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Radiation reloaded: Ecological impacts of the Fukushima disaster

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Kendra Ulrich from Greenpeace Japan has written a detailed report on radioactive contamination from the Fukushima disaster, documenting the radioactive contamination of forests, rivers, floodplains and estuaries of Fukushima Prefecture, as well as the contamination of wildlife.1

Ulrich exposes flawed assumptions by the International Atomic Energy Agency:

"The IAEA has declared that there will likely be no impacts on wildlife from Fukushima-derived radiation – while also admitting that they did not consider ecosystems or populations, but rather focused narrowly on individuals. Further, it states that its methodology was based on that proposed by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), whose models are largely base upon individuals in laboratory or controlled environment studies.

"However, in recent years the French government-affiliated Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), in its studies of wildlife in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, has found that animals in these natural conditions could be significantly more sensitive to chronic low-dose exposure to man-made radiation than they are in laboratory or controlled environment experiments. It was suggested that this could be due to a number of factors, including, but not limited to, increased stressors and length of exposure times. In fact, IRSN found that wildlife could be up to eight times in more sensitive in natural contaminated ecosystems."

The report is based on a large body of independent scientific research in impacted areas in the Fukushima region, as well as investigations by Greenpeace radiation specialists over the past five years. It draws on research regarding the ecosystem impacts of the Chernobyl disaster and the 1957 Kyshtym / Mayak disaster in the Soviet Union (which involved a chemical explosion in a liquid radioactive waste tank, spreading radionuclides over a wide area).

The report states that studies after the Chernobyl and Kyshtym disasters revealed evidence in contaminated forest systems of a gradual increase in the concentrations of radiocaesium in above-ground plant structures after five years. Uptake via root systems exceeded returns to the forest floor via leaching and litterfall, until a sort of equilibrium was reached. The same phenomenon may play out in Fukushima Prefecture. Declining radiation levels may plateau (or even rise), followed by a very slow decline as long-lived radionuclides decay (for example caesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years).

The greatest enemy of the clean-up efforts in Fukushima Prefecture is gravity. The topography of Fukushima prefecture is characterized by steep slopes, foothills, and flat coastal flood plains. The upper regions are covered in forests and plantations – interspersed with rice paddies, homes and other agricultural fields. Over 70% of Fukushima prefecture is forested, and these areas cannot be decontaminated. Ulrich writes:

"Its climate is highly erosive, with typhoons in the fall and snowmelt in the spring. During significant rainfall events, typhoons, and spring snowmelt, the stocks of radiocaesium in forests, hillslopes and floodplains can be remobilized and contaminate areas downstream – including those that did not receive fallout from the radioactive plumes, as well as areas that have already been decontaminated."

Thus there is an element of futility to the clean-up efforts:

"Over the past four years, a massively expensive and labor-intensive decontamination effort has been underway in the much of the heavily contaminated areas. Workers scrub down buildings, sidewalks, and roads, and remove enormous amounts of contaminated surface soil and debris – which is then packed into bags roughly a m3 in size and piled into up in mountains of temporary radioactive waste storage sites scattered throughout the prefecture. Forests are "decontaminated" in 20-meter strips along roads and around homes in an effort to lower radiation doses. Yet, due to the complexities of these ecosystems and the transfer of radiation within them, this effort is more symbolic than effectual. As such, despite the admirable and dedicated work of the decontamination workers, their heroic efforts in the Fukushima-impacted areas have yielded limited success."

Some of the specific impacts uncovered in the five years since the Fukushima disaster include:

  • high radiation concentrations in new leaves, and at least in the case of cedar, in pollen;
  • apparent increases in growth mutations of fir trees with rising radiation levels;
  • heritable mutations in pale blue grass butterfly populations and DNA-damaged worms in highly contaminated areas, as well as apparent reduced fertility in barn swallows;
  • decreases in the abundance of 57 bird species with higher radiation levels over a four year study;
  • high levels of caesium contamination in commercially important freshwater fish; and
  • radiological contamination of one of the most important ecosystems – coastal estuaries.

There's a saying that old atomic bomb test sites never die. The same could be said of severe nuclear accident sites. Ulrich concludes:

"Unfortunately, the crux of the nuclear contamination issue – from Kyshtym to Chernobyl to Fukushima – is this: when a major radiological disaster happens and impacts vast tracts of land, it cannot be 'cleaned up' or 'fixed.'"

Other reports released by Greenpeace

Greenpeace has released several other important reports to mark the Chernobyl and Fukushima anniversaries. Nuclear Scars: The Lasting Legacies of Chernobyl and Fukushima is a 50-page report summarizing the myriad social and environmental effects of the disasters.2 It's well worth a read and will serve as a useful reference document.

The Nuclear Scars report comments on testing conducted by Greenpeace in Ukraine. Of 50 milk samples collected last year from three villages in the Rivne region of Ukraine, located approximately 200 km from Chernobyl, 92% contained caesium-137 at levels above the limit set for consumption by adults in Ukraine, and all were substantially above the lower limit set for children. Samples of mushrooms had caesium-137 levels well above the Ukrainian limit for human consumption. Forty-two percent of grain samples from the Kyiv region, 50 km from Chernobyl, had strontium-90 levels above the Ukrainian limit for human consumption. Seventy-five percent of wood samples from the Kyiv region had strontium-90 levels above the Ukrainian limit for firewood.

Greenpeace has commissioned a number of other reports which have been released recently:

  • David Boilley, a nuclear physicist and chairman of Association pour le Contrôle de la Radioactivité dans l'Ouest, reviewed current research into the contamination from the Fukushima disaster.3
  • A team of scientists led by Prof. Omelianets, Principal Scientist for the Laboratory of Medical Demography at the National Research Centre for Radiation Medicine of National Academy of Medical Sciences of Ukraine, reviewed the published national and international scientific data and research on the health impacts from the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.4
  • Prof. Valerii Kashparov, the Director of the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology of the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine, and his team reviewed the published scientific research on the extent of Chernobyl's contamination 30 years later.5

Nuclear disasters and sociopolitical change

Greenpeace's Nuclear Scars report comments on the broader political ramifications of the Fukushima disaster, noting that it "triggered many Japanese citizens to rethink their once deferential relationship with state and expert authorities. Fukushima has, in effect, changed the social relationships of Japanese society. This new distrust in authorities has spurred 'bottom-up' responses, including citizen-led science challenging government policies and protesting against government policies. When citizens lose faith in government expertise, they develop other means to protect their lives and health. Following Fukushima, Japanese citizens developed their own technical capacity to assess government safety reassurance, including learning to monitor, share and understand the risk of radiation levels in food and communities. This 'scientific citizenship' is a direct response to the Fukushima disaster. Simply put, due to distrust in government, citizens have come together to develop tools and community networks to protect their health and avoid radiation exposure."2

Naoto Kan, Japan's Prime Minister at the time of the Fukushima disaster, has recently commented on the potential for far more radical changes in the social relationships of Japanese society.6 Reflecting on the first few days of the Fukushima disaster, Kan said:

"From a very early stage I had a very high concern for Tokyo. I was forming ideas for a Tokyo evacuation plan in my head. In the 1923 earthquake the government ordered martial law – I did think of the possibility of having to set up such emergency law if it really came down to it. We were only able to avert a 250-kilometre evacuation zone by a wafer-thin margin, thanks to the efforts of people who risked their lives. Next time, we might not be so lucky."

"The future existence of Japan as a whole was at stake," Kan said. "Something on that scale, an evacuation of 50 million, it would have been like a losing a huge war."6

Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, attributes the collapse of the Soviet Union in part to the nuclear disaster. He said, "even more than my launch of perestroika, [Chernobyl] was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, the Chernobyl catastrophe was an historic turning point: there was the era before the disaster, and there is the very different era that has followed."7


1. Kendra Ulrich, March 2016, "Radiation Reloaded: Ecological Impacts of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident – 5 years on",

2. Greenpeace, 2016, 'Nuclear scars: The Lasting Legacies of Chernobyl and Fukushima',

3. Boilley, D. 2016. Fukushima five years later: back to normal?


4. Omelianets, N., Prysyazhnyuk, A., Loganovsky, L., Stepanova, E., Igumnov, S., Bazyka, D. 2016. 'Health Effects of Chernobyl and Fukushima: 30 and 5 years down the line'.

5. Kashparov, V., Levchuk, S., Khomutynyn, I. & Morozova, V. 2016. Chernobyl: 30 Years of Radioactive Contamination Legacy.

6. Andrew Gilligan, 4 March 2016, 'Fukushima: Tokyo was on the brink of nuclear catastrophe, admits former prime minister',

7. Mikhail Gorbachev, 14 April 2006, 'Turning Point at Chernobyl',