It's been almost a decade since the world was rocked by news of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, and much of the area around the Daiichi plant is still deemed unsafe for human habitation. However, new research shows that, despite the radiological contamination, wildlife has reclaimed the evacuated zone and appears to be thriving in the absence of people.

Camera trap footage shows a number of species thriving in the area around the disused Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake – the most powerful to ever hit Japan – shook the country and triggered a catastrophic tsunami. Reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant lost power and melted down sending deadly radioactive materials into the air. Over 100,000 people were evacuated from the area.

Nine years later, much of the zone remains uninhabited and researchers are discovering that wildlife has bounced back in abundance. Using remote camera traps, scientists from the University of Georgia recorded more then 20 species including macaques, Japanese hares, wild boars, pheasants, foxes and raccoon dogs living in a variety of areas across the landscape. The discovery echoes similar findings from the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine, which was abandoned in 1986, and suggests that radioactivity is less of a threat to wildlife than human encroachment.

"Our results represent the first evidence that numerous species of wildlife are now abundant throughout the Fukushima Evacuation Zone, despite the presence of radiological contamination," study co-author James Beasley, a wildlife biologist at the University of Georgia, explained in a statement. "This suggests these species have increased in abundance following the evacuation of people."

Photos were gathered from 106 study sites in three distinct areas: the exclusion zone, which extends in a 30-kilometre radius around the disused plant and remains entirely uninhabited; a restricted area with intermediate levels of contamination; and an outer zone where radiation levels are deemed safe for human habitation. The camera traps were left in place for 120 days during which time they snapped over 267,000 images of wild animals. Wild boar, raccoons, Japanese martens, Japanese macaques and monkeys were found in higher numbers in the uninhabited zone.

Trail cameras captured over 46,000 images of wild boar over the course of 120 days. Over 26,000 of those images were taken in the uninhabited area. Image © UGA

Although, it's difficult to assess the health of the animals from images alone, the research showed no evidence that the area's larger species have suffered long-term population losses. “These data provide unique evidence of the natural rewilding of the Fukushima landscape following human abandonment, and suggest that if any effects of radiological exposure in mid‐ to large‐sized mammals in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone exist, they occur at individual or molecular scales, and do not appear to manifest in population‐level responses,” the team said.

This means that, while many animals have no doubt suffered damage from radiation as a result of the Fukushima meltdown, the disaster does not seem to have resulted in long-term population declines. The area's wildlife appears to be thriving, particularly within the exclusion zone. More research is needed to full understand the long-term impacts on wildlife living within the blast radius, but initial results suggest that nature is resilient in the face of nuclear disaster.

A raccoon dog captured on camera. Image © UGA