“Something has gone wrong”: The mutant butterflies of Fukushima

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You may be familiar with the scientific theory known as “the butterfly effect” — a small change in nature today that creates major transformations in the future. The famous scenario speculates that a solitary butterfly flapping its wings far away can trigger a chain of events that could cause a hurricane to strike your home. The “butterfly effect” is a favorite of science fiction writers and a staple of novels about time travel. But at its heart lies a very simple and understandable premise: It’s dangerous for humankind to tamper with the natural order of things.

That is why the news coming out of Japan today is so alarming. Last year’s tsunami-triggered catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has resulted in, quite literally, a “butterfly effect.” Scientists seeking to learn the impact from the Fukushima disaster have discovered a direct link between radiation from the accident and mutations in butterflies:

TOKYO — Researchers in Japan have found signs of mutation in butterflies, signaling one of the first indications of change to the local ecosystem as a result of last year’s nuclear accident in Fukushima, according to one of the first studies on the genetic effects of the incident.

Joji Otaki from the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, who led the research, collected 144 commonly-found pale grass blue butterflies two months after the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

Initial results indicated that roughly 12 percent of the butterflies showed signs of abnormalities, such as disfigurement in their antennas, smaller-sized wings, change in color patterns and indented eyes, Otaki said.

Even more alarming, when he collected another 238 samples six months later he found that those abnormalities had increased to 28 percent and the mutations had doubled to 52 percent in their offspring.

In a related experiment, untainted butterflies were exposed to cesium-coated leaves collected from Fukushima; the exposure resulted in both a reduced size of the butterflies, as well as an increased mortality rate. The researchers elected to study butterflies because of their ubiquity around the globe, and the severe impact of the radiation exposure strongly suggests that other species were affected as well. Earlier this spring, we noted raised levels of cesium from Fukushima in bluefin tuna off the West Coast of the United States.

Even before further study — which is clearly required — the butterfly mutations show that the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which was the result of a reckless lack of planning and awareness by Japanese utility and governmental officials, has clearly compromised the local ecology

What’s alarming—though not entirely unexpected—is that the relatively mild mutations found in the butterflies initially collected at the scene seem to be getting worse in their offspring. That’s true for offspring bred offsite as well as second-generation butterflies found at Fukushima, indicating that the radiation has caused lasting genetic damage to the species.

“It’s pretty clear that something has gone wrong with the ecosystem,” Joji Otaki from the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa told NBC. No kidding! The situation reminds me very much of what we’re experiencinh right now in the Gulf, where fisherman have reported hauling in eyeless shrimp. Both tragedies share a common bond: They result from our reckless, corner-cutting quest for energy, and they are both 100 percent man-made.

The mess at Fukushima is a monument to the folly of humans — hubris that a nuclear plant could be safely operated in a nuclear zone, with a stunning lack of proper regulations, oversight, and planning. And now we can only speculate how the “butterfly effect” of Fukushima will affect future generations.

You can check out the original report from Nature magazine about butterfly mutations here: http://www.nature.com/srep/2012/120809/srep00570/full/srep00570.html

Here is news coverage from NBC with additional info about the butterfly mutations: http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/08/14/13274288-study-japan-nuclear-disaster-caused-mutated-butterflies?lite

My earlier post from May 30 on radioactivity in bluefin tuna from Fukushima: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/you-might-even-say-it-glows-radioactive-tuna-migrates-from-japan-to-california-waters

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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