Evolutionary biologist Timothy Mousseau and his colleagues have published 90 studies that prove beyond all doubt the deleterious genetic and developmental effects on wildlife of exposure to radiation from both the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters, writes Linda Pentz Gunter. But all that peer-reviewed science has done little to dampen the ‘official’ perception of Chernobyl’s silent forests as a thriving nature reserve.
He has spent 16 years looking at the effects on wildlife and the ecosystem of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
He and his colleagues have also spent the last five years studying how non-human biota is faring in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns in Japan.
But none of this work has received anything like the high profile publicity afforded the ‘findings’ in the 2006 Chernobyl Forum report which claimed the Chernobyl zone “has become a wildlife sanctuary”, and a subsequent article published in Current Biology in 2015 that said wildlife was “thriving” around Chernobyl.
“I suppose everyone loves a Cinderella story”, speculated Mousseau, an evolutionary biologist based at the University of South Carolina. “They want that happy ending.” But Mousseau felt sure the moment he read the Forum report, which, he noted, “contained few scientific citations”, that the findings “could not possibly be true.”
Far from flourishing around Chernobyl, birds and animals are fading
What Mousseau found was not unexpected given the levels of radiation in these areas and what is already known about the medical effects of such long-term exposures. Birds and rodents had a high frequency of tumors.
“Cancers are the first thing we think about”, Mousseau said. “We looked at birds and mice. In areas of higher radiation, the frequency of tumors is higher.” The research team has found mainly liver and bladder tumors in the voles and tumors on the head, body and wings of the birds studied, he said.
But Mousseau wanted to look beyond cancers, which is what everyone expects to find and what researchers had looked for, but only in humans. There were few wildlife studies, a fact Mousseau found surprising, given nature’s ability to act as a sentinel for likely impending human health impacts.
Mousseau and his fellow researchers found cataracts in birds and rodents. Male birds had a high rate of sterility. And the brains of birds were smaller. All of these are known outcomes from radiation exposure.
“Cataracts in birds is a problem”, Mousseau said. “A death sentence.”
Mental retardation has been found among children exposed to radiation in utero. Mousseau and colleagues discovered the same pattern in the birds they studied. “Birds already have small brains, so a smaller brain size is a definite disadvantage”, he said.
Almost 40% of male birds examined were sterile
There were also just fewer animals in general. “There were many fewer mammals, birds and insects in areas of higher radiation”, Mousseau said. And they had their hunch as to why.
He and his colleagues extracted sperm from the male birds they caught and were shocked to find that “up to 40% of male birds in the radiologically hottest areas were sterile.”
A responsibility to protect the environment and wildlife, not just man
This has led to speculation – and some unscientific and alarmist rumors – that sea life in the Pacific is collapsing due to the Fukushima radiation.
“Catastrophic marine events started 40-50 years ago”, Mousseau points out. “Bird populations in the Pacific were in decline long before Fukushima.”
One important cause, says Mousseau, is “plastics in the environment that are consumed by marine animals which were in downward spirals long before the Fukushima accident.” Marine population decline has likely also been “compounded by climate change”, he says.
Indeed, Mousseau, who grew up on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, remembers the local harbor encrusted with star fish when he was a child. Recently, when he took his son there, he found none.
Fukushima cannot necessarily be blamed, as some would wish, but the compounding and potentially synergistic effect of radiation in the Pacific could still be taking its toll, Mousseau avowed.
“We don’t know how different environmental stresses interact with each other”, he said. “They could be synergistic and related. There is almost no research on this even in the Pacific off Fukushima – virtually nothing on the biological consequences in really contaminated areas.”
With “little real science” to rely on, Mousseau says, “we will never know” just how much marine damage the Fukushima disaster may do.
He finds the continued lack of other independent animal studies in radioactive zones frustrating. “We have a responsibility to protect the environment and wildlife, not just man”, he said. It may be expensive and difficult to conduct these kinds of studies, but, says Mousseau, “that is not an excuse.”
Read more at Blind mice and bird brains: the silent spring of Chernobyl and Fukushima