Nature is giving us another warning about nuclear reactors (and nuclear warfare).
As reported by BBC’s Nick Crumpton, a recently published scientific study found that the exposure to radioactive material released into the environment during the Fukushima power plant meltdown has caused severe abnormalities (mutations) in butterflies.
Two months after the catastrophe in March 2011, Japanese researchers collected 144 adult pale grass blue butterflies (Zizeeria maha) from 10 different locations in Japan, including the Fukushima area. At the time of the meltdown, the adult butterflies would have been overwintering as larvae.
Common wisdom believes that insects are very resistant to radiation but the researchers unexpectedly found that areas with large amounts of radiation were now home to butterflies with much smaller wings and irregularly developed eyes.
When the research team lead by Prof. Joji Otaki from the University of the Ryukyus, Okinawa, bred these butterflies in labs 1,750 kilometers away from Fukushima where there was hardly any trace of artificial radiation, they noticed abnormalities not found in the previous generation (collected from Fukushima): malformed antennae, which the butterflies use to explore their environment and seek out mates.
Six months later, after again collecting adults from the ten sites, it showed that the butterflies from Fukushima area showed an alarming mutation rate more than double than of those found soon after March 2011.
It has been concluded that this higher rate of mutation is a result from eating contaminated food, but also from mutations of the parents’ genetic material that was passed on to the next generation. These findings show that the radionuclides released from the accident were still affecting the development of the insects, even after the residual radiation in the environment had decayed.
The team of researchers has been studying that particular species of butterflies for more than 10 years and the findings are consistent with previous studies that have indicated birds and butterflies are important tools to investigate the long-term impacts of radioactive contaminants in the environment.
Prof. Otaki said, “We had reported the real-time field evolution of colour patterns of this butterfly in response to global warming before, and [because] this butterfly is found in artificial environments – such as gardens and public parks – this butterfly can monitor human environments.”
University of South Carolina biologist Tim Mousseau, who studies the impacts of radiation on animals and plants in Chernobyl and Fukushima, but was not involved in this research commented, “This study is important and overwhelming in its implications for both the human and biological communities living in Fukushima. These observations of mutations and morphological abnormalities can only be explained as having resulted from exposure to radioactive contaminants.