Effects of Radiation on Plants

Reed Miller
March 17, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015

How Radiation Works

Fig. 1: Three irradiated plants (right three). [6] (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Before I explain how radiation can affect plant-life, I must first explain what exactly radiation is, and how it is able to affect matter. Radiation comes from many places, from the Sun, to things man makes like cell phones and TV's. Radiation is not always dangerous. Radiation can become very dangerous depending on what kind of radiation it is, and how long something is exposed to it. Radiation has two types, non-ionizing, which is mostly harmless, and ionizing. This high-energy, ionizing radiation can lead to serious problems within an organism. Radiation energy is transferred by particles or waves . While non-ionizing radiation is relatively low-energy, ionizing radiation is so high in energy it can break chemical bonds. This means it can change the charge of an atom that interacts with it. At high levels, this can even damage and destroy the nucleus of an atom, directly affecting an organism's DNA. Once DNA is tampered with, an organism can develop dangerous mutations. [1]

How Plants Are Affected Directly

The effects of high levels of radiation on organisms include: [2]

The amount that a plant, or any organism, is affected by radiation is determined by how much radiation the organism receives, as well as long it is exposed. Data from the Chernobyl incident lends some more precise numbers. "No deleterious effects of radiation could be observed in locations where radiological doses were less than or equal to 5 rad/year. Where doses between 5 and 400 rad/year were received, radiation effects were 'ecologically masked,' meaning that adverse effects on individual organisms were observed but no changes in populations or ecosystems occurred. Where doses were >400 rad/year, damaging effects on populations and communities occurred." [2]

How Plants Can Be Affected Indirectly

Direct contact with radiation or radioactive materials is not required to affect local plant life; the mere presence of a reactor is often enough. To build a nuclear reactor, one requires a great deal of space, usually near water, which means clearing out any local vegetation. Heat given off by the reactor can change nearby water temperature, disturbing the delicate conditions required for coastal vegetation. [5]

© Reed Miller. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. A. Gordon, "The Effects of Ionizing Radiation on Plants: Biochemical and Physiological Aspects," Q. Rev. Biol. 32, 3 (1957).

[2] L. W. Barnthouse, "Effects of Ionizing Radiation on Terrestrial Plants and Animals: a Workshop Report," Oak Ridge National Laboratory, ORNL/TM-13141, December 1995.

[3] B. W. Shirley, S. Hanley, and H. M. Goodman, "Effects of Ionizing Radiation on a Plant Genome: Analysis of Two Arabidopsis transparent testa Mutations," Plant Cell 4, 333 (1992).

[4] J. L. Ryan, "Ionizing Radiation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," J. Invest. Dermatol. 132, 985 (2012).

[5] A. Bond et al., "Environmental Impact Assessment and the Decommissioning of Nuclear Power Plants - a Review and Suggestion for a Best Practicable Approach," Environ. Impact Assess. 23, 197 (2003).

[6] C. S. Gager, "The Influence of Radium Rays on a Few Life Processes of Plants," Popular Science Monthly 74, 222 (1909).