Sunflowers May Heal Fukushima’s Radioactive Soil
Activists are asking people to plant and grow sunflowers with a goal of decontaminating soil made radioactive in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A group of young entrepreneurs and civil servants are asking volunteers to grow sunflowers, then send the seeds to the Fukushima area where they will be planted next year to help clean the soil of contamination.
Fast Company magazine reports that entrepreneur Shinji Handa has sold some 10,000 packets of sunflower seeds to Japanese people at a cost of $6.00 apiece to launch the project. “We will give the seeds sent back by people for free to farmers, the public sector and other groups next year,” said Handa. Besides decontaminating the soil, the organizers hope that the project will promote concern for the afflicted area, as people see a sea of yellow blooms and support the victims of the catastrophe.
Besides the entrepreneurial campaign, Japanese scientists led by a space agriculture professor have already conducted a test by growing sunflowers in the contaminated soil on farmland near the nuclear plant. On July 2 the scientists confirmed that the sunflowers had sprouted. Once the plants have grown and if it is confirmed that they have absorbed significant quantities of cesium, scientists will employ bacteria to decompose the plants, and the result will be treated as radioactive waste.
The process of extracting contaminants from the soil via plants is called phytoremediation. While animals can move away from pollutants or other toxics (if they’re lucky), plants have evolved ways to live with the toxics and eventually extract them from the soil. The downside is that the concentrated pollutants, such as radioactivity or lead, can then pass along the food chain if not disposed of properly. Sunflowers were used to suck up radioactive cesium and strontium in a pond at the Chernobyl nuclear accident site in 1994 and to remove uranium from contaminated springs near the Oak Ridge (TN) National Laboratory in 1996.
Fungi, bacteria and plants have remarkable properties that can help clean up the messes that we humans create. While no one solution will solve the problem of irradiated soil and the struggling farmers, it’s always wise to look to nature first for the processes that can heal the land.
Photo: By Bruce Fritz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons