Sunflowers used to clean up radiation

Sunflowers can take radioactive isotopes out of contaminated soil. Photo by Bruce Gellerman, Living on Earth

TOKYO —

Scientists have discovered that sunflowers can pull radioactive contaminants out of the soil. Researchers cleaning up the Fukushima site in Japan are putting the flowers to the test. The idea was tried back in the mid-1990s near the Chernobyl power plant meltdown. Soil scientist Michael Blaylock, who worked on that project, and who is vice president of systems development at Edenspace Systems Corp in the U.S., tells Living in Japan’s Bruce Gellerman how this clean-up-by-plant works.

GELLERMAN: So, sunflower plants and nuclear power plants - what’s the connection?

BLAYLOCK: Well, the connection there is really that sunflowers are really good at taking up certain radioactive isotopes. And that’s really the connection between the sunflowers and the nuclear power plants.

GELLERMAN: So basically the plant just kind of grows, and as it grows, it’s sucking the radiation out of the soil?

BLAYLOCK: That’s correct. Those radioisotopes mimic some of the nutrients that the plant takes up normally. And so the plant really doesn’t distinguish between those radioactive isotopes and some of the nutrients like potassium and calcium that it takes up as a matter of course.

GELLERMAN: Well, you worked at Chernobyl back in the mid-1990s. Did it work?

BLAYLOCK: It was very effective for the water. The soil was a little bit of a different story because cesium in soil is a little bit tricky. Strontium is in soil, too. If you can’t take both of them out, taking just the strontium doesn’t necessarily get you to where you want to be if you leave the cesium around.

GELLERMAN: So why is cesium harder to get out than strontium?

BLAYLOCK: Well, cesium mimics potassium. The clay layers on a very small scale, the atomic structure, they have what we call, for lack of a better word, a cavity in between those clay layers. And the potassium fits very nicely into those cavities and that’s the way that soils retain potassium. Cesium, being very similar to potassium, fits in those same cavities and it becomes fixed in the soil and it is very difficult for it to come out. Whereas strontium is very similar to calcium and calcium is in a form that is very available to plants - we don’t have that problem.

GELLERMAN: Well, we’re trying this at Fukushima. Do you think it could actually work there?

BLAYLOCK: It could, given the right set of circumstances. You know, one thing we found in Chernobyl is, we came there a number of years after the fact. And so that gave plenty of time for that cesium to become fixed in the soil, and it’s going to become very dependent on the soil types. You know, soils that have very high mica contents, certain clays, are going to be very difficult to remove the cesium from, once the cesium gets fixed. But under the right set of circumstances, they could be effective in removing those contaminants from the soil.

GELLERMAN: So which part of the plant stores the radioactivity?

BLAYLOCK: You don’t want to have to dig up roots – that’s a very difficult process. It can be done but it’s much easier to harvest leaves and stems. So we focus our efforts on those plants that do a good job of translocating from roots to shoots.

GELLERMAN: Is the sunflower the best plant for this?

BLAYLOCK: Sunflowers are attractive because they grow well and produce a lot of biomass quickly. It doesn’t take a lot of management to grow sunflowers as compared to some other crops; they are adaptable to a lot of different climates. So, I don’t know that it is the best plant, but it is certainly one that meets the criteria that we need.

GELLERMAN: So when you harvest the plant, it’s radioactive!

BLAYLOCK: Yeah, the biomass, or the harvested material, would be radioactive.

GELLERMAN: What do you do then? How do you get rid of the radioactivity in the plant?

BLAYLOCK: The real process here is, what we’re trying to do is, concentrate that radioactivity from the soil, which is a fairly low concentration, to a much higher concentration in the plant material. You still have to dispose of that plant material, but you move that particular contaminant or radioactive isotope from silica, aluminosilicate matrix in the soil, which is very difficult to deal with, to a carbon-based substance in the plant material. You concentrate that, so you have a lot less material to dispose of, and you can leave that soil, which is a resource that’s hard to replace – you can leave that soil in place and just remove the contaminant.

GELLERMAN: And the radiation doesn’t kill the plant as this is happening?

BLAYLOCK: Typically not. If they’re high enough to where they’re going to affect the plant growth, it’s not going to be an area that’s suitable for this type of approach.

GELLERMAN: I can see unexpected consequences from something like this. I mean, here you have these sunflower plants, and the seeds dry, and birds eat the seeds and then they fly off, and they’re radioactive.

BLAYLOCK: Yeah, that could be a risk. I mean, typically, when we performed this, we would always harvest plants before they seeded out because the main idea is to harvest biomass. You want to produce as much vegetative material as possible. And once the plants start producing seeds, its flowers start forming, it’s not producing a lot more vegetative matter to remove that contaminant, so typically once the plant flowered, we harvested and we would replant again. We’re not interested in producing seeds.

GELLERMAN: What about the hard-nosed question about money? How much does this cost relative to other technologies?

BLAYLOCK: Relative to other remediation technologies, it’s not that expensive. But when you factor in that there’s sampling and disposal of the material, it’s certainly not free, but, you know, on a cost basis as compared to the cost of storing soil for a very long period of time, very large quantities of soil, it’s a very attractive option.

GELLERMAN: You know, there’s something very special about sunflowers. I mean, they’re beautiful. And there’s something poetic, I think, going on here because they’re also an anti-nuclear symbol. 

BLAYLOCK: Yeah, it is an interesting set of circumstances. And to see a field of plants out there growing in an area that previously was not vegetated, and you’d be able to harness nature to do some of the things that we need to do to, you know, correct our mistakes, it is something that’s very pleasant to look at and to see. And it’s one of those touchy-feely things that you feel really good about.

© 2011 Living on Earth. Used with permission of Living on Earth and World Media Foundation. www.loe.org Living on Earth is the weekly environmental news and information program distributed by Public Radio International. Use of material does not imply endorsement.

  • 1

    some14some

    Use Sakura or Sunflowers...but please expedite and control/clean up radiation as much as you can.

  • 1

    johninnaha

    I notice that BLAYLOCK never actually answers GELLERMAN's question:

    "What do you do then? How do you get rid of the radioactivity in the plant?"

    So what do they do with the radioactive sunflowers?

  • 1

    SamuraiBlue

    johninnahaAug. 18, 2011 - 08:24AM JST; So what do they do with the radioactive sunflowers?

    The radioactive contaminants becomes concentrated so the only thing they can do is pull out the plants before they wither and treat them as other low level radioactive material by placing them in a steel drum can and bury it.

  • 1

    Dennis Bauer

    @johninnaha they walk away as the sunflowers mutate into triffids :p

  • 1

    Asagao

    So you are saying...extract the radiation from the soil into the plant to concentrate it, then bury it back in soil in a more concentrated form where you originally extracted it???

  • 1

    sf2k

    I thought they were using tea leaves

  • 1

    sf2k

    @Asagao

    sounds about right. Irony doesn't seem to have a well understood translation. Reminds me of recycling a yogurt container tin foil only to watch a barge dump thousands of bicycles into the ocean.

    Why should anything make sense? That appears to require too much thinking

  • 0

    Seirei Tobimatsu

    Birds eat then get eaten or decompose into soil diffusing contamination so we all mutate into different life forms and life goes on mutating dying & regenerating.

  • 0

    WilliB

    Asagao:

    " So you are saying...extract the radiation from the soil into the plant to concentrate it, then bury it back in soil in a more concentrated form where you originally extracted it??? "

    That is of course not what he is saying. The idea is to have a small volume of highly contaminated material that can then be stored safely at a disposal site, while the large area of contaminated soil is now safe. Obviously. I am not sure how you can misunderstand that.

  • 1

    wanderlust

    This has been promulgated over the last few weeks, with many articles in the main stream Japanese media, announcing sunflowers will save Fukushima and the like, but it only takes Strontium from the soil, the Cesium is left there most of the time.

    An awful lot of maybe, possibly, typically in his answers...and finally, his get-out clause:

    <

    And if the circumstances are not right...

  • 0

    Heda_Madness

    On the way to Minami Soma I noticed that there were a lot of sunflowers growing and I thought that they were there just to improve the scenery. The fields that should be rice have mostly been left abandoned and it's a pretty depressing sight.

    Good to know that there can be other benefits from it as well.

  • 0

    Nicky Washida

    Very pretty and "green" idea. But I was under the impression that cesium is the biggest issue in the soil, so if it doesnt work for cesium it doesnt sound like it will be all that much use. I dont know anything about the soil structure up there to know if it would work or not.

    But I have to say at least these guys are coming up with these ideas - I havent heard much in the way of decontamination proposals from the authorities other than "Everyone can move back in a few months" which loosely translates for me into "We`ll pretend the whole issue is over now and what the eye doesnt see, the tongue doesnt taste". Works with my kids for veggies blended into a sauce but not sure how it will work for radioactive isotopes?!

  • 2

    johninnaha

    Thanks for all the answers on what happens to the sunflowers.

    That wasn't my point.

    The point was that Blaylock avoided answering the question.

    In the meantime, it might be safer to use olive oil for cooking for a while.

  • 1

    horrified

    The answer to contaminated sunflower disposal will most definitely be 'by burning,' because 'there are currently no laws surrounding incinerating plants.' This is what we found out when they were going to burn the radioactive wood from Iwate in Kyoto recently.

  • 1

    wanderlust

    @horrified: Yes, it was Nobuo Ikeda - a sometime economist and former NHK hack - who made the comment - "Doesn’t the Kyoto City government know that radioactive materials will be dissolved and rendered harmless once they get burned?..

    There you go, the solution to all of the world's nuclear waste storage problem, just burn it!

    He must have been absent from class when they taught atomic structure and radiation.

  • 0

    warnerbro

    What will happen to the sunflowers after they collect the caesium? Why, all the caesium that isn't sold as sunflower oil will be be burnt in municipal incinerators so that radioactive particles can be further scattered around the country and into children's lungs.

  • 0

    wanderlust

    @warnerbro - read the article again, and the comments.

    The sunflowers do not collect cesium, only strontium. The strontium is absorbed and moves into the green parts of the plant.
    The stems and leaves are collected, compressed and disposed of elsewhere. There is NO cesium containing sunflower oil.

  • 2

    gogogo

    Such an airy story for such a serious topic.

  • 2

    Farmboy

    The sunflowers do not collect cesium, only strontium

    The article does NOT say that. The guy is talking about the problems they had at Chernobyl because the cesium had a long time to get fixed in the soil. He says,

    "You know, soils that have very high mica contents, certain clays, are going to be very difficult to remove the cesium from, once the cesium gets fixed. But under the right set of circumstances, they (sunflowers) could be effective in removing those contaminants from the soil."

  • 1

    Utrack

    I just hope the leaves, stem and head are disposed of properly and not added to animal feed because the plant is edible and is an ingredient to animal feed in the US. The way hot spots are appearing I would not use sunflower oil either if it's not imported.

  • 1

    Utrack

    Just thinking about all the pollen these sunflower heads have and the bees that are going to collect them. How much contamination is in the pollen.

  • 0

    Bruce Miller

    Poor dumb anal delights here describe bio-concentration as a "good thing" Freaking idiots must re-read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, must review the Minimanta Mercury story, must see the river at Spanish Ontario, Canada. Witness the effects of the bioconcentration on the native people there. anal delights ! have no idea! Birds eat sunflower seeds, fly radiation to new locations, poop radiation laced fertilizers in fields, fox eat birds, field mice, then larger animals, ever concentrating, ever climbing the food chain until it reaches the top. Who resides at the top dumb-asses? humans! anal delights here, poor deluded anal delights! Hard to believe! Pray this is deliberate propaganda, or meant as comedy, not the new American standard for Science education. Amen.

Login to leave a comment

OR
Undergraduate: Information session (April 9)

Undergraduate: Information session (April 9)

Temple University, Japan CampusContinuing Education / MBA

Trip to Bountiful in the Heart of Tohoku

Trip to Bountiful in the Heart of Tohoku

JI Core 50 Professional MonitorsBusiness Services

Blowfish Cuisine in Japan

Blowfish Cuisine in Japan

Ms GreenTravel / Hotels

Special Offers

グローバルに
活躍したいあなたへ
外資系転職

バイリンガル人材の
ための求人サイト

見てみる

More in National

View all

View all

Find Your
Apartment
in Japan

10,000’s of properties available today!

Search