In Fukushima, Sunflowers Sow Hope For A Radioactive-Free Future

A plan to plant flowers to clean up radiation in Japan isn't as crazy as it sounds.

sunflowers

A young Japanese entrepreneur is trying to convince people to sow sunflower seeds in Fukushima Prefecture, intending the plants to cleanse the soil of radioactive contamination. Project leader Shinji Handa has sold some 10,000 packets of sunflower seeds at 500 yen ($6) to people throughout Japan, ostensibly to produce seeds that will be sent to Fukushima to create a sunflower maze.

Given the scope of the Fukushima disaster, planting sunflowers may seem quixotic at best, but the principle behind it is sound. Many plants have evolved mechanisms to adapt to high levels of toxins and even radiation, taking up heavy metals and radioactive isotopes and sequestering them in disposable parts like stems and leaves. Scientists last year reported on several varieties of domestic plants, including sunflowers, that are thriving around Chernobyl, gradually reducing contamination levels in the soil.

Green plants evolved in periods of Earth’s history when radiation levels were higher than they are in our own era. And plants, of course, can’t simply move to get away from toxic environments--thus, adaptations for taking up and getting rid of poisonous and even radioactive substances are fairly widespread throughout the plant kingdom. In recent years a variety of domestic crops such as amaranth, pennycress, and wheat have been used to remove toxic and radioactive chemicals from soils around the world at a fraction of the cost of physical removal, a process called phytoremediation.

But the Fukushima sunflower project glosses over the complexity of the process: Those plants are still heavily radioactive. The contaminated plant matter must be harvested, reduced, and disposed of carefully to prevent further contamination, which makes it an unlikely component of any crowdsourced approach to radiation cleanup--rendering Handa’s notion of sunflower mazes fanciful if not downright dangerous.

Given the scope of contamination at Fukushima, however, more formal and systematic phytoremediation projects could play a major role in making the region safe again. And Handa’s intuition about about the symbolic power of sunflowers feels right; few sights inspire a sense of confidence and renewal like fields of bright blooms nodding in the sun.

[Image: Flickr user peter fee fee jjc]

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