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Could This Farming Practice Make Food Grown in Fukushima Safe?

March 11, 2015 marks four years since the Fukushima disaster.  What have we learned?

Shortly after the Fukushima disaster, we donated some of our sensors to Dr. Masaru Mizoguchi, a scientist colleague at the University of Tokyo.  He is using the equipment to contrive a more environmentally friendly method to rid rice fields in the villages near Fukushima of the radioactive isotope cesium 137.

Over the last three years, government contractors removed 5 cm of topsoil from fields in order to extract the radioactive isotope. The topsoil has been replaced with sand.  The problem with this method is that it also removes most of the essential soil material, leaving the fields a barren wasteland with little hope of recovery anytime soon.  Topsoil removal may also prove ineffective because wild boars dig up the soil to root for insects and larvae.  This presents a problem in the soil stripping method, as it becomes impossible to determine exactly where the 5 cm boundary exists.  In addition, typhoons and heavy rains erode the sand surface raising safety and stability concerns.

Trash Bags Full of Radioactive Topsoil

Currently, bags full of radioactive topsoil are stacked into pyramids in abandoned fields. An outer black bag layer filled with clean sand is placed around the outside to prevent radiation leakage. The government has promised that these bags will be removed and taken to a repository near the destroyed reactor, but many people don’t believe that will happen as the bags themselves only have a projected life of 3-5 years before they start to degrade. More of these pyramids are being built around Iitate village every day, which is a source of uneasiness for many people that are already cautious about returning.

Dr. Mizoguchi and his colleagues have come up with a new “flooding” method now being tested in smaller fields that can save the topsoil and organic matter while at the same time removing the cesium, making the land usable again within two years.  The new method floods the field and mixes the topsoil with water, leaving the clay particles suspended. Because the cesium binds with the clay, they can drain the water and clay mixture into a pre-dug pit and bury it with a meter of soil after the water has infiltrated.  After one year of using this method, the scientists saw that the cesium levels in the rice had gone down 89%.  And in situ and laboratory instrumentation have shown that two years after cesium removal, the plants’ cesium uptake is negligible, and the food harvested is safe for consumption.

Researcher standing by a sensor station

Dr. Mizoguchi standing by a sensor station containing Decagon sensors

Dr. Mizoguchi is monitoring the surrounding forests with our canopy and soils instrumentation in order to determine if runoff from the wilderness areas will return cesium to the fields and what can be done about it.  He’s figured out a way to network all the instrumentation and upload data directly to the cloud. Still, even if this technology and new methodology work, will people around the world ever feel safe eating food grown near Fukushima?  Dr. Mizoguchi says, “I believe that the soil is recovered scientifically and technically.  However, harmful rumors will remain in the public mind for a long time, even if we show the data that proves safety.  So we must keep showing the facts on Fukushima based on scientific data.”

Resurrection of Fukushima Volunteers using Dr. Mizoguchi's method to rehabilitate small farms

Resurrection of Fukushima volunteers use Dr. Mizoguchi’s method to rehabilitate small farms

Incredibly, each weekend a volunteer organization of retired scientists and university professors use their own money and time to travel out to small village farms.  There they labor to rehabilitate the land using Dr. Mizoguchi’s method.  One of the recipients of this selfless work is a 72-year-old farmer who took his nonagenarian mother and returned to their home to fulfill her heartfelt plea that she could live out her final years outside the shadow of a highrise apartment (see this story in the video above).  We are honored to be a part of this humanitarian effort.

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