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At Chernobyl and Fukushima, radioactivity has seriously harmed wildlife via Conversation

The largest nuclear disaster in history occurred 30 years ago at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what was then the Soviet Union. The meltdown, explosions and nuclear fire that burned for 10 days injected enormous quantities of radioactivity into the atmosphere and contaminated vast areas of Europe and Eurasia. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that Chernobyl released 400 times more radioactivity into the atmosphere than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Radioactive cesium from Chernobyl can still be detected in some food products today. And in parts of central, eastern and northern Europe many animals, plants and mushrooms still contain so much radioactivity that they are unsafe for human consumption.

The first atomic bomb exploded at Alamogordo, New Mexico more than 70 years ago. Since then, more than 2,000 atomic bombs have been tested, injecting radioactive materials into the atmosphere. And over 200 small and large accidents have occurred at nuclear facilities. But experts and advocacy groups are still fiercely debating the health and environmental consequences of radioactivity.

However, in the past decade population biologists have made considerable progress in documenting how radioactivity affects plants, animals and microbes. My colleagues and I have analyzed these impacts at Chernobyl, Fukushima and naturally radioactive regions of the planet.

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Broad impacts at Chernobyl

Radiation exposure has caused genetic damage and increased mutation rates in many organisms in the Chernobyl region. So far, we have found little convincing evidence that many organisms there are evolving to become more resistant to radiation.

Organisms’ evolutionary history may play a large role in determining how vulnerable they are to radiation. In our studies, species that have historically shown high mutation rates, such as the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), the icterine warbler (Hippolais icterina) and the Eurasian blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), are among the most likely to show population declines in Chernobyl. Our hypothesis is that species differ in their ability to repair DNA, and this affects both DNA substitution rates and susceptibility to radiation from Chernobyl.

Much like human survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, birds and mammals at Chernobyl have cataracts in their eyes and smaller brains. These are direct consequences of exposure to ionizing radiation in air, water and food. Like some cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy, many of the birds have malformed sperm. In the most radioactive areas, up to 40 percent of male birds are completely sterile, with no sperm or just a few dead sperm in their reproductive tracts during the breeding season.

Tumors, presumably cancerous, are obvious on some birds in high-radiation areas. So are developmental abnormalities in some plants and insects.

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Parallels at Fukushima

Recently we have tested the validity of our Chernobyl studies by repeating them in Fukushima, Japan. The 2011 power loss and core meltdown at three nuclear reactors there released about one-tenth as much radioactive material as the Chernobyl disaster.

Overall, we have found similar patterns of declines in abundance and diversity of birds, although some species are more sensitive to radiation than others. We have also found declines in some insects, such as butterflies, which may reflect the accumulation of harmful mutations over multiple generations.

Our most recent studies at Fukushima have benefited from more sophisticated analyses of radiation doses received by animals. In our most recent paper, we teamed up with radioecologists to reconstruct the doses received by about 7,000 birds. The parallels we have found between Chernobyl and Fukushima provide strong evidence that radiation is the underlying cause of the effects we have observed in both locations.

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There are currently more than 400 nuclear reactors in operation around the world, with 65 new ones under construction and another 165 on order or planned. All operating nuclear power plants are generating large quantities of nuclear waste that will need to be stored for thousands of years to come. Given this, and the probability of future accidents or nuclear terrorism, it is important that scientists learn as much as possible about the effects of these contaminants in the environment, both for remediation of the effects of future incidents and for evidenced-based risk assessment and energy policy development.

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