News Stories

How Past Tragedies Can Predict the Present

Past nuclear disasters can give us a clue about what may happen to the area around the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown in Japan. One of these is Chernobyl, where the same thing happened 25 years ago. Another is in Japan, where the US dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 66 years ago.

In BBC News, Victoria Gill interviews the researchers who make a yearly trek to that part of the Ukraine, to see what has happened to the plants and animals. She quotes biologist Andrea Bonisoli-Alquati as saying, "I had nightmares when I first came here. You feel this sort of constant invisible threat."

As with the Fukushima meltdown in Japan, the dust from the Chernobyl reactor did not settle evenly after the 1986 explosion, meaning that the area is a patchwork of relatively clean and very contaminated areas. In the cleanest areas, you would receive the same radiation dose over several weeks that you would receive in an average YEAR in the US or the UK. Two days in the most contaminated parts would be the same as the dose of radiation you would receive from a medical CT scan.

But despite this, many areas in the formerly contaminated zone are now considered safe enough for tourists. But appearances are deceptive. Gill quotes biologist Tim Mousseau as saying, "Many people come here expecting to see a lunar landscape, so when they see trees, and birds and a few mammals, they're surprised. They think, 'ah well maybe it's not so bad.' But what we're finding is that there is a significant impact on both the population and the biodiversity--the number of species--in the zone. And it's directly proportional to the level of contamination."

Some of the things they see are misshapen pine trees that have formed gnarled, nightmarish shapes. Birds in the exclusion zone have smaller brains. Gill quotes biologist Gier Rudolfsen as saying, "The contamination is invisible, but you do observe it indirectly by the fact that there are fewer birds singing in the morning. In the Red Forest, you don't get the beautiful morning concert that you would expect in a forest like this."

Meanwhile, public health expert Randolph Carter says that studies of health effects from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings provide some clues to the potential, long-term health impacts of this year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The Fukushima power plant disaster shows us how little is yet known about the health effects of low-dose radiation. Carter works with the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) in Japan, which conducts population-based studies on the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb detonations. The first and most noticeable health effects expected to emerge in people exposed to the highest radiation doses during and after the Japanese nuclear disaster are thyroid disorders, such as hypothyroidism, some thyroid cancer cases and leukemia.

Carter says, “I’d expect that the power plant workers who received high doses would be at increased risk of the same diseases that were seen among atomic bomb survivors, such as thyroid diseases first and leukemia, to be followed in subsequent years by small increases in risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, such as hypertension (but) since the doses were so much lower, it may be that we will see nothing in terms of elevated disease levels in the population living near the Fukushima Daiichi plant.”

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