The world is watching in horror as Japan begins to suffer the effects of massive radiation poisoning following the earthquake’s destruction of several nuclear reactors. Our primary concerns right now are for the beleaguered people of Japan as they struggle to survive and contain this catastrophe. But once the immediate threat has passed, as we all pray it will, the question that must be answered is no less important, as it is far further-reaching: What will the impact of the irradiated sites be on the environment? And what effect will nuclear radiation have on the local wildlife?
First, a primer on radioactive decay for those who are neither science-minded nor paranoid survivalists with their own Spam collection. Radioactivity is the release of particles from the nucleus of an atom as it loses energy. We receive most of our Daily Recommended Value of radiation directly from the sun, or from the Earth, primarily as radon gas. We are constantly bombarded with cosmic radiation. It’s what mutates our genes and moves evolution forward, and also gives you a wicked tan. In fact, it’s all we can do to shield ourselves from normal levels of radiation, so the particles streaming from decaying atoms of a heavy isotope of uranium or plutonium are especially dangerous. Alpha particles — bundles of two protons and two neutrons shooting from the nucleus as the atom decays — are relatively harmless, as they’re too slow to penetrate the skin. Beta particles, which are electrons, are a hundred times faster, but are too small to penetrate skin. But ingest an element that’s shedding these particles, and they will bounce around in your cells like ricocheting bullets, destroying all the DNA in their path. And as far as radiation that can penetrate your skin, like electromagnetic gamma rays, I think we all know what happens when you play with that stuff.
If, like me, your first exposure to the concept of radioactivity comes from comic books, let’s set the record straight. While radiation can be used to do things like destroy cancer, rumors of its magical healing properties have been greatly exaggerated. My favorite example is the radium-laced “tonic water” jars that were briefly popular in the beginning of the 20th century, according to the belief that drinking irradiated water gave you vim and vigor. American industrialist tycoon Eben Byers was a promoter of this revivifying elixir, and had a bottle every day. When he died in 1932, the Wall Street Journal headline read, “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off.” Having ingested more than three times the usual lethal dose of radiation over the course of his lifetime, he was buried in a lead-lined coffin.
And there is the sad truth about radiation. Subject an iguana to radioactivity, and it doesn’t grow into Godzilla; it just pukes and dies. A bite from a radioactive spider is less likely to give you spider-like powers than it is to endow you with a superhuman inability to bear children. Coat turtles in radioactive goo, and they don’t turn into ninjas. They just get cancer.
So what might happen to the irradiated animals of Japan? To get a glimpse into the potential danger of radioactive wildlife, we don’t need to consult science fiction stories or comic books. We just need to examine the results of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and its legacy, including terrifying and true story of the packs of radioactive wild boars causing havoc in Germany today.
Wild boars are generally social animals, with females and young boars traveling together in groups of 20 or more called sounders. Adult males, if not the head of a sounder, live alone, and live to fight: they have fearsome tusks protruding from the lower jaw, have an intelligence which rivals a dog’s and even greater courage, and while the average boar is between 100-200 lb, male Russian boars can weigh over 650 lb. Boars use their powerful sense of smell to sniff out roots, tubers, acorns, and mushrooms, which they plow from the earth with their snouts. And it is these last two food items which have inadvertently caused the boars of Germany to become a razor-toothed menace.
Normally, boars are as non-confrontational as any other wild animal, preferring to retreat to fight another day. But for the past few years, there have been reports of boars attacking citizens in broad daylight, including one handicapped man in a wheelchair, and shutting down lengths of the Autobahn. The reason for the violence is the sudden population boom of boars in the past few years, and the reason for that is the first of two man-made catastrophes that woke this sleeping monster: global warming. Warmer winters mean a greater crop of acorns for the boars to eat, causing their population to explode and exceed the containment of the forest, making them more aggressive. The second catastrophe was Chernobyl.
When Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Power Plant caught fire on April 26th, 1986, it sent up a maroon-colored plume of radioactive particles in the smoke which moved eastward, contaminating the soil in Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, and dozens of other countries. Fungi are particularly good at absorbing these radioactive particles of Cesium-127, and wild boar are particularly good at rooting out these mushroom-cloud mushrooms to eat. So now Germany is faced with a double dilemma: not only does it have a surplus of aggressive, cunning, tusk-armed boars, but their meat is poisonous. If the Cesium has made the boar sick, it doesn’t show, but we know that other mammals can handle higher radiation levels than we can, and the boars’ 15-20 year lifespan may prevent them from going full Eben Byers.
German boars are one thing, but what about the animals at Ground Zero? A fascinating investigation in Outside Magazine reveals a glimpse of the Exclusion Zone, a 1,600 sq. mile quarantine area around the old reactors. Deer and boars browse around torn chain-link fences, and swallows make nests inside the walls of the old cooling towers. 25 years after the worst nuclear disaster in history, it has become a radioactive paradise, a wasteland reconquered by the forest. But despite the seeming triumph of nature here, something has been drastically altered. A traveler here begins to notice the white crows. Pine trees grow red instead of green. Birds fly erratically, their brain size reduced by decades of mutation. The radioactive particles are changing the genetic make-up of the plants and animal pioneers who have returned here, and the wildlife is mutating far more quickly than could ever naturally occur. Most mutations will be detrimental: a change in the genome could result in stillbirths, epilepsy, hemophilia, the absence of chlorophyll. Radiation is five times more likely to cause cancer than a genetic mutation. But one mutation in a million might be beneficial, or even become necessary. The white crows might develop a resistance to radiation that is paired with their albinism, and their plumage color could become a requisite for sexual selection in their culture. In less than a hundred years, under the constant stress of deadly radiation and the increased genetic shuffling it causes, an entirely new species could arise from the unnatural chaos. A phoenix.
What will happen to the boars and bears and raccoons and elk of Japan? It is almost certain that irradiated animals will be a plague on the country for hundreds if not thousands of years. The fish they depend on will become poisonous, and the bats that roost in their attics will unwittingly cause the children sleeping below to suffer bloody stomachaches. Perhaps the breached reactors will garden their own exclusion zones, skirts of lush forest where the bamboo grows red and owls hunt in a silent and bristling night. They would be islands within islands, semi-circles of greenery where humans would fear to tread for a thousand years. And within the toxic no-man’s-lands that so resemble the Earth before our interference, our corruption of nature will still bear fruit we may or may not ever live to see: glittering green doves, frogs that slither, cranes that stoop like old men and cannot straighten themselves to fly. Spiders with a radioactive bite. A billion billion untimely deaths of cancer and rot may precede them, but the monsters and chimaera of our darkest imaginations may someday lurch from the craters we, our ancestors, made for us, our descendants. They will be strange creatures from a forbidden forest where the water is poison and the beasts cannot be hunted. It is not our land. It is an Eden where the animals will name us. And from the perimeter of the enchanted woods, a cackling voice calls out to remind us of our shame: the caw of the white crow.