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.
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.