The Case for Bioremediation in Fukushima, Japan

“Aren’t you scared of the radiation here?” The question followed a discussion over the news of the hapless Japanese divers in Bali, my confessed fear of the sea, and the relative safety of my home state, Pennsylvania. Besides what monsters be there or those I imagine in the depths, I also admitted my keen unfondness for any place volcanish, earthquaky, or tornadofull. Considering the former two, I’ve chosen well this year.

Radiation, on the other hand, does not come in gaseous belching, bed-shaking quaking, or ruinous bellowing, and, therefore, does not seem as threatening. To prompt further target vocabulary, I made a pathetically tenuous connection with the issue of acid mine drainage (AMD) back home; true enough, even as the silt in our manmade pond turned a rich Velveeta orange, I had continued to swim daily (of course avoiding the middle and deepest part of the pond, in which I honestly imaged some horrible kappa or sudden whirlpool to be the end of me).

Pond in question

Pond in question

While wasting precious life time and money – and undoubtedly my parents’ – during my four-month stint following Hungary and before Japanland, I had the opportunity to accompany an obliging employee of the Evergreen Conservancy in Indiana, PA, who headed the volunteer program for monitoring AMD in select locations surrounding the city.

After checking a few gauges bobbing in the shallow streams meandering through the rural parts of the county, she offered to take me to see the clean-up efforts at the ten-acre Tanoma Wetlands. The site of a bore – or blow – hole that steadily geysered polluted water from three connected abandoned mines for decades, the wetlands now consist of nine pools through which iron-contaminated water flows and is cleansed considerably by aeration and bioremediation.

The term bioremediation (and its other forms including phytoremediation) has been floating around the science journals for some time now and recently appeared in Springer’s Journal of Plant Research, discussing the possibility of algae as a bioaccumulator solution to the tainted waters gushing from  Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant into the Pacific. On land, hemp and sunflowers once held much promise as effective phytoremediation solutions following both the Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents, the latter capable of pulling radiocesium from the soil and sequestering it in the plants’ seeds.

Helianthus sunflower

Helianthus sunflower

Despite the viral lauding of the seemingly successful effort, the sunflowers, it was reported, managed only to absorb 0.05% of the radioactive cesium. Additionally, this specially made transgenic sunflower – from the Helianthus sp. created by the New Jersey—based company Phytotech, Inc. in 1996 – sequestered the cesium in its edible seeds, potentially being spread by birds over a wider area.

Thousands of miles away in Corvallis, Oregon, Michael Slaughter expressed his own frustration over the desperate situation at Fukushima. As president of Earth Fortification Supplies Company, an agricultural consulting business specializing in soil biology, Slaughter became involved in bioremediation efforts in Fukushima after a friend asked for his company’s help.

Working with the mayor of Kunimi, a town northwest of the Fukushima power plant, Slaughter used his own products over a small area; the trial resulted in a 67% decrease in relative atmospheric radiation levels within a couple of weeks after the initial spraying.

“It wasn’t enough to convince them to do anything, but I think I understand why,” Slaughter said. “The reactors aren’t shut down yet, still putting out radiation in the environment. Any [cleanup] efforts will be undone.”

Soil Column design, Earthfort ProVide Testing at Oregon State University

Soil Column design, Earthfort ProVide Testing at Oregon State University

In the meantime, Slaughter has enlisted the help of an Oregon State University student, who since last Fall has been testing Earthfort’s products in radioactive soils. Her current work follows a similar study using Earthfort’s products on soils cultivating radishes and which sought to decrease mobility of radioactive elements (and thus keep them from entering ground water).

According to Slaughter, the dataset used was too small to create a real statistical statement of success. The current study, the final data of which Slaughter expects sometime in June, is larger in scope with 900 samples from 90 soil columns to be processed, but is also wrought with challenges: the original eight-member team diminishing to just the one, soil columns failing when dirt fell out, and the sole researcher having to constantly keep an eye on dangerous radioactive elements.

Nevertheless, Slaughter says, “if it works, it’s helpful, and if it doesn’t work, it’s also helpful.” However, one thing that is not helping the situation in Fukushima, Slaughter notes, is that the government is not asking for help quickly enough from those with experience.

“I don’t think they’re able to deal with the situation…the people as a whole, they’re in shock,” he says. “That makes it tough.”

“The technology being used,” he added, “is mechanical, and they’re not looking for a biological component.” To make matters more complicated, there is the ruinous aftermath of flooded rice fields following the 2011 tsunami, which deluged and devastated many farmer’s livelihoods.

A canal running through the rural farmlands in the outskirts of Koriyama, Japan

A canal running through the rural farmlands in the outskirts of Koriyama, Japan

“Even if radiation isn’t a problem, I haven’t heard of anyone raising the issue of flooded fields,” Slaughter said. “Fixing the salt in the soil is an area where I hope to be able to get into and help these farms to get productive again.” Even so, in light of the bright sunflowers promised to bring hope to such a devastated area, the last thing Slaughter wishes to do is to create false hope.

3 thoughts on “The Case for Bioremediation in Fukushima, Japan

  1. Pingback: Biodiversity from Pennsylvania to Fukushima | The Japan Saga

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  3. Pingback: Chit’n’Chat: Schuykill Oil Spill | Robin-Lee

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