Fukushima Radiation Made Japanese Fir Trees Go Haywire After Nuclear Disaster

Plants in Fukushima are growing in abnormal ways because of the radiation left over from the 2011 nuclear accident, a study suggests.

In a study published on January 15 in the journal Plants, scientists described changes to the structure of plants and trees in areas close to where a partial meltdown occurred at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant (FNPP) after an earthquake caused a tsunami that overwhelmed the plant's cooling systems.

The earthquake, which measured 9.1 on the Richter Scale, struck in the Pacific Ocean and caused huge waves that damaged the station's back-up systems.

After the accident, ionizing radiation and radioactive material were released into the surrounding areas and onto flora nearby. Plant life studied by researchers behind the paper has exhibited strange abnormalities in the years since the accident.

Ionizing radiation, of which nuclear radiation is an example, is a kind of energy that removes electrons from atoms and molecules it touches in the air, liquids and solid material, making it potentially very dangerous for living organisms.

To come to their conclusion, researchers examined the whorls—the places on plants where foliage like leaves, petals or needles spread out from a central point.

Instead of branching out in the expected way, the whorls showed irregular growths and even elimination of some shoots in ways not seen on trees that avoided radiation.

What is more, the number of strange mutations like this corresponded with the amount of radiation the trees were hit with. Researchers said that the rate of mutations was "directly proportional to the dose of ionizing radiation to which the conifers had been exposed."

The authors of the paper said that another abnormality they found was the "deletion" of shoots of Japanese fir and red pine trees. This happened most often after the spring of 2012, and peaked in 2013, though precisely why remains a mystery.

The paper consequently offered further evidence that ionizing radiation like that produced by nuclear accidents can alter the structure of conifer trees.

The authors noted that the abnormalities they uncovered were like those found on Scots Pine trees in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the 18.6-mile radius surrounding the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union in 1986.

Japanese police in Fukushima exclusion zone
Japanese police search for survivors after the tsunami inside the exclusion zone. Radiation from the Fukushima plant caused mutations in nearby plant life. Athit Perawongmetha / Contributor/Getty Images