How Much Did Japan's Fukushima Disaster Harm Wildlife? Scientists Get Ready to Find Out

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Warning sign on the road to the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Hard-working rescue teams helped many of the thousands of pets displaced by Japan's catastrophic earthquake and tsunami last year. But the long-term future of animals exposed to nuclear radiation during the disaster may not be very rosy.

Early reports out of the area around the disabled Fukushima reactor indicate a drop in bird populations and "an immediate negative consequence of radiation for birds during the main breeding season," The Irish Times reported this week.

Disaster's Impact On Flora And Fauna
One of the authors of the study, Professor Timothy Mousseau from the University of South Carolina, is assembling a team that will conduct long-term research on the impact of radiation exposure on wild animals and plants in the Fukushima area, according to the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK).

Japanese researchers are also looking at the impact of the nuclear disaster on flora and fauna, "examining field mice, red pine trees, a certain type of shellfish and other wild [species] in and around the 20 kilometer no-go zone surrounding the plant," Agence France-Presse reported late last month. They are expected to publish their initial findings in March.

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Taking a radiation reading near the Chernobyl reactor.

Mousseau, who has been doing similar research in the Chernobyl region since 1999, believes such studies have broad potential importance.

"By looking at these organisms that have more shorter life-spans [than people] we can actually look at what might happen to human populations 100, 200, 300 years later," he told NHK.

Chernobyl Birds Have Smaller Brains
The professor's work on Chernobyl impacts has found that birds in the irradiated part of Ukraine have smaller brains and shorter lives and that the area's biodiversity has been compromised.

Studies of the affected area in Japan will likely be even more useful, Mousseau told PBS NewsHour: "In Chernobyl, everything was top secret. We don't really know how things began. Fukushima offers us the opportunity to follow these organisms from the beginning."

Tags: Animals | Birds | Japan | Nuclear Power