Growing a solution: KSU researcher hopes to use plants to help Fukushima cleanup
By Jon Gargis KENNESAW — A Kennesaw State University researcher hopes his research into using…
Georgia (Mar 14, 2016) — By Jon Gargis
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KENNESAW — A Kennesaw State University researcher hopes his research into using plants to remove radioactive material from soil will help a country on the other side of the globe still reeling from a nuclear disaster.
Friday marked the fifth anniversary of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, which saw a meltdown occur as a result of a massive earthquake and tsunami. Much of the country’s northeastern coast was affected, leaving almost 16,000 dead and some 2,500 missing, but the impact of the incident is still being felt: About 150,000 people were displaced by the Fukushima incidents, two-thirds of whom haven’t returned due to the resulting radiation and other concerns.
Daniel Ferreira, an assistant professor of environmental science at KSU, attended a 2013 conference focused on the disaster, and during a panel discussion, he saw pictures showing “mountains” of bags containing radioactive soil that the Japanese government had collected.
Some of those “mountains” were 50 to 60 feet high. “It was unbelievable. And they have no idea what to do with it,” said Ferreira, a Kennesaw resident. “I walked out of that session and the wheels just started turning.” A year later, Ferreira met with Japanese researchers to discuss his idea of using plants to remove radioactive cesium from the soil in an effort to reduce the amount of contaminated earth. They told him that no other researchers had explored such a technique.
“The big problem they’re dealing with is the cesium is held very tightly in the soil. The traditional way of getting heavy metals out of soil won’t work — the cesium is bound too tightly to the clay,” Ferreira said. “But plants are better at getting stuff out of soil than we are, because they’ve been around for billions of years and they’ve evolved strategies to be really good at taking up nutrients that they need from the soil. We want to take advantage of this natural ability of plants to kind of ‘jailbreak’ stuff out of the soil to have them extract the cesium.”
Since August, he has been researching his potential solution, studying clay material that matches the composition of the soil found in the affected areas. His research will see him adding a nonradioactive isotope of cesium to simulate the contaminated soil, but he cautioned that his research remains in the preliminary stages. “What I’m looking at right now is trying to better understand the behavior of cesium with this mineral. Hopefully this fall, August or September, we’ll be starting the plant trials,” he said.
In May, Ferreira plans to travel to Japan for 10 days to meet with farmers who have been impacted by the radioactivity.
Contaminated soil has been found as far as 100 miles away from the site of the meltdown, Ferreira said. While soil near the nuclear plant is so highly radioactive it can cause radiation burns if touched or inhaled, the concentration of radioactivity in the soil affecting the farmers is much lower.
Still, it’s high enough to increase the chances of for farmers to get cancer or experience other health problems.
The radioactive material also has the potential to enter the food chain, which could lead to further negative effects.
Ferreira’s trip also includes a visit to the temporary storage facility where the Japanese government houses the contaminated soil.
Among those who will be assisting Ferreira with his research will be Matthew Weand, an assistant professor of organismal biology at KSU.
While Ferreira is the “soil guy” on the project, Weand is the “plant guy,” and he, with the help of undergraduate students, will grow the plants needed for Ferreira’s research in a greenhouse on KSU’s Marietta campus.
Weand said Ferreira’s hypothesis is based on centuries of science.
“This type of thing is call phytoremediation, where you clean up the soil using plants, and it’s been done forever,” Weand said. “It started back in the Middle Ages in Europe, and people would use wetlands to take care of their waste. In the last 100 years, people started using plants as indicators of pollution coming from mines, heavy metals in the soil coming from mining — some plants could tolerate it and some could not. Since then, people have been using plants to clean up all kinds of stuff in the soil, from metals as well as man-made compositions.”
Ferreira says even if his idea works, it likely won’t lead to a removal of all radioactivity in the soil — but it could have a huge impact nonetheless, from reducing the amount of soil needing to be removed from populated areas to a reduction of the level of contamination.
“Will we ever get the level of radioactive cesium in the soil down to the point to where you’re going to want to grow tomatoes in it? Probably not,” he said. “But if we can get the level of cesium down to the point where it’s no longer acutely hazardous, that’s a win. Then you’ve taken a huge problem and turned it into a large problem.
“If we can turn it from ‘It will kill you immediately’ to ‘You’re going to have a slight health outcome,’ that’s pretty good,” he said.
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.