IAEA experts visit Fukushima. Pic: IAEA Imagebank

IAEA experts visit Fukushima. Pic: IAEA Imagebank

It’s been nearly four and a half years since an earthquake and resulting tsunami damaged Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, causing what is considered the most severe nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. A lack of transparency on the part of Japanese government agencies and TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), in addition to continued hazards associated with the damaged plant, have contributed to understandable fears concerning radiation and contaminated water in connection to the Fukushima disaster.

Paranoia or common sense?

Health problems experienced by people in the vicinity of the power plant or virtually anything weird that shows up in the area is likely to be attributed to radiation from Fukushima. Recently this has come in the form of photos of deformed or mutant daisies posted online by residents of Nasushiobara City, located about 115 km (71 mi) northwest of Fukushima Prefecture. Pictures of the daisies can be seen on the website Fukushima Diary.

Like the bees that pollinate these flowers, the Internet has been abuzz with speculation, fascination and fear regarding the mutant daisies and what might be causing their odd development. Naturally, some are attributing the strange blooms to radiation from the still-damaged and Fukushima plant, which has still been reported to be leaking highly radioactive water as recently as February of this year.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said the sensors, which were rigged to a gutter that pours rain and ground water at the Fukushima Daiichi plant to a nearby bay, detected contamination levels up to 70 times greater than the already-high radioactive status seen at the plant campus.

(via AFP)

But does any of this mean that deformed flowers that grow in the vicinity of Fukushima are a result of this radiation? Not necessarily.

According to an interview by the Christian Science Monitor with botanist Todd Forrest of the New York Botanical Garden, radiation can certainly cause plant mutations such as seen in the Nasushiobara daisies, but so can many other factors, including (other) environmental toxins, global warming, invasive plants and garden pests. Gardeners notice these types of changes in plants all the time, while ordinary people may not.

An example of the mutation known as fasciation. Pic: Judit Klein (Flickr CC)

An example of the mutation known as fasciation. Pic: Judit Klein (Flickr CC)

An article on Gizmodo claims to debunk the assertion that Fukushima radiation is the likely cause of the daisy deformities. Strange, asymmetrical growth, called fasciation, is quite common it turns out. Yet, whether or not such mutations are bound to “happen anyway” due to a variety of causes, aren’t they more likely to take place in areas with higher levels of radiation?

Yes, if close to the accident site and with enough exposure.

From National Geographic:

. . . at areas closer to the release site, local dose rate levels were much higher at the time of the accident and possibly could have caused high additional mutation rates in flora in highly contaminated areas.

—Edwin Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists

A legacy of fear

Claims of plant mutations being caused by radiation may also bring up dark memories of the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. John Hersey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the bombings, originally published in 1946, described accelerated growth of vegetation in the bombed areas.

True or not, with Japan’s experience, both recent and during the Second World War, it is no wonder people are reacting with concern (albeit encouraged by social media) with regards to the mutant daisies.