrant feathers on barn swallows, were also observed. The authors suggest that long-term studies at Chernobyl could predict likely effects in the future at the Fukushima site.

All of these studies highlight the need for early and ongoing monitoring at sites of accidental release. "Detailed analyses of genetic impacts to natural populations could provide the information needed to predict recovery times for wild communities at Fukushima as well as any sites of future nuclear accidents," Mousseau said. "There is an urgent need for greater investment in basic scientific research of the wild animals and plants of Fukushima."

Explore further: Bird populations near Fukushima are more diminished than expected

Related Stories

Viewing Fukushima in the cold light of Chernobyl

August 21, 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, directed ...

Fukushima 'caused mutant butterflies'

August 14, 2012

Genetic mutations have been found in three generations of butterflies from near Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, scientists said Tuesday, raising fears radiation could affect other species.

Recommended for you

Antarctic ice shelf 'sings' as winds whip across its surface

October 16, 2018

Winds blowing across snow dunes on Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf cause the massive ice slab's surface to vibrate, producing a near-constant set of seismic "tones" scientists could potentially use to monitor changes in the ice ...

World Heritage sites threatened by sea level rise

October 16, 2018

From Venice and the tower of Pisa to the medieval city of Rhodes, dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Mediterranean basin are deeply threatened by rising sea levels, researchers warned Tuesday.

New understanding of Mekong River incision

October 16, 2018

An international team of earth scientists has linked the establishment of the Mekong River to a period of major intensification of the Asian monsoon during the middle Miocene, about 17 million years ago, findings that supplant ...

New interactive scenario explorer for 1.5 degrees C pathways

October 16, 2018

IIASA and the Integrated Assessment Modeling Consortium (IAMC) have made the scenarios underlying last week's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 1.5°C Special Report publicly available in an interactive online ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 14, 2014
Fukushima is cursed forever as it is now located on the edge of hell! All life there has been radiated and will suffer for many future generations by the way of sickness and DNA mutations! TEPCO the negligent nuclear power company continues to dump millions of gallons of radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean each and every day to radiated the fish, sea life and everything that eats these items! Including us humans! Anyone radiated from Fukushima should be doing a radiation and heavy metal detox with the natural mineral called Zeolite that is proven to safe to remove both radiation and heavy metals from the human body! Anyone interested in detoxing radiation and heavy metals should search for more information by looking up the single word Zeolite.
not rated yet Aug 17, 2014
I am a biologist and I have reviewed the materials in question.

1. There are quite a few locations in the world with much higher natural radioactivity than Fukushima had at the height of the radiation release. Ramsar Iran, the Lodeve river basin in Southwest France, Guarapari beach in Brazil are, respectively, 48X, 162X and 13X higher radiation doses than Iitate village received. On a yearly basis, those are, 6.5X, 22X and 1.75X what an outdoor hotspot in Fukushima would have received in the first year. And yet, we see no significant effects there. In fact, one is a hot spring resort. This requires explanation, or at least mention.
not rated yet Aug 17, 2014
2. The Blue-Grass Butterfly study is highly questionable, and flawed.
A.) It depends primarily on results from laboratory cross-breeds deliberately chosen for visible defects. That will display homozygous recessive traits. Those are flashy photos, but there is little foundation for understanding what they mean, or if they mean much of anything at all.
B.) There is no control for insects that may have transited into or over the hottest zone of the plant itself, and those that lived their lives in the town of fukushima or surrounding countryside. The precise locations where butterflies were picked up were not shown on a map, nor was that data superimposed on a radiation map.
C.) No attempt was made to collect normal butterflies from a distant location, breed them, and expose them to various sources of radiation to determine what was required to cause the results seen. Nor were distant populations similarly culled for defects and cross-bred.
not rated yet Aug 17, 2014
3.) Activation of various pathways in response to radiation in rice is no more remarkable than is activation of pathways in response to ultraviolet light. Plants do that. There is no indication that had a deleterious effect on the organism.

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

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.