On March 11th, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant experienced three nuclear meltdowns, initiated by the tsunami that followed the Tōhoku earthquake. This catastrophic event was the most significant nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. When most people think about the Fukushima disaster, they are rightly concerned with the human cost. About 18,500 people perished as a result, thousands of people lost their homes, and the chances of developing cancer, particularly thyroid cancer, are high for survivors.
What many people don't think about is the wildlife affected by Fukushima. The animals in Fukushima not only faced the same risks that humans did, but many of them were not evacuated and were simply left to die. Some groups like the Nyander Guard Animal Shelter and a loose collection of farmers, as well as individuals like Naoto Matsumura, are stepping up to help these Fukushima disaster animals. While others, like the Japanese government itself, are attempting to have some of these radioactive euthanized in order to reduce contamination in the area. There's a lot that we can learn from the animals living in Fukushima. These special radioactive animals are truly interesting creatures.
Butterflies Affected By Radiation Have Birth Defects
Butterflies in Fukushima have proven to be uniquely sensitive to radiation. A study led by Joji Otaki, a biologist at University of the Ryukyus in Nishihara, Japan, showed butterflies and butterfly larvae who were fed radiation-drenched leaves experienced high levels of physical abnormalities such as short forewings, and survival rates compared to butterflies who were given leaves unaffected by radiation. This affect occurred at multiple levels of radiation, including levels previously thought to be low enough not to do any damage. This sounds pretty grim, but there is hope - Otaki's findings also indicate butterflies that eat contaminated leaves and survive will probably develop a tolerance that will help them survive the low levels of radiation. Which is good, since that will likely persist in Fukushima over the next several decades.
Tim Mousseau warns that humans shouldn't extrapolate about the effects of radiation on humans based on what happened to the butterflies. Humans, he claims, are less sensitive to radiocontaminants than butterflies are.
A Rabbit Was Born With No Ears
Yuko Sugimoto, a resident of Namie, a town just outside of the 18-mile exclusion zone surrounding the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, is a rabbit breeder who discovered something strange in her rabbit hutch during the spring of 2011. On May 7, a rabbit was born with no ears. In addition to being earless, the rabbit also had albinism, or a lack of melanin, which gave it white fur and red eyes.
Born only two months after the nuclear disaster, this rabbit symbolized the havoc the radiation could cause. The rabbit's birth coincided with an announcement from Tokyo Electric, which stated seawater samples 150 miles north of Tokyo contained levels of radioactive strontium around 240 times the legal limit. Those levels were also found in the groundwater near two damaged nuclear reactors. While it was never proven that Ms. Sugimoto's rabbit's earlessness was caused by radiation, images of the rabbit still stirred up fears about what kinds of birth defects might occur in humans.
The Horses Of Minamisōma Thrive Despite Being Left To Die
Minamisōma, a Fukushima city, has a 10-centuries old tradition called the Soma Nomaoi ("chasing wild horses") festival. Until the Fukushima disaster made the city uninhabitable, the festival was held on a yearly basis to honor the contributions that horses have made to humanity. After being forced to evacuate, rancher Shinichiro Tanaka returned to find his horses dead or starving. The Japanese government ordered Tanaka to slaughter the remaining horses, but he refused to do so.
Instead, he nursed them back to health with help from director Yoju Matsubayashi, who documented the experience and created a documentary film called The Horses of Fukushima.
Contaminated Salmon Made Their Way To The West Coast Of The US
After the 2011 disaster, people from around the world became concerned the contaminated water that seeped into the Pacific Ocean would spread. This fear wasn't completely unfounded. In 2016, salmon containing caesium 134 particles, a radioactive substance known as the "fingerprint of Fukushima," were found 6,000 miles away from the site of the disaster, off the coast of Oregon. The same particles were also found in the Tillamook Bay and Gold Beach in Oregon.
While this sounds terrifying, it actually isn't that bad. According to Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the levels found were too low to be harmful. In an interview with USA Today, he said: "To put it in context, if you were to swim everyday for six hours a day in those waters for a year, that additional radiation from the addressed cesium from Japan... is 1000 times smaller than one dental x-ray."
Meanwhile, sea life around Fukushima seems to be doing just fine. Despite radioactive materials being dumped into the water, aquatic populations have remained relatively constant, and significant mutations have not been observed. This is probably because the ocean currents dispersed the toxic waste before it could have a serious impact on the ocean's population. That said, radiation is still leaking into the ocean, and the true impact on sea life is still unknown.