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A radioactive hazard zone? Chernobyl's example

By Dean Irvine, CNN
Scientists have discovered that some plant species have been relatively unaffected by radiation in the Chernobyl area.
Scientists have discovered that some plant species have been relatively unaffected by radiation in the Chernobyl area.
  • Animal and plant mutations are the clearest signs of radioactive contamination, a scientist says
  • Some bacteria and plants in Chernobyl have thrived since the nuclear meltdown there
  • Scientists worry about the effect radioactive contamination could have on key biodiversity areas in northern Japan

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Mutated animal and plant life and a no-go area for humans - could the area around the Fukushima Daiishi nuclear facility become a radioactive hazard zone?

"Mutations are the clearest sign of the effects of radiation contamination," says Anders Moller, a senior scientist at Paris-Sud University. Moller has studied the effects of radiation on animals around Chernobyl, site of the world's worst nuclear energy disaster, for two decades.

Mutations don't necessarily mean physical deformities, he says, but high levels of radiation can manifest in changes to an organism's DNA and unseen to the human eye.

"That can be ordinary body cells, like skin, but also sperm and eggs and therefore transferred to the next generation," he said. The longer-term effect can be to reduce reproduction and survival rates, which are then passed on through generations.

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"One initial blast is sufficient. The mutation rates (in organisms) were already very elevated in the first studies made just after the accident (in Chernobyl). There's no temporal change in these mutation rates, there's no tendency for them to increase or decrease over time," he says.

"In the more contaminated parts (of Chernobyl) there are few animals, in spring there is very little birdsong. If you are a biologist you notice these effects; in plants you have strange branching patterns, strange leaves, you see the same if you catch animals -- a high frequency of abnormality," he said.

However the Chernobyl Forum -- a collection of eight U.N. agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency -- called the area surrounding Chernobyl "a unique sanctuary for biodiversity" in a 2005 report. Plant and animal populations have grown since the disaster in the absence of humans, who were evacuated from the area.

Some bacteria and fungi are naturally adept at thriving in areas of high radiation, according to Moller, and scientists have discovered that some plant species have been relatively unaffected by radiation in the Chernobyl area.

Martin Hajduch, a biologist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences, studied the seeds harvested from soybean and flax plants grown inside the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power station and found that they compared favorably with ones grown in non-contaminated soil outside the area, though he would not recommend eating anything that grew in the area.

He describes the area as "full of life."

While experts have not likened the fluctuating situation around the Fukushima Daishii nuclear power plant to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the potential for radiation contamination of the surrounding natural environment remains -- parts of the earthquake and tsunami-hit area of Northeast Japan are key biodiversity areas, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Moller says the radiation levels found around the Fukushima facility are "not negligible" - the highest reported exposure of radioactivity at the facility was 400 millisieverts briefly on Tuesday; 50 millisieverts higher than the radiation level Chernobyl residents were exposed to after the blast.

Yet even lower doses of radioactivity, less than the harmful 400 millisievert, can have measured effect on the environment, he says. The difficulty comes in discerning what those effects are.

"These so called low-dose exposure are relatively poorly known and it's highly disputed to which extent they have a significant effect on living beings or not," says Moller.

The future for the area around Fukushima remains unknown, he says.

"It's very difficult to say, it depends on how large an area is contaminated or will be contaminated in the future."

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