Nuclear nature—what next for nuclear energy and biodiversity?

01 June 2011 | Article

By Sue Mainka, IUCN’s Head of Science and Knowledge Management.

On 11 March this year, after an incredibly strong earthquake and impossibly high tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan became famous. Despite what were thought to be more than adequate measures to protect the facility in the event of a natural disaster, sea water entered reactors, and the rest is history.

Today, a few months after the disaster, reports from the International Energy Agency tell us that the situation in Fukushima remains ‘very serious’. In the meantime, many countries have been making major shifts in energy policy as a result of the accident. Rationales for these shifts focus on safety and security issues but what about nature and the environment?

Knowledge gap

Compared to other topics, reports on impacts of exposure to extreme radiation are few, perhaps because of the difficulties of practical experimentation with radiation or because of the time frames before scientists can get to sites of nuclear accidents, or simply because such events don’t happen that often (thank goodness).

Some of the studies that are available provide interesting food for thought. Zoe Richards and colleagues, examined the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific to determine the impacts of nuclear testing done a half century earlier. Their findings were surprising. They found that 70% of coral species had recovered from what must have been a devastating impact at the time – the testing blasts were equivalent to what was used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They note however, that recovery could have been supported by complete lack of human activity during the recovery period. Effectively, nature was left to heal itself and it did so to the best of its ability.

Survival of the fittest

Meanwhile, studies such as those done by AP Moller and colleagues, on the impacts of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, report that 25 years afterwards, there are measurable changes in brain sizes of birds in the area. Animal brains have high fat content and need lots of antioxidants, but nuclear radiation destroys those antioxidants. As a result of long term radiation exposure, brain size had decreased in birds of 48 species in the Chernobyl area. Interestingly, the researchers also reported that these species were going through a ‘survival of the fittest’ selection process since brain sizes among adults versus yearlings were significantly different. Again, nature is managing the situation and after only a quarter of a century, evolutionary changes are measurable.

Gennady Polikarpov and Viktor Egorov present a brief summary of the impact of the Chernobyl accident on the Black Sea ecosystem. They note that more than two decades after the accident, radionuclides (radioactive particles) were detected in organisms but the levels were lower than maximum acceptable levels. They noted in particular the transfer of radionuclides from the water to organisms in the system, calling it the ‘self cleaning capacity’ of the aquatic environment.

A bigger picture

Meanwhile, Benjamin Sovacool from the Energy Governance Programme of the National University of Singapore cautions against quickly dismissing nuclear energy as an option. He studied the impact of wind, fossil-fuel and nuclear energy on bird mortality and determined that fossil-fuel power stations pose a greater threat to wildlife than either wind or nuclear technology because of the impacts from climate change generated by greenhouse gas emissions.

We know that all energy alternatives have some impact on biodiversity but one challenge is the lack of a framework against which we can compare the various options and their impacts.

When we consider nuclear security, it is the immediate impacts at the individual level (humans and other species) that stick vividly in our imaginations. However, the resilience of nature to profound and extreme disturbances such as nuclear accidents and explosions appears to be quite remarkable. Nevertheless, as Grimes and Nuttall point out, there are many issues to consider if nuclear energy remains an option for a sustainable future, including costs, security and ongoing capacity needs for maintaining such facilities.

This is a summary of discussions that took place as part of IUCN's monthly 'Journal Club.'

References cited

  • Grimes, RW, and Nuttall WJ. 2010. Generating the Option of a Two-Stage Nuclear Renaissance. Science 329, no. August: 799-803.
  • Møller AP, Bonisoli-Alquati A, Rudolfsen G, Mousseau TA (2011) Chernobyl Birds Have Smaller Brains. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16862
  • Polikarpov G and Egarov V. 2009. Response of the Black Sea Ecosystem to the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Marine Ecology Progress Series 376: 307-308.
  • Richards ZT et al. (2008) Bikini Atoll coral biodiversity resilience five decades after nuclear testing. Marine Pollution Bulletin 56 (2008) 503–515
  • Sovacool, Benjamin K. 2009. Contextualizing avian mortality: A preliminary appraisal of bird and bat fatalities from wind, fossil-fuel, and nuclear electricity. Energy Policy 37, no. 6: 2241-2248.