Nuclear Weapons Partly Responsible for Radioactive Wild Boars, Researchers Say

You read that correctly. A team of scientists just tested wild boar meat from Southern Germany and found that radioactivity in the boars stemmed from nuclear weapons testing, rather than the Chernobyl power plant disaster of 1986.

The Chernobyl disaster occurred due to a power plant meltdown in Pripyat, Ukraine, which resulted in a huge amount of radiation escaping into the surrounding atmosphere. The radiation contaminated the surrounding forest, farmland, and living things from livestock to humankind. Radioactivity from the disaster spread as far west as France, and many farm animals in affected areas were born with deformations in the following years.

Enter the radioactive boars of Bavaria. Though not livestock, the wild boar (Sus scrofa) were affected by Chernobyl’s radiation, leaving scientists to conclude that the animals were contaminated by that event alone. But new research published in Environmental Science & Technology suggests that nuclear weapons testing is a contributing factor, though it’s not possible to know which nation or group is responsible.

“There is an enormous upward draft after an explosion; by the time the fallout falls down to Earth, the radioactive material has evenly distributed in the higher atmosphere,” Steinhauser said. “So, it is almost impossible to attribute the fallout to a certain test or country.”

Most of the radioactive cesium floating around Europe is cesium-137, but some of it is the long-lived isotope cesium-135. Both are produced by nuclear fission, the same process used to produce both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. (Fission is not to be confused with nuclear fusion, the process that powers the Sun, some thermonuclear weapons, and which scientists have long pursued as a ridiculously bountiful energy source if properly harnessed.)

Young boars spotted by the team’s hunting collaborator.

Levels of cesium-137 have generally decreased across Europe, but not in the hairy, tusked pigs of Southern Germany. “It is that unique feature that has led to the creation of the term ‘wild boar paradox,’” Steinhauser said. “They are the only animal with a distinct appetite for deer truffles. It has to be an underground source, otherwise Chernobyl would be the dominant source of cesium.”

While other animals’ radioactivity has decreased, boars have kept their numbers afloat due to their truffle heavy diet; buried underground, these truffles act as a repository for “downward migration” cesium-137, the researchers wrote.

The research team measured boar meat samples collected across southern Germany using a mass spectrometer. They found that the ratios of radioactive cesium in the meat suggested 10% to 68% of the animals’ contamination was due to nuclear weapons testing, not nuclear reactors. 88% of the 48 samples testing were above the regulatory limit for radioactivity in Germany, and all samples were above Japan’s regulatory limit.

“The 88% of 48 samples is not representative of the population because we had asked the hunter to get us as highly contaminated samples as possible,” Steinhauser said. “Many hunters (from what we’ve learned) know exactly that a certain boar ‘from this part of the forest at this time of the year’ will be above the limit.”

Steinhauser added that the boars’ diet defines their radioactivity over the course of the year. In the winter, when food is scarce and the animals dig for deer truffles (Elaphomyces), they’ll be more radioactive than when food is plentiful in summer or fall. So as long as you steer clear of the swine in your diet, there’s no reason their radioactive diet should affect you.

More: Radioactive Fallout from the Trinity Nuclear Test Impacted 46 U.S. States, Study Finds

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