Monkeys to Track Fallout at Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Plant

Wild monkeys have been enlisted by Japanese researchers to obtain detailed readings of radiation levels in forests near the troubled Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant.

Professor Takayuki Takahashi and his team of scientists at Fukushima University are fitting nearly 1000 animals with radiation meters and GPS transmitters in order to track the spread of radiation leaked from March's nuclear accident, the worst in Japan's history.

Until now, radiation monitoring has been conducted primarily by air, using helicopters equipped with testing devices. Takahashi says aerial monitoring can track radiation across a wide area, but it only gives a general idea of radiation levels on the ground, not specifics on its movement.

"The monkeys can help us get more accurate readings in areas that aren't so accessible," Takahashi said. "We'll get a better idea of how radiation is spread by rain, by plants, by rivers in the forest."

Researchers also hope to monitor the amount of radiation exposure in wild animals.

The project is being launched in partnership with Minamisoma, one of the cities hardest hit by the nuclear disaster. Radiation fears prompted more than half of its 67,000 residents to evacuate, in Fukushima's aftermath. A third of the city sits inside the 12 mile government mandated exclusion zone, deemed too dangerous for people to live in. In the larger Fukushima prefecture, more than 80,000 residents have been displaced by the nuclear disaster.

With 14 monkey colonies in Minamisoma's forests alone, Takahashi is hopeful his researchers will get a broad spectrum of readings, from the ground level to the highest trees.  The collars equipped with radiation meters and GPS transmitters will be detachable by remote control, but the plan is to keep the devices on the animals, for decades.

Takahashi says his team will begin monitoring levels next spring.