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Lurking ‘terrors’ from nuclear power?

Within a month of each other in late March and April 1979, reactors at the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear plants, both proclaimed “state of the art” and one (TMI) only three months in operation, experienced the worst accidents in nuclear-power history. Radiation from uncontrolled releases at TMI and from the explosion at Chernobyl caused health problems for many thousands, including various cancers, and numerous “birth-defected children.”
In a 2008 issue of the journal Chemistry & Biology, scientists from Zurich University in Switzerland documented new and rather disturbing radiation effects that seem to be occurring in the broader environment. From laboratory studies, radiological or chemical-substances exposure had long been known to cause genetic changes in fruit flies and other insects.
Following Chernobyl, the researchers set out to study how its fallout, and man-made radiation from other sources might affect various insects. Over 21 years, they collected more than 16,000 “true bug” individuals in a dozen countries, from Ukraine where the fall out had been heaviest, to European countries with nuclear facilities and the US, as well as in “reference site” countries such as Ghana and Costa Rica which were known to be yet free of nuclear contamination.
The stilt and dock and damsel bugs and other insects studied, apart from feeding on plants, mostly have in common that they rarely if ever fly, spending their entire lives and successive generations in the same spot within a few square meters. Mutations in body parts and body structure were the principle research focus. The study found “severe disturbances and high degrees of malformation,” absent or knotted feelers, for instance, asymmetries of head or eyes, crumpled wings or legs of unequal length and many others. Deformations were few (0 to 3 percent) in insects from the reference sites, and their occurrence in natural insect populations is only approximately one percent. Yet nearly one-fourth of the insects from study sites downwind of Chernobyl, and downwind of several European and US nuclear installations were thus deformed.
Radioactive particles, many with very long half-lives, can enter plants through their roots and leaves. Tritium, for example, emitted routinely into the air or accidentally into water bodies by nuclear power plants, accumulates in plant cells irreversibly, becoming part of plant metabolism. For leaf-sucking insects for which a plant is host, this can spell the abnormal development observed, if not lethality.
For creatures higher in the food chain the deleterious results multiply: more than one-third of the nestlings of swallows studied around Chernobyl were deformed, their malformation rate twice that of the parents which had suffered irradiation directly, and the parents’ rate fully 17 times that in unaffected swallow populations.
Beyond death toll and horrendous after-effects of serious accidents, persistent low-level radiation accumulating in the environment through nuclear-power facilities seems anything but safe and harmless. Indeed, this study calls to mind the supplication in a Catholic-Church evening prayer (Psalm 91) that “You not need [to] fear the terrors of night. . . [and] the plague that stalks in the dark.”