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Fukushima studies show wildlife is doing nicely without humans, thank you very much

Biodiversity increasing, endangered species gradually returning despite radioactive terror pig presence

Studies of biodiversity around the former Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan have shown that a decade after the nuclear incident there in March 2011, the local wildlife, at least, is mostly thriving.

The incident at the Fukushima Daiichi site – in which three of the site's six reactors suffered meltdowns due to damage from an earthquake-induced tsunami – was one of only two events in history to be rated at level 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (the other being Chernobyl).

This scale is not related to the quantity of radioactive material released (although that was considerable), but by the number of people affected by the event. Following the incident, 154,000 people were evacuated from the area surrounding the plant due to the risk of radioactive contamination, a number second only to the 335,000 evacuated from the environs of the Chernobyl plant in 1986.

This removal of the human population has created a unique environment for wildlife, with nature having reclaimed the evacuated area, and with much of it now dominated by apparently indestructible radioactive boar/pig hybrids, as we noted back in July.

However, other species and ecosystems are also having a great time in the absence of humanity. Surveys have shown that along with the irascible porkers, rare and threatened species are returning to swamps and rice paddies in Fukushima prefecture, with biodiversity also surging on farmland in the area.

Evacuees from the Fukushima area have been reluctant to return to their former homes due to continuing concerns about radioactive contamination. And, presumably, the threat of being run off of their own property by the hellish razor-tusked intruders now squatting there.

The Asahi Shimbun notes that produce from Fukushima prefecture still receives a negative reaction from consumers due to the reputational fallout from the 2011 incident. A February survey by Japan's Consumer Affairs Agency found that 8.1 per cent of 5,000 respondents would hesitate to buy agricultural products from Fukushima due to continuing fears of radioactive contamination.

In reality, according to the government's own safety limits, no Fukushima rice has failed to pass the standards since 2015.

Unfortunately, 2015 also saw the arrival in Fukushima prefecture of another unwanted addition to the landscape: American Bullfrogs. This inexplicable, gormless invasive species, which has turned up in South America, Europe, China, South Korea and just about everywhere else it isn't wanted, has a voracious appetite, a prodigious reproduction rate and few predators in most of its adopted new homes.

A dedicated effort to eradicate this pest, combined with the reduction in the human population, seems to have led to an increase in waterborne biodiversity in the region since then. Children have also been drafted in to help with the biodiversity surveys and to teach them the importance of the natural world.

While the idea of introducing large numbers of children into vulnerable natural habitats and letting them crash around may be of questionable scientific value, the other bit seems to be striking a chord.

"I'm happy I found insects that I had never seen before," nine-year-old Hiroki Wake told The Asahi Shimbun. "I love aquatic bugs. I want to continue joining [the studies]." So there's one happy customer, at least.

Biodiversity was also found to have increased in agricultural areas. Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center and other bodies conducted surveys between 2018 and 2020 in 44 rice paddies in eight municipalities and found that 20 to 60 per cent of the rice paddies had high biodiversity in 2018, while those figures had increased to between 60 and 80 per cent in 2020. Counterintuitively, biodiversity actually increased in the year following the resumption of farming.

In order to help protect species returning to the region, 12 areas of wetlands and mudflats covering about 27 hectares were placed under protection, including nine areas in Fukushima prefecture.

"Prefectural and central government authorities thought about conservation in a flexible manner, and the important wetlands still remain as a result," said Takahide Kurosawa, a Fukushima University professor of plant taxonomy.

We have contacted Dr Kurosawa for further comment.

Perversely, given that one of the major reasons why ecosystems in the region have recovered has been the absence of human interference, one of the aims of the studies has been to show evacuees that it is safe to return.

"When word spreads that coastal areas and rice paddies in Fukushima are safe places where many rare creatures live, it should help overcome the negative reputation," Toshimasa Mitamura, a researcher at the Fukushima Agricultural Technology Center, told The Asahi Shimbun.

It is unclear if the environmental recovery in the area could withstand a full resumption of human activity. And it is unclear if resumed human activity could withstand the furious boar they will have to remove in order to get back into their homes. We'll see, eh? ®

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