Despite the catastrophic meltdowns of recent memory, advocates of nuclear power have always maintained that it's a safe and "green" source of energy, and that when properly contained, would not harm local wildlife. But these disturbingly beautiful watercolor paintings of mutated insects by Swiss science artist and illustrator Cornelia Hesse-Honegger tell another story: that even properly functioning nuclear power plants can have a negative effect on organisms.
Originally working as a scientific illustrator for the scientific department of the Natural History Museum at the University of Zurich for 25 years, Hesse-Honegger began her unusual study after the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl. Hesse-Honegger began collecting and documenting "morphologically disturbed" insects in Switzerland and Sweden, in zones which were affected by the fallout blown from Chernobyl and into Europe.
In 1987, Hesse-Honegger travelled to Chernobyl itself, collecting and recording malformed specimens, focusing on leaf bugs, which are incapable of travelling far from their habitats. She later published her findings, only to face criticism from scientists who insisted that the radioactive fallout could not cause these transformations.
Undeterred, Hesse-Honegger then turned to documenting Heteroptera leaf bugs living around European power plants (some of them functioning normally) and the Nevada atom bomb test sites, and found that over 30 percent had some kind of deformity -- misshapen wings, feelers, altered pigmentation or tumours -- or about 10 times the normal rate.
A recent article in Chemistry & Biodiversity talks about Hesse-Honegger's findings:
This study also revealed that it is not the distance from a nuclear facility that determines the damage, but rather the wind direction and local topology: areas in the downwind of a nuclear facility are much more highly affected by malformations than protected areas. Radionuclides such as tritium, carbon-14, or iodine-131 are constantly emitted by nuclear power plants, are transported by the wind as aerosols, and accumulate in the host plants of the Heteroptera. Such a low but long-lasting dose of radiation can be far more damaging than a short-term high dosage (Petkau effect). In addition, “hot” alpha and beta particles are significantly more dangerous than gamma radiation, because they are absorbed by the body and essentially irradiate it from within. True bugs seem to be particularly sensitive to this.
Based on these field studies, Hesse-Honegger is convinced that "that normally working nuclear power plants — as well as other nuclear installations — cause deformities in Heteroptera leaf bugs, and are a terrible threat to nature." Hesse-Honegger points to a culture of denial surrounding nuclear power, saying that
there is an official science that claims that the low amounts of radiation emitted by nuclear installations are harmless. The risks of low-level exposure are ignored or insufficiently studied by scientists connected to government institutions and universities.
In the ongoing political and scientific debate about nuclear power, Hesse-Honegger's work is a silent witness, revealing subtle and unsettling details with a honest eye and hand. She says that in the end, "The mutated bugs [are] like prototypes of a future nature."
To see more of Cornelia's thought-provoking work, visit her website.