A series of research that began just a few months after the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan in 2011 has been published in the Journal of Heredity, and it’s revealing some serious fallout from the radiation leak.
The studies looked at a range of non-human organisms and show that genetic damage, mutations and populations declines have all resulted from the disaster.
"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," Timothy Mousseau from the University of South Carolina in the US, who led one of the studies, explained in a press release.
One thing that all of the published studies have in common is that they hypothesise that low-dose exposure to ionising radiation, like the kind that followed Fukushima, causes genetic damage and increases mutation rates in both reproductive and non-reproductive cells.
A study on the common pale grass blue butterfly, for example, found size reduction, slowed growth, high mortality and morphological abnormality both in butterflies from contaminated sites and their offspring. Some of their results also suggested that Fukushima butterflies might even have evolved radiation resistance.
Another paper showed that rice seedlings in a contaminated site had activated self-defence genes - which can be involved in DNA replication and repair, as well as cell death - in response to the low-level gamma radiation.
A review in the series looked at species from both Chernobyl and Fukushima and showed significant consequences of radiation, such as major popular declines in birds, butterflies and cicadas, as well as morphological changes in the feathers of birds.
While the studies can’t necessarily undo the damage, they most importantly act as a baseline that can be used in future research on the effects of radiation leaks in the environment - something that is needed to help protect the environment from future damage.
"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 in a press release. “There is an urgent need for greater investment in basic scientific research of the wild animals and plants of Fukushima."