A startling discovery has been found almost ten years after a nuclear accident wiped out all signs of life near the Fukushima Daiichi. What had been considered by scientists to be a disaster is now starting to bud new plant life and breed more creatures, something experts thought were not possible.
A camera study that has been published in the Journal of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment recorded the existence of more than 20 species that can be found in the vast amount of landscape. The discovery presents many answers to scientific questions about the resurgence of new life after an epic disaster. It is quite a remarkable turnaround from the devastation that was just a decade before. The Fukushima disaster is still affecting Japan to this day.
The Fukushima Disaster
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster occurred on March 11, 2011, and it has been considered one of the most severe nuclear disasters since the 1980s. It is one of only two disasters that have been given the Level 7 distinction on the International Nuclear Event Scale, which is the maximum severity a disaster could get. Approximately 15,000 people died during the natural disaster, with some reporting the death toll with as many as 19,000.
The accident was believed to have been started by a massive earthquake and tsunami. The 9.0 earthquake was undersea, and it has been known as the Great Sendai Earthquake. It was the most powerful quake ever to have been recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful since modern records began in 1900.
Once the earthquake was detected, the active reactors in Fukushima automatically began shutting down their fission reactors. This action caused a domino effect where the electricity failed and prompted the generators to begin working.
The earthquake also caused a massive tsunami that was reportedly 14 meters high. The waters swept over the plant’s seawall and completely flooded the lower grounds. It also caused the plant to flood and knock out the emergency generators. The amount of damage done to the reactors at the time of the disaster is not precisely known.
With the generators ceasing to function, the Fukushima plant was beginning to experience a loss-of-coolant incident. It led to three nuclear meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, and a release of various radioactive contaminants throughout the plant, all within three days.
The Japanese government declared a national emergency following the nuclear disaster. More than 1,800 people within 20 kilometers from the plant were evacuated at first, but it was then increased to 5,800 within 30 kilometers once the gravity of the situation was reassessed. Ultimately more than 150,000 people were displaced as a result of the disaster.
The Japanese government would later admit that lax standards and poor oversight had contributed to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Officials came under fire for their handling in the aftermath of the emergency and not keeping proper records of key meetings during the crisis.
One of the criticisms was the slow release of the data on areas that were most likely to be exposed by the radioactive plume from the damaged reactors. Officials were also criticized for their mishandling of the severity of the disaster. One research noted that the public confidence in the safety of nuclear power was “greatly damaged” by the Fukushima disaster and that they were not ready for a “cascading nuclear disaster.”
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is considered the second biggest nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster. Chernobyl occurred on April 26, 1986, near the city of Pripyat in the northern part of the Ukranian SSR.
The nuclear accident was the result of a flawed reactor design. It was also operated with personnel who were not adequately trained. Once the steam explosion and fire happened, there was at least five percent of the radioactive reactor core released into the atmosphere and then carried downwind.
The environmental aftermath following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster appeared to be grim. The World Health Organization had released a report in 2013 that specific subsets of the population inside the Fukushima Prefecture predicted that some populations might be at a higher risk of developing certain kinds of cancer, including thyroid cancer.
Thyroid cancer is considered one of the most survivable forms of cancer, especially if it is detected early. There was also an excess number of 4,000 children and adolescents who lived around Chernobyl and had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
How the disaster would affect the local and global environments was debated for several years. Scientists say that when radioactive material is released from into the air was a massive concern for much of the area surrounding Fukushima Daiichi. Many international dignitaries were encouraged to leave Tokyo during that time for fear of contamination.
Another primary concern was because the Fukushima coast has some of the world’s strongest currents, and experts were initially concerned that the contaminated water would travel far out into the Pacific Ocean and disperse the harmful materials to other wildlife.
Several environmental experts have debated how long it would take for the area impacted by the Fukushima plant disaster to recover. It can be hard to say when the area would be back to its normalcy.
One study found that radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi plant was still flowing into the water seven years after the disaster. Some researchers also stated that the harmful effects continued to flow into the Pacific Ocean at a rate of 2 billion becquerels a day.
In the near-decade since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the area is close to being deserted. According to studies, only five percent of the original population elected to return to the area and resume their lives.
In 2019, authorities determined that the radiation levels in the Okuma town near the Fukushima disaster were low enough for people to return. Before the disaster, the town had 10,000 residents, but only 1,000 have decided to move back, according to a Business Insider article.
Researchers from the University of Georgia embarked on an extensive study to find out what type of life existed after nuclear disasters. The case study examined areas impacted by both the Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl disasters.
The study sought to answer the speculation and questions that exist throughout the scientific community and general public about the quality of existing wildlife that is present after massive nuclear accidents. The evidence would be able to pinpoint what kinds of life are growing or not growing in those environments.
Researchers used an exorbitant amount of images to conduct this study. Photographic data was gathered from 106 cameras. These cameras were placed in three types of zones based on whether humans were able to be in or near the area due to contamination levels.
The zones included places where humans were excluded due to the highest level of contamination; humans restricted due to intermediate levels; and places where humans inhabited, or areas where people were allowed to remain because there were low levels of radiation found.
The researchers said that the designated zones were based on the ones previously established by the Japanese government during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. By keeping with those zones, the study was able to compare and contrast the existence of life-based on human involvement.
The study could then examine the results and determine how the expansion of the human population and lack thereof had forced the wildlife to coexist with people. It can also determine if the contaminations from nuclear disasters had deeply impacted the wildlife.
The research was collected for the study for more than four months. For 120 days, cameras captured more than 267,000 images of wildlife throughout the various landscapes and areas that were either impacted or unbothered by nuclear disasters. The uninhabited zone could act as a control for the study.
The data included more than 46,000 images of wild boar, over 26,000 images with no inhabitants, about 13,000 in a restricted area, and about 7,000 in the inhabited zones. Experts then analyzed the data.
One of the most unusual things found in the study was the presence of a variety of species that were in images from the uninhabited or restricted zones. The different kinds of species included Japanese marten, monkeys, and raccoons, among other critters.
The research team said there is no previous data on wildlife populations that were found in evacuated areas or even nearby and similar landscapes to a human-inhabited zone. Other evaluated areas included distance to a road, time of activity captured, date-time stamps, vegetation, and elevation.
Many of the animals that were in the menagerie at Fukushima included a wide variety of wildlife. Some of those captured on camera included a red fox, masked palm civet, sika deer, and black bear.
Perhaps the most compelling thing found in this study is not the kinds of animals that were found to live within the evacuation zone. It is something much more exciting, especially considering what had happened just a short time after the disaster.
The study found that there were more than 20 species of animal life that were thriving in the areas surrounding the Fukushima exclusion zone. This discovery is even despite the lingering amount of radiation that exists in the area, according to other environmental studies.
“Our results represent the first evidence that numerous species of wildlife are now abundant throughout the Fukushima Evacuation Zone, despite the presence of radiological contamination,” James Beasley, a wildlife biologist who co-authored the study, said in a press release about the study.
The zones had different features and areas. Because Fukushima is a place with vast amounts of mountains and other kinds of terrains, the scientists wanted to determine how the wildlife interacted with the various environments within the natural habitat.
“The terrain varies from mountainous to coastal habitats, and we know these habitats support different types of species. To account for these factors, we incorporated habitat and landscape attributes such as elevation into our analysis,” Beasley said.
Researchers from the University of Georgia stated that the photographic evidence in the study revealed that the animals observed returned to behaviors that were known based on their history and behavioral pattern.
The animals acted like they typically did before the disaster struck. Raccoons are nocturnal by nature, and they were shown to be active during the night while pheasants performed their usual daily routines.
The researchers dissected the behaviors of all of the creatures that were captured in the images and determined that much of the wildlife carried on similarly to what they did before the natural disaster. The results showed that very few deviated from what was typically expected from them.
What makes these results exciting is the relatively short amount of time that the area seems to be bouncing back from the contamination of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster. Even those that may have adapted differently also had exciting results to reveal.
Another compelling aspect found in the study is the behavior of the wild board that lived inside the uninhabited area. The boar was just one of the animals that presented an even more interesting aspect to the disaster aftermath environmental study, especially considering that they are often at conflict with human involvement.
In the study, wild boards that were in the uninhabited area were more active during the day while those that resided in the human-inhabited areas. It suggests that the boars were modifying their behavior when there were no humans around. Their absences made the diurnal creatures more active during daylight hours.
There was another example found in the study that differentiated between its typical patterns following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster. Researchers noted that the Japanese serow was one of the few exceptions to that rule.
The Japanese serow is like a goat. It is medium-sized and can be found grazing on rocky hills. Based on this new research, these animals were more frequently seen on the camera footage in rural human-inhabited upland areas. The experts believe that the serows made a behavioral adjustment because of the boar population that had grown in the evacuated zone.
The research conducted by the University of Georgia is an example of animal behavior, which is known as a cornerstone of experimental psychology. It hopes to shed light on how animals interact with each other and their environments and help humans understand why they behave in the ways that they do.
“This research makes an important contribution because it examines radiological impacts to populations of wildlife, whereas most previous studies have looked for effects to individual animals,” said Professor Thomas Hinton.
The photographs used in the study were not able to indicate whether any of the animals had been physically affected as a result of the nuclear plant disaster radiation. Other studies had shown that there were several deformed butterflies identified. The insects had more massive legs and smaller wings than those that were found outside in the no-gone zone.
Those studies revealed that the animals that lived in Fukushima are having to adapt and change as a result of their surroundings. It is up to other scientists to determine what other ways the animals had to change because of the disaster.
Scientists said there is no previous data on wildlife populations in the evacuated areas as well as proximity and similar landscapes. The level of human activity, elevation, and type of habitat were some of the primary factors in influencing how the animals would react.
The knowledge learned from this research could also be adapted toward other studies from similar disasters, including the other significant nuclear disaster, to receive the highest rating. The promise of new life was also revealed in studies from there.
The nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi has seen a similar resurgence to the one that occurred in Chernobyl. The area impacted by its own disaster is currently inhabited with brown bears, bison, wolves, and lynxes.
One fascinating case there is the Przewalski horse, which was thought to have been extinct before it was seen around Chernobyl around 1998. There have also been more than 200 bird species returning to the area.
The promise of new life after a catastrophic event like the ones in Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi provide new hope that life does go on even after the direst of circumstances occur. Several other studies have noted how different kinds of animals have returned to their once natural habitat.
“Relative abundances of elk, roe deer, red deer and wild boar within the Chernobyl exclusion zone are similar to those in four (uncontaminated) nature reserves in the region and wolf abundance is more than seven times higher. Additionally, our earlier helicopter survey data show rising trends in elk, roe deer, and wild boar abundances from one to ten years post-accident,” according to a 2015 study.
The amounts of radiation had little influence on how the wildlife was distributed. While the contaminated areas had some dangerous amounts of radiation, they were also void of any human interaction. The researchers surmise that because humans were not present for large amounts of time, the animals were able to adapt to the changes in the habitat.
“Over time, some wildlife species have responded favorably to the absence of humans, even in the presence of high radiation levels, resulting in a rewilding of the evacuation zones,” Dr. Thomas Hinton told Earther.
Radiation is not without its damages. There were several birds and mammals found in areas contaminated from a nuclear disaster to have born or developed with significant health conditions. Some have cataracts in their eyes, smaller brains, deformed sperm, tumors, or other abnormalities.
These conditions are a direct result of ionizing radiation and how it can scramble a creature’s DNA. The further away from the contamination, the more likely that these defects would be less pronounced. The full effects of radiation on animal reproductivity remain unknown at this time.
Despite the handicaps that were caused by a human-made disaster, several animals of all shapes and sizes continue to maintain viable and growing populations. For example, several birds have also set up their nests near the decrepit nuclear plant at Fukushima.
“Although it may seem counter-intuitive, research from our group and others suggests numerous species of large mammals actually increased in the landscape surrounding Chernobyl in the first several years after the accident, and that populations of many species are now abundant and widespread throughout the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone,” Beasley told Newsweek.
Because the amount of released from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant was lower than those emitted at Chernobyl, the scientists are not surprised that there is a vibrant resurgence in life now in the environment.
“Given that the amount of radiation released from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant was substantially lower than releases at Chernobyl, it is not surprising that we are now seeing evidence of these same types of population-level responses in mammals at Fukushima,” the study said.
While wildlife has returned to both Chernobyl and Fukushima, humans who once lived in the area have been more resistant. The Japanese government has allowed people to return to the evacuation zones since as soon as 2016, but only a small percentage have come back.
Experts have indicated that less than three percent of the area impacted by the nuclear disaster continues to be off-limits. Much of the public trust remains tentative, and the first residents to come back did not return until 2019.
The good news for the area is that the Fukushima area can be posed for a comeback. The place used to be a tourist attraction for many visitors, known for its beautiful autumn colors, historic sites, and mountainous backdrops. However, the concern for radiation has caused the tourism industry to dwindle.
The change in perception is something that will come with time, and experts state the upcoming Olympics games in Tokyo could be a step in the right direction in convincing humans that they could be inhabited again, just like the wildlife and other animals have already discovered.