Learning lessons from Chernobyl to Fukushima
The sites of the world's nuclear accidents -- Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima -- cast a pall far beyond national boundaries.
An irradiated 2,850-square-meter zone around Chernobyl's single reactor plant, which exploded in 1986 showering much of Europe in cesium and other toxins, still remains almost devoid of people.
For more than a decade, Professor Tim Mousseau has been rummaging around inside that zone, researching the genetic impact of radiation. Biodiversity and the numbers of insects and spiders have shrunk, he says, and the bird population shows evidence of genetic defects.
Now the biological scientist, who is associate vice president for research at the University of South Carolina in the United States, is bringing his sample bags to Fukushima.
CNNGo: What do you expect to find?
Tim Mousseau: It’s fair to say that whatever we find will be of profound interest to both the local and international communities because it’s the first time biologists have had the chance to monitor these kinds of impacts.
In Chernobyl, there is no data from the early period. Scientists were absolutely discouraged from conducting independent research. Many were exiled or put in jail or under house arrest.
Here in Japan, there is an opportunity to collect baseline data from day one. The truth is that we don’t have sufficient data to provide accurate information on the long-term impact.
What we can say, though, is that there are very likely to be very significant long-term health impacts from prolonged exposure.
CNNGo: Do you worry about your health going into places like this?
Mousseau: When we first started not really, because the popular dogma was that there were no serious consequences to working near Chernobyl.
But then we began to see these big negative effects, from relatively small doses -- reductions in longevity, male fertility, birds with smaller brains and so on. We become much more cautious.
- More on CNNGo: Who’s telling the truth on Fukushima?
The external doses are relatively insignificant for the amount of time we spend there. But breathing it in, drinking water, eating contaminated food -- that’s many orders of magnitude higher than external sources.
CNNGo: Dr Sergii Gashchak at the Chernobyl Center in the Ukraine disputes your research findings ...
Mousseau: There have been quite a number of reports in the media that perhaps the wildlife is thriving because of the absence of humans, but there is no data to support that hypothesis.
We’ve been trying to document, birds, animals and insects and any other critter we can easily monitor. The more detailed research is on birds -- biodiversity in birds is down by two thirds, and abundance is down by half in the more contaminated areas.
CNNGo: Do you think the world can live with nuclear power?
The events of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima make it clear that we have to reflect very carefully on the long-term costs and benefits of this energy. It’s much too early to tell about Fukushima, but it’s very likely that the balance is tipping against nuclear power as a long-term source of viable energy.
CNNGo: Over 80,000 people, and counting, have been evacuated from Fukushima. Can those people ever expect to return home?
Mousseau: I can’t comment on that. That’s the main source of contention and until they come up with a plan, this is going to be a very contentious issue.
It’s important that I stay above the politics and focus purely on the science. But it is very clear that this is a major event that requires major investment in health and scientific study.