Fukushima Fallout: Radioactive Boars. In Chernobyl, Wildlife Is Flourishing
April 13, 2016
Richard Lloyd Parry / The Times & Travis M. Andrews / The Washington Post & Sarah Kaplan and Nick Kirkpatrick / The Washington Post
Communities in northern Japan are being overwhelmed by radioactive wild boars, which are rampaging across the countryside after being contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that turned a huge swath of Ukraine into a "No Man's Land," wildlife is flourishing -- largely because of the absence of human activity.
Radioactive Boars Run Wild around Fukushima Reactors
Richard Lloyd Parry / The Times
TOKYO (April 6 2016) -- Communities in northern Japan are being overwhelmed by radioactive wild boars, which are rampaging across the countryside after being contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The animals' numbers are increasing as the boar breed unhindered in the exclusion zone around the stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant, and they are causing damage to farms well beyond the area poisoned by radiation. Hunters are shooting the boars as fast as they can, but local cities are running out of burial space and incinerator capacity to dispose of their corpses.
Thousands of Radioactive Boars Are
Overrunning Farmland in Fukushima
Travis M. Andrews / The Washington Post
(April 11, 2016) -- Nuclear catastrophe is always an unmitigated disaster. The only beneficiaries, albeit in a perverse fashion, are animals, which tend to flourish in areas humans evacuate. This has certainly been the case for wild boars around Fukushima, which have multiplied so rapidly, they've become a problem for neighboring towns.
On Friday, March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck offshore near Tokyo and caused a 30-foot high tsunami that crashed into Japan's coast, killing 18,000 people, according to The Washington Post. Water poured into the Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, flooding the generators designed to keep the plant's reactors cool.
Later that day, an explosion rocked the plant, and more than 200,000 residents living within 12 miles were evacuated as radioactive material began leaking into the surrounding land. In the ensuing days, two more explosions shook the plant, and several fires broke out.
It was a true nuclear meltdown.
Since 2011, no humans have been able to live on the poisoned land. Wild boars, meanwhile, have thrived heartily. No evidence suggests that the radioactive contamination harms the beasts, and the lack of people there to hunt them has allowed them to breed with abandon.
Bags containing radioactive soil, leaves and debris from decontamination work in Naraha, Fukushima Prefecture. Many of Japan's nuclear refugees chose not to return home after the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant forced them to leave. Buddhist priest Tokuo Hayakawa is one of the few people to return.
Boars aren't the only animal to flourish in the wake of nuclear disaster, as Sarah Kaplan reported in the Post in October. Following the Chernobyl catastrophe, elks, wolves, bears and lynx flourished without humans around to hunt them. Ten years after the meltdown, "every animal population in the exclusion zone had at least doubled."
"That wildlife started increasing when humans abandoned the area in 1986 is not earth-shattering news," Tom Hinton, a radio-ecology expert who has studied the aftermath of Chernobyl told The Washington Post. "What's surprising here was the life was able to increase even in an area that is among the most radioactively contaminated in the world."
It's increasingly problematic for the residents, particularly farmers, living nearby.
Since the meltdown, the damage wild boars have caused to agriculture by eating crops in the Fukushima area has doubled, reaching ¥98 million or just more than $900,000, according to Yomiuri. That price tag will only rise as the boar population, lacking natural predators, continues to increase -- during the past two years, the number of boars that have been hunted has increased more than 300 percent, from 3,000 to 13,000.
Normally, boar meat is highly desired in Japan -- in fact, The Japan Times called pork "the nation's most popular meat" -- but these animals have been eating contaminated plants and small animals in the power plant's "exclusion zone." The Sunday Times reports recent tests have found high levels of caesium-137 in the area, which has a half-life of 30 years.
These animals are unfit for human consumption, which presents another problem: hunters can attempt to reduce the population, but they have to do something with the carcasses. According to Texas A&M wildlife and fisheries professor Billy Higginbotham, the average size of a male hog is around 200 pounds. Considering this average, if 13,000 are killed, hunters have around 2,600,000 pounds of potentially dangerous flesh requiring disposal.
There are few solutions.
The city of Nihonmatsu, 35 miles from the plant, contains three mass graves. Each one can hold around 600 boars, but they're nearly full, and the city's run out of space to dig new graves.
"Sooner or later, we're going to have to ask local people to give us their land to use," Tsuneo Saito, a local boar hunter, told The Sunday Times. "The city doesn't own land which isn't occupied by houses."
Some hunters have attempted to bury these bodies in their own yards, only to have them dug back up by dogs.
The best solution would be incinerating the bodies, which requires a special facility that can filter out radioactive materials to prevent the resulting smoke from blanketing nearby areas and contaminating them. One such facility exists in the city of Soma, but the $1.4 million crematorium's capacity is severely limited. It can only handle three boars a day (or 21 a week, which is only 1,092 each year; not quite 13,000).
This isn't the first time the world has battled with radioactive boars. In 2014, The Telegraph reported that one in three boars (297 of 752 tested animals) found near the German state of Saxony contained levels of radiation so high, they were unfit for human consumption. This was believed to be a result of the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred 28 years prior and 700 miles from Saxony.
The battle between animals and humans has long raged, but for farmers living near the exclusion zone of Fukushima, it's become a matter of economic survival.
Travis M. Andrews is a reporter for The Washington Post's Morning Mix.
In the Eerie Emptiness of Chernobyl's
Abandoned Towns, Wildlife Is Flourishing
Sarah Kaplan and Nick Kirkpatrick / The Washington Post
(October 6, 2015) -- The sound was like nothing Tom Hinton had ever heard before: a chorus of baleful wolf howls, long and loud and coming from seemingly every direction in the darkness. The predators yipped and chirped and crooned to one another for what seemed like forever, sending a shiver of awe and intuitive fear down Hinton's spine.
"It was a primordial experience," he said, something most of humanity hasn't felt for tens of thousands of years. "That dates back to when humans were prey."
It was only possible because of where Hinton was standing, a remote area along the Belarus-Ukraine border that's been uninhabited by humans for decades.
They all left in the wake of a very different sound nearly 30 years earlier: the massive explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986, which left dozens dead and drove more than 100,000 people from their homes across a 1,600-square-mile swath of Ukraine and Belarus.
These days, abandoned apartment complexes are nothing more than crumbled concrete wrecks. Vines crawl up the decaying walls of old farmhouses and break unintended skylights into their roofs. No one lives in the post-apocalyptic setting.
No one human, that is. Wildlife populations there -- shaggy-haired wild boar, long-legged elk, the howling choruses of wolves that so captivated Hinton last August -- are flourishing.
That's according to a study published Monday in the journal Current Biology, which found that mammal numbers in the exclusion zone are as high, if not higher, than in even the most protected parks in Belarus.
"That wildlife started increasing when humans abandoned the area in 1986 is not earth-shattering news," Hinton, a radioecology expert and co-author on the paper, told The Washington Post. "What's surprising here was the life was able to increase even in an area that is among the most radioactively contaminated in the world."
In other words, whatever the fallout from the disaster may have been, it turned out that the absence of humans was more than enough to compensate.
"It shows I think that how much damage we do," said fellow co-author Jim Smith, an environmental science professor at the University of Portsmouth. "It's kind of obvious but our everyday activities associated with being in a place are what damages the environment."
"Not that radiation isn't bad," he added, "but what people do when they're there is so much worse."
The study is the first real census of wild animals in the exclusion zone. It relies on a decades worth of helicopter observations in the years right after the disaster, and three winters of scientists carefully counting animal tracks on foot between 2008 and 2010 in the Belarusian section of the zone.
Though animal numbers were low when scientists first started counting them in 1987 (because no data was taken before the disaster, they can't tell to what degree the populations were hurt by the explosion), they rapidly rose once humans left the region.
Brown bears and rare European lynx -- predatory cats the size of a Great Dane with tufted ears and glimmering gold eyes -- quickly appeared in the forests, even though they hadn't been seen for decades before the accident. Wild boar took up residence in abandoned buildings. Forests replaced humans in the villages' empty streets.
Within ten years, every animal population in the exclusion zone had at least doubled. At the same time, the kinds of species that were flourishing in the exclusion zone were vanishing from other parts of the former Soviet Union, likely due to increased hunting, poorer wildlife management and other economic changes.
By 2010, the last year of the on-foot census, the populations for most species were as large as in any of Belarus' four national parks. For one species, the wolves, the population was seven times bigger.
This indicates to researchers that chronic exposure to radiation from the explosion has had no impact on overall mammal populations. Whatever fallout may have come from the initial explosion was completely offset by the benefits of life without humans.
This doesn't mean that the zone isn't dangerous, Hinton stressed. He and his colleagues didn't study the individual- and molecular-level damage caused by lingering contamination. While whole populations aren't dying out, individual animals might be getting sick. And surveys have shown that the soil in areas close to the reactor site still exude radiation.
But, "the environment is very resilient," Hinton said.
The presence of wolves is particularly telling. As apex predators, they are a sign of the health of the entire ecosystem -- if they're flourishing, that means that every other level of species, from elk and deer on down to insects and plants, must also be healthy.
Another team of researchers is currently using camera traps to count wildlife on the Ukrainian side of the exclusion zone. Nick Beresford, a radioecologist at the National Environment Research Council in the U.K., said that their work won't be done until the end of the year, but he expects to reach the same conclusions as those working in Belarus.
Beresford praised the Current Biology study and its findings: "People have said before that wildlife in the zone is flourishing, but those accounts were rightly criticized as anecdotal," he said. "This is the first study to really back it up with science."
Walking around the exclusion zone is like being in "a national park without the people," Hinton said. The forests are nearly pristine, the animals abundant. What relics of human presence do remain have been almost entirely reclaimed by nature.
Even the Soviet city of Pripyat in Ukraine, which once housed tens of thousands of workers at the Chernobyl plant, has been subsumed by trees.
"When I was there 15 years ago, it looked like a city with some trees growing in it," recalled Smith. "Now it looks like a forest with some buildings in it."
For Hinton, who is currently studying the effects of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the impact is both astounding and sobering.
"It's an amazing experience from a wildlife perspective, but it's also a sad experience because you see homes that have been abandoned and you imagine the people's lives that have been disturbed," he said. "It's sad to see the houses and the cars and the baseball bats and you envision the life that people had to drop and leave. But you also see wild boar running around and you don't see that as soon as you leave the zone."
Sarah Kaplan is a reporter for Morning Mix.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.