CSU partners with Fukushima University to study radiation effects

Ellie Mulder

In the evacuated towns in Fukushima, Japan, cars are still in driveways and children’s bicycles are strewn at the side of the road — but it is devoid of people. Four years after the earthquake in 2011 and the radiation release caused by the destruction of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the area is still suffering and empty.

This is the scene according to radioecology researcher Tom Hinton, who moved to Japan to study the effects of radiation on animal populations. During his first weeks in Japan, he has also been made acutely aware of the effects that the nuclear disaster had on the Japanese people.

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“It’s a wonderful study site, but behind all this is a sadness,” Hinton said. “When you drive through these evacuated towns and you see the destruction from the earthquake … and there are some areas that will be so difficult (to remediate) that, most likely, these people won’t return to their homes. … The impact to the people and to their lives and to the economy of the area is just so huge, it far exceeds any science that we’re doing.”

Colorado State University partnered with Fukushima University to hire Hinton, a CSU alumnus and expert in his field, to determine whether local animals’ radiation doses have been strong enough to affect larger animal populations. CSU researchers from both the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences are involved in the project.

Graduate students studying health physics at CSU are also being sent to Fukushima University as part of a student ambassador program.

Video produced by Colorado State University.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with CSU to bring a distinguished scientist like Thomas Hinton to our joint research efforts,” said Takayuki Takahashi, director of the Institute of Environmental Radioactivity at Fukushima University, in a press release. “Our (IER) will benefit immensely from the expertise that he and CSU’s Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences bring. And we look forward to sharing what we learn about radiation from the 2011 disaster.”

Hinton is working with a device that attaches to animals and allows researchers to analyze their radiation doses and determine other environmental factors. His team will begin with wild boar and hopefully, if the technology can be made lighter and smaller, proceed to work with monkeys.

Although Hinton said that different scientists look for a variety radiation risk factors, common responses to radiation in animals include chromosome or DNA damage, or increased stress resulting in various kinds of cell-level damage.

“Ultimately, unless it’s an endangered species, you have to relate it to the population,” Hinton said. “Is the population … of whatever you’re studying impacted by this radiation? Traditionally, the two biggest factors that can impact population numbers is increased mortality or decreased birth rate.”

Many CSU faculty and researchers are contributing to radiation research in Japan while working in labs in Fort Collins, including Thomas Johnson, an associate professor of health physics, who is testing trace radiation samples in seal populations in the northern Pacific Ocean, where radiation from the Fukushima disaster was released.

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“In Japan, (this research) gives us a change to not just use theories to describe what we think is happening in the environment,” Johnson said. “We can actually take measurements and demonstrate whether or not our models or our thought processes are valid, and we can use that information to help protect people and animals and the environment in general.”

Other CSU researchers are examining the nuclear power plant itself as it relates to the environment, according to Johnson, which will hopefully lead them to make general conclusions about how to prepare for or react to future disasters.

Collegian Reporter Ellie Mulder can be reached at news@collegian.com or on twitter @lemarie.