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Sunflowers could save lives as they soak up radiation from soil and water

A field of sunflowers is beautiful to look at, and can brighten anybody’s day. They can also save lives. The sites of nuclear devastation in Chernobyl, Fukushima and Hiroshima are home to these plants, as they soak up toxic metals from the soil and water.

Jun 6, 2019 |
4 min read

If you have a passing interest in pop culture, you’ll be aware of HBO’s TV series Chernobyl. The show, which dramatizes the 1986 Ukrainian nuclear disaster, has been earning rave reviews across the board and educated countless people as to what occurred. What you may not be aware of, however, is the role that sunflowers played in the aftermath of the devastation.

Believe it or not, sunflowers are an essential part of the cleanup process after a nuclear disaster. This is because these plants soak up toxins from the ground, and even local ponds.

In addition to brightening up a scene of desolation, sunflowers help to increase the quality of air and speed up the process of making water supplies drinkable again. As a result, the sunflower has become a symbol of peace, and a world free of nuclear weapons.

The science of sunflowers

Sunflowers are an essential part of the cleanup process after a nuclear disaster.

Sunflowers are what scientists referred to as, “hyperaccumulators.”

Sunflowers are what scientists referred to as, “hyperaccumulators.” This means that the plants can soak up a great deal of toxicity at a rate of knots. Nobody is saying that the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl, Hiroshima and Fukushima could have been avoided if the locals were a little more green-fingered. However, when making the best of a tragic situation, sunflowers can escalate the repair of terrain damaged by radiation.

Like all plants, sunflowers absorb nutrients from the ground. In addition to the good stuff, however, sunflowers will also suck up and retain toxic metals. Lead, in particular, can be stored in the long stem of a sunflower. Testing showed that land pollution dropped by over 40% in territories that contained rows of these aesthetically pleasing flowers.

Naturally, government bean counters quickly acknowledged this and moved to take action. Planting sunflowers is significantly cheaper than digging up, moving and replanting sizable quantities of soil. The same also applies when it’s time to remove these toxins.

It’s a sad day when a beautiful field of sunflowers must be disposed of, but it’s certainly better than expecting humans and animals to live on contaminated land.

Sunflowers in Chernobyl

The impact of sunflowers on polluted land was first discovered in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Despite the loss of life, plants continued to thrive in the nuclear wasteland, and even grew afresh. Intrigued by this, scientists entered Chernobyl and planted new seeds.

To their surprise – and delight – they learned that sunflowers in particular were capable of absorbing toxic heavy metals from the ground. Perhaps more importantly, they also sucked toxicity from the local ponds. Ensuring a safe water supply is essential for any nation, and this would not have been possible without the aid of sunflowers.

The planting of sunflowers – along with mustard seeds, flax seeds and soybeans, which are believed to equally effective if not as aesthetically pleasing – is now common practice in the event radiation. As a result, the sunflower has become a symbol of peace and a nuclear-free world.

Quite understandably, Ukrainian officials lost their stomach for nuclear weapons in the aftermath of this historical tragedy. Before Chernobyl, the nation had an arsenal of some 1,900 nuclear weapons at their disposal. In the aftermath, all of these were dismantled in neighboring Russia.

By 1996, the Ukraine was officially a nuclear-free country. To celebrate this landmark, ministers from the Ukraine, Russia and USA convened at a disused missile base and planted sunflower seeds. Where this location once housed warheads, which would have been fired upon America in the event of a nuclear conflict, this new symbol of hope now grows.

Sunflowers in Japan

Another country that knows plenty about the tragedy of radiation is Japan. This nation has been touched by such tragedy twice; the infamous Hiroshima bombings of 1945, and the nuclear disaster that unfolded in Fukushima Daiichi in 2011.

The Serakogen Farm, located in Horishima, is now host to over a million sunflowers. This part of the devastated territory is safe to visit, and has become a tourist attraction. People flock to the site in the summer months to observe these sunflowers in bloom, and remember those who lost their lives.

The incident in Fukushima is much more recent, and remains a fresh wound for many Japanese citizens. The fallout of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, a result of an earthquake and corresponding tsunami, is still being felt today.

It is expected to take around 40 years to complete the clean up process, and the death toll due to radiation exposure may yet rise. It is feared that foodstuffs produced as far as 60 miles from the site were contaminated and consumed.

Sunflowers, however, remain a pivotal part of repairing this desolate territory. Over 8 million of these flowers have been planted. As always, the ambition is twofold. These sunflowers bring something of a smile to the face of anybody passing, who are no longer faced with a barren wasteland that reminds them of a dark day in Japanese history.

In addition, they will make the territory considerably safer. With some good fortune, they may even speed up the process of making Fukushima habitable once again.

Sunflowers are more than just decorative plants. They have become a symbol of hope for a better future, where nuclear disasters are resigned to the status of cautionary tales of history’s folly.

Tragedy cannot be undone, no matter how many flower seeds are planted. With luck, however, sunflowers can act as a natural reminder of the devastation that nuclear power is capable of, while also repairing the damage caused by the mistakes of previous administrations.

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