Sunflowers to clean up radioactive soil. Japanese researchers who study space agriculture believe growing sunflowers will remove radioactive cesium from contaminated soil around the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant, and are planning a project to plant as many of the yellow flowers as possible this year. They have invited people to sow sunflower seeds near the Fukushima Prefecture power station, hoping the sunflower will become a symbol of recovery in the areas affected by the nuclear crisis. After the sunflowers are harvested, they will be decomposed with bacteria, according to a plan by a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency group led by Prof. Masamichi Yamashita. After the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, sunflowers and rape blossoms were used to decontaminate soil in Ukraine.
Radioactive cesium is similar to kalium, a commonly used fertilizer. If kalium is not present, sunflowers will absorb cesium instead. If the harvested sunflowers are disposed of by burning them, radioactive cesium could be dispersed through smoke, which is why the researchers are considering using hyperthermophilic aerobic bacteria–used to produce compost–to decompose the plants. The decomposing process will reduce the sunflowers to about 1 percent of their previous volume, which will slash the amount of radioactive waste that needs to be dealt with. The group has gathered about 300 kilograms of sunflower seeds and has also asked Thailand, a major producer of sunflower seeds, for cooperation in the project. They also plan to ask high schools in and near the 30-kilometer zone around the Fukushima plant to grow sunflowers on their school grounds. Kanagawa prefectural Hiratsuka Agricultural High School has agreed to produce seedlings. “We’re still in the process of planning for the decomposition facility and some other things. Looking toward the autumn harvest, we’d like as many people as possible to join the project,” Yamashita said. – Prof. Masamichi Yamashita. Professor, Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, JAXA. Masamichi Yamashita conducted the “Frogs in Space” experiment onboard the space station Mir in 1990, which was the first space experiment with animals conducted by Japan. In 1995,
Yamashita also sent Japanese red-bellied newts (Cynops) into orbit in the Space Flyer Unit (SFU), which was retrieved by the Space Shuttle one year later. The “Space Embryology Experiment” using Japanese newts on the IML-2 shuttle mission in 1994 was also implemented by him. Yamashita has a broad range of professional experience in chemistry, physics and life science, and hands-on expertise in mechanics, electronics, and thermal engineering. For the missions cited above, most of the verification tests and safety engineering of the flight hardware was conducted by him. His technical skills, apropos to this application, include metal cutting and lathing, circuit design (both analog and digital), sewing experimental kits, soldering and printed board construction, assembler code programming on computers, machining and assembly of hardware in various plastics–even amphibian collecting and animal care. During the flight operational phase of the SFU missions, he acted in the capacity of Flight Operation Director on the satellite and its payload. His activities included the establishment of communication links between the ground station, including NASA’s Deep Space Network, and the spacecraft in orbit. Yamashita also coordinated ground operations at the launch and landing site, with other scientists involved in the experiments. Sources: Yomiuri Shimbun & JAXA Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
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