Anomalies, Malformations and Resilience: New Studies on the Effects of Radiation on Wildlife at Chernobyl and Fukushima

By Timothy Mousseau

The program and its research activities

The seat of the research program Chernobyl + Fukushima (CFRI) is at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. Research has officially started in Ukraine in 2000 and Fukushima in July 2011. To date, the group has conducted more than 30 research expeditions to Chernobyl and Fukushima.

At Fukushima as Chernobyl, nuclear accidents have released huge amounts of radioactive elements were dispersed by the weather conditions prevailing at the landscape scale.Some 200 000 km 2  (Chernobyl) and 15 000 km 2 (Fukushima) were heavily contaminated.Radioactive materials were not uniformly dispersed and have created a mosaic of micro-habitats “hot” and “cold” scattered throughout the region. This radioactive patchwork has given us a unique opportunity to observe the genetic effects and environmental effects associated with changes in great detail and repetition and so much scientific rigor, which is not possible in a laboratory or research traditional field, often subject to the constraints of a limited range and rather unnatural environmental heterogeneity. This is an important aspect because it can be assumed that the interactions between natural environmental factors and radioactive contaminants may play a key role in the biological consequences of disasters in question. It is therefore essential that studies on the effects of radiation are carried out in the nature, scale regions. Studies on human populations only have many constraints that limit their usefulness when it comes to trying to understand the long-term consequences of radiation.

The CFRI, University of South Carolina was the first, and remains to this day the only research group to use a multidisciplinary approach to understand the impact on the health and environmental effects of radiation on wild populations. This allowed us to study the acute exposure (short-term) as well as chronic (long-term and multi-generation).

The research program Chernobyl + Fukushima also now has the only team to work both Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Our main sources of funding are the Samuel Freeman Charitable Trust, the CNRS (France), the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society. Additional funding we have been granted by NATO, the Foundation for Civil Research and Development (CRDF), the National Institute of Health (NIH), Qiagen GmbH, the Fulbright Foundation, the Office of Research and Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina, the Academy of Finland and we also received donations from individuals.

Today the program already has to his credit more than 60 scientific publications, most of which date from the last seven years (these papers are available on our website ). Our research has raised eyebrows in many newspapers and television programs, including the New York Times , The Economist , Harpers , BBC, CNN, and News Hour PBS (see website for details).

The team was one of the first to use ecological, genetic and dosimetric technologies to clarify the issue of health and environmental consequences of chronic exposure to low doses after the disaster of Chernobyl and Fukushima. These technologies include ecological surveys repeated natural populations of birds, mammals and insects to observe the effects on longevity and reproduction repeatedly; DNA sequencing and genotoxicity tests to assess genetic damage in the short and long term for individuals living in the wild;the use of miniature dosimeters attached to wild animals and field measurements of whole body irradiation in birds and mammals to obtain an accurate assessment of external and internal doses of radiation received by the animals living freely in nature .Recently, the group has expanded its research to epidemiological and genetic studies of human populations (especially children) living in regions of Ukraine affected by Chernobyl.

Among the key findings published in 2013-2014 include the discovery of tumors, cataracts and damage in birds from highly irradiated areas Chernobyl sperm, and impacts on biodiversity in Fukushima. One of the most interesting results is the discovery that some bird species may have developed a form of resistance to radiation effects by changing the allocation of antioxidants, although many birds are sterile in highly contaminated areas.We also recently discovered effects on neurodevelopment of some small mammals as well as Chernobyl Fukushima.

Both disasters differ in the time since they occurred and the amount and variety of radionuclides released, although the predominant source of radiation is cesium-137 in both cases.

Yellow-throated Sparrow near Chernobyl

The main points revealed by research

The highlights of the research published by the research program of Chernobyl + Fukushima:

• The population size and the number of species (that is to say, biodiversity) of birds, mammals, insects and spiders are significantly lower in highly contaminated areas of Chernobyl.

• In many birds and small mammals, life and fertility are reduced in areas of high contamination.

• At Fukushima, only birds, butterflies and grasshoppers have declined significantly during the first summer after the accident. The other groups did not suffer any adverse effects. Efforts continue to identify changes that may affect these populations over time.

• large variability is observed among different species in their sensitivity to radionuclides. Some species are not affected, and some even seem to increase in number in heavily contaminated areas in Fukushima like Chernobyl. This is due, presumably, to the disappearance of competition (ie more food and habitat), reducing the number of predators and perhaps an adaptation to the effects of radiation.

• Many species show signs of genetic damage following acute exposure; the differences between Chernobyl and Fukushima suggest that some species may show the effects of an accumulation of mutations over several generations.  

• Some individuals and species show no evidence of genetic damage from exposure to radiation and some even show of evolutionary adaptation to the effects of radiation by increasing the antioxidant activity may offer protection against radiation signs ionizing.

• Bird species most likely to experience a reduction in their number due to radiation are those that have historically seen an increase in mutation rate for other reasons, perhaps related to the ability to repair their DNA or decline their defenses against oxidative stress.

• The deleterious effects of radiation exposure observed in natural populations of Chernobyl include increased rates of cataracts, tumors, abnormal growth, deformation of sperm, infertility and cases of albinism.

• Neural development is also affected as evidenced by a reduction of brain size in birds and rodents; impact on cognitive abilities and survival rates have also been demonstrated in birds.

• At Fukushima, the first signs of developmental abnormalities were observed in birds in 2013, but has not yet demonstrated significant genetic damage in birds and rodents.

• Tree growth and microbial decomposition in the soil are also slowed in highly radiation-contaminated areas.

In summary, these results clearly demonstrate that these nuclear disasters have affected the scale of the environment on individuals, populations and ecosystems; there are many examples of developmental abnormalities and deformities that probably contribute to the reduction in the abundance and biodiversity observed in regions radioactive Chernobyl and Fukushima. These results contrast sharply with the optimism of assertions without evidence put forward by the Chernobyl Forum (UN) and the members of the Scientific Committee of the United Nations on the effects of radiation (UNSCEAR). Studies should be continued to determine not only the time of adaptation of populations and communities in this disturbance, but also whether these regions will one day again habitable and if so, from where.


Objectives for 2014-15

We are currently looking for funding to support research activities, ongoing and planned, Chernobyl + Fukushima program:

1) Constant monitoring of bird populations, small mammals and insects in Fukushima to test the changes in population size (abundance) and the number of species (biodiversity) over time. This study should help establish long-term predictions about the time required to restore the situation. 

2) Constant monitoring of populations of barn swallows and rodents (mice and voles) for cancers, survival, reproduction and genetic damage at Fukushima and Chernobyl (in collaboration with the French Institute and CNRS Rikkyo University in Tokyo, the Society of wild birds of Japan, the Japan National Institute of Forests and Finnish University of Jyvaskyla).

3) Start up a new project to study the effects of radiation on tree growth and soil microbial activity in Fukushima (in partnership with Chubu University, Nagoya, Japan).

4) Start up of a new project to determine the effects of radiation on growth, fertility and genetic damage in cows living in highly radioactive areas in Fukushima (in collaboration with the Association of Cattle Breeders Fukushima)

5) Getting started a new project to examine the mutation rate in humans using the complete sequencing of genomic DNA. This project will initially focus on families living in contaminated areas of Ukraine. This project is a collaboration with the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, McGill University, the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University and the Institute of Radiation Medicine in Kiev, Ukraine.

6) Continued development of new methods for measuring doses and genetic damage in wild animal populations.

7) Coordination of an international association of independent scientists capable of providing non-biased evidence based on health and environmental risks of nuclear accidents information. This group will be responsible for compiling, evaluating and interpreting current medical and scientific literature and develop a literature suitable for public dissemination by the press and Internet media, and used in public presentations in Japan and the rest of the world.

For more information, please contact:

Dr. Timothy A. Mousseau
Professor of Biological Sciences
University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC 29208 USA
(803) 920-7704


Translation by Google.

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