NAMIE, Japan — In an abandoned Japanese village, cows grazing in lush green plains begin to gather when they hear the familiar rumble of the ranch owner’s mini-pickup. This isn’t feeding time, though.
Instead, the animals are about to be measured for how they’re affected by living in radiation — radioactivity that is 15 times the safe benchmark. For these cows’ pasture sits near Fukushima, a name now synonymous with nuclear disaster.
The area was once a haven for agriculture with more than 3,500 cattle and other livestock. Ranchers who refused a government order to kill their cows continue to feed and tend about 200 of them. The herds won’t be used as food; now science is their mission.
Researchers visit every three months to test livestock living within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima plant, where three reactors had core meltdowns after the facility was hit by a tsunami in 2011. It is the first study of the impact on large mammals of extended exposure to low-level radiation.
The ranchers are breeders, as opposed to those raising cattle to sell for beef, and tend to be attached to their animals. They treat them almost as if they were children, even giving them names. The research gives them a reason to keep their beloved cows alive, and to hope that someday ranching might safely return here.
Under rain, doctors and volunteers wearing blue Tyvek protective suits draw the cows into a handmade pen of aluminum pipes. Five to six cows line up in the cage and are tied with a rope around their head and through their nose ring for solid support, so they won’t be hurt when the needle draws blood from their neck.
The doctors work swiftly, drawing blood, collecting urine and checking for lumps or swollen lymph nodes. The check-up takes five minutes or less per cow.
Namie, 7 miles northwest of the plant, is a ghost town with no prospect of being habitable for years. But Fumikazu Watanabe, 57, comes every day to a ranch to feed 30 to 40 cows owned by seven farmers.
“What is the meaning of slaughtering the cows?” Watanabe said at a worn barn where cows used to spend the night tending to their calves.
“Keeping the cows alive for research purposes means that we can pass on the study to our next generation instead of simply leaving a negative legacy,” he said.
The research team, made up of veterinary and radiation experts from Iwate University, Tokai University and Kitasato University, was established a year after the meltdowns. They formed a nonprofit group called Society for Animal Refugee & Environment Post Nuclear Disaster. Members volunteer to take the blood and urine samples and test them.
In 2012, the Japanese government ordered all livestock in the restricted area killed for fear that the breeding cows would continue to reproduce, and that cows exposed to radiation would have no sale value.
Keiji Okada, associate professor of veterinary medicine and agriculture at Iwate University, said the government considered it pointless to study the animals, since it couldn’t determine how much radiation they were exposed to immediately after the disaster.
Okada disagreed. He said the data will help researchers learn whether farmers can eventually work in affected zones.
“There are no precedent studies of animals being exposed to low-dose radiation, and we have no idea what results we are going to get,” he said.
So far, the animals’ internal organs and reproductive functions have shown no significant abnormality particularly linked to radiation exposure, Okada said, but it’s too early to draw conclusions about thyroid cancer and leukemia.
Many cows have died during the study period, but food shortages have played a role, making it all the more difficult the doctors to determine causes. The dead cows are dissected and the radiation dosage in their organs is measured.
Is radiation killing the cows, or making them sick? Okada said the research team is working toward reaching a conclusion by March. The team worries that the study results could spark fears that the region will no longer be fit for agriculture.
Ultimately, Okada said, the team believes that further monitoring of the animals will show under what conditions it is safe to raise livestock exposed to low-level radiation, and how best to deal with such a leak.