The Effects of Gamma Radiation on Plants

Gamma rays are a high-energy form of electromagnetic radiation.
Gamma rays are photons of electromagnetic radiation emitted from unstable nuclei like those formed during nuclear fission. Their wavelengths are typically less than 10 ^ -12 meters, and their frequencies usually exceed 10 ^ 20 Hertz; consequently, they have sufficient energy to eject electrons from atoms and cause damage to tissues in living organisms. At high doses, gamma rays can harm plant life.

If doses are high enough, irradiation with gamma rays may be sufficient to kill most or even all of the plant species in a community. An Oak Ridge National Laboratory paper in 1995, for example, cited previous work studying past radiation releases in the Soviet Union like the Chernobyl disaster. Doses of radiation exceeding 500 rads (a unit measuring radiation and equivalent to 10 milliGray) per day completely killed off plants, even those that had higher tolerance levels. Doses of 10,000 rads per year caused complete destruction of exposed ecosystems and their plant inhabitants. Some species were more sensitive than others; pine trees, for example, fell victim to doses as low as 5 to 10 rads per day according to the report.

Lower doses of radiation do not kill plants but can induce a range of abnormalities. Withered crowns, underdeveloped or misshapen leaves and unusual growth patterns such as gigantism -- excessive height and over-rapid growth -- characterize plants exposed to intermediate doses of gamma rays. When doses are sufficient to kill many of the existing plants, subsequent recovery may be slow.

Seeds exposed to high levels of radiation will not germinate. Seeds exposed to intermediate levels of radiation may actually exhibit higher growth rates at first, although the percentage of seeds that germinate decreases as the radiation dose increases. The gamma rays induce DNA damage and the higher the dose, the more damage to the plant's DNA they cause. Different plants may exhibit different tolerance levels; some seeds and seedlings can survive higher doses than others.

Danger Lurks in the Trees

At Chernobyl, Radioactive Danger Lurks in the Trees

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine – Most days Nikolay Ossienko patrols the forests surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, cleariyng brush and dead trees from the grid of fuel breaks that crisscross the 1,000-square-mile area. "Our number one job is to save the forest from fire," said Ossienko.

It’s a job with international consequences. For almost three decades the forests around the shuttered nuclear power plant have been absorbing contamination left from the 1986 reactor explosion. If these forests burn, strontium 90, cesium 137, plutonium 238 and other radioactive elements would be released, according to an analysis of the human health impacts of wildfire in Chernobyl's exclusion zone conducted by scientists in Germany, Scotland, Ukraine and the United States. This contamination would be carried aloft in the smoke as inhalable aerosols, that 2011 study concluded.

A 2002 test fire offers insight on the scope of the radioactive risk. Set to assess plume and radionuclide behavior, the two-acre ground fire near the failed power plant released up to five percent of the cesium and strontium in the biomass. A high-intensity crown fire would release much higher amounts than burning needles and leaf litter, said Vasyl Yoschenko, who set the fire and heads the radioecological monitoring laboratory at the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology. Other studies predict that the fine particles emitted from a forest fire could be transported hundreds of miles away.

Soviet Union Wit - Red Forest

The dead pine trees are sardonically called 'The Red Forest' by the Ukranians. It refers as much to their former Soviet 'overlords' than to the dead tree coloration pattern.

Lessons From Chernobyl for Japan

By ELLEN BARRY Published: March 19, 2011

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine — Twelve times a month — the maximum number of shifts the doctors will allow — Sergei A. Krasikov takes a train across the no man’s land and reports for work at a structure enclosing Reactor No. 4 known as “the sarcophagus.”

The public is not allowed within 18 miles of Reactor No. 4, but a photographer and I made the journey last week with Chernobylinterinform, a division of Ukraine’s Emergency Ministry. At the checkpoint leading to the exclusion zone, there is a small statue of the Virgin Mary and a placard listing the amounts of cesium and strontium found in mushrooms, fish and wild game.

At the six-mile radius begins the zone of mandatory resettlement. A stand of scorched-looking trees marks the so-called Red Forest, after the color of dead pines that were bulldozed en masse and buried in trenches. As we approached the plant, the guides’ radiation detector suddenly registered 1,500 microrem — 50 times normal, they said, perhaps because we had been caught by a gust of wind.

At the center of it all is the sarcophagus, its sides uneven and streaked with rust.

Why isn't the nuke industry

Why isn't the nuke industry banned?


Ultra Low-Dose Radiation: Stress Responses and Impacts Using Rice as a Grass Model

Effects of radiation on plants explained

Genome sequencing of plants exposed to radiation

Genome-wide analysis of mutations in mutant lineages selected following fast-neutron irradiation mutagenesis of Arabidopsis thaliana.

Genome Res. July 2012 22: 1306-1315; Published in Advance April 12, 2012, doi:10.1101/gr.131474.111