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In the Wake: How the Nuclear Radioactive Fallout Could Affect the Environment

On March 11, 2011 the most powerful earthquake to strike Japan in 100 years caused horrendous damage and human casualties. The earthquake was a 9.0 magnitude and is one of the fourth strongest quakes in the world since 1900.

In the aftermath, the people of Japan have come to terms with the loss of loved ones and total destruction of hearth and home.  While many of us can’t fathom such a tragedy the devastation doesn’t stop there. Japanese citizens – and citizens of other countries - now face effects that reach far beyond what anyone could have imagined. The long-term consequences of the earthquake and resulting tsunami could bring the country to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe as explosions at a nuclear reactor site release radiation into the atmosphere.

The effects of nuclear radiation on the environment.

Obviously, this could have devastating effects on human life. Because radiation causes damage at a cellular and genetic level, cellular DNA can be altered. When this happens, cellular mutations can occur which can lead to tumors and various cancers.

However, though certainly of prime importance, the effect on human life is not the only thing to be concerned with. Radiation can have a catastrophic effect on the environment as well, which could indirectly affect human life on earth as we know it.

Plant life will suffer the consequences. Just as radiation causes cellular damage in human cells, plant seeds are affected as well. Radiation can prevent plants from sprouting and germinating which will alter their ability to reproduce. Plants that are already growing may suffer genetic mutations, which could very well kill them. Think beyond crops for food for a moment.  Once any living organism is removed from the food chain, the resulting reactions affect any living thing involved.

In addition, radiation can damage microbacteria. Again, genetic damage may occur or the damage could be confined to the cell wall and other cellular structures. This will inhibit reproduction or mutations, which makes survival highly unlikely.  This could have dire consequences, as microbes are essential to human and animal existence. 

Microbes have specific and essential jobs to do. “Good” bacteria in humans destroy harmful bacteria. The microbes found in soil recycle nutrients in our environment and provide us food through fermentation. The truth is there are a finite number of nutrients in the environment and we simply cannot crank a wheel or push a button to manufacture more.

While many forms of radiation do not linger in the environment, the damage from even a short time of exposure is likely to show up many years down the road.

Radiation and weather.  A serious nuclear incident can lead to radiation leakage with far-reaching atmospheric effects. Undoubtedly, significant release of radiation means trouble when it comes to tracking fallout.  Since Japan is in the mid latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, prevailing westerly winds largely control its weather. Any “nuclear cloud” that forms could take different paths depending on the weather pattern at the time of, and following, the leakage of radiation.  From Japan, the radioactive cloud could rise in the atmosphere and travel eastward across the Pacific Ocean towards North America.  If the cloud stays in the upper atmosphere there is little threat, but any fallout at ground level will be of concern.

In any event, there appears not to be a threat of a nuclear winter - a long stretch of darkness and frigid temperatures that would follow a full-scale nuclear disaster. In such cases a layer of smoke and dust in the atmosphere would shroud the earth and block the rays of the sun.  Most living organisms couldn’t survive in such conditions.

As the consequences of the radiation fallout at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have been revealed through the decades, so will those at nuclear sites in Japan. While the world watches and waits, we can only hope and pray the catastrophe that befell Japan has spent its course and we, our children, and grandchildren across the globe will not pay the price in the generations that follow.

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