Five years after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami caused widespread destruction in Japan, the effects of the March 11 meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remain a cause of serious concern for the local inhabitants.
Following the disaster, the Japanese government evacuated more than 100,000 people in an 18 mile zone surrounding the plant.
Dr. Daniel Ferreira, an assistant professor of environmental science at Kennesaw State University, told Global Atlanta that the families of the local farmers had been there for generations and had no plans to leave permanently.
In an effort to reclaim the farmland, the government had much of the area’s topsoil removed and bagged up and placed in a temporary storage facility. As a soil specialist, Dr. Ferreira was intrigued to learn more about the state of this soil and applied for a grant to study its contents.
His grant request to Tokyo-based Meiji University has been accepted and Kennesaw State recently announced that he is traveling there in May on a 10-day fact finding mission to meet with other scientists researching this problem and to visit some of the affected areas.
“Contaminants in soil can still enter the food chain,” he said in reference to his concerns. “Imagine a worm crawling through the cesium contaminated soil. If he were to absorb some of the contamination from the soil, then get eaten by a bird, and then the bird gets eaten by a hawk… you can see that being bound to the soil is no guarantee that the contamination won’t enter the food chain.”
Japanese authorities have relaxed controls on entry to most of the surrounding area in an effort to enable the local residents’ lives to return to normal as soon as possible.
A traffic light system was instituted to describe the status of different areas — a green light enabled residents to return at will to visit and work without the use of protective equipment, but were not allowed to stay overnight.
In an orange ‘restricted’ area, residents were allowed to carry out specific jobs without being monitored or using protective equipment while purple ‘difficult’ areas were not expected to be accessible until this March.
In an effort to reclaim the farmland, the government had much of its top soil removed, but the future of the bagged up contents remains unclear.
Dr. Ferreira became interested in the condition of the bagged soil when he heard about it at a conference of Soil Science Society of America three years ago.
Scientists have been studying the soil-to-plant transfer of radioactive material, known as radiocesium, which was released into the air and ocean as well as the soil surrounding the nuclear facility.
Radiocesium dissolves easily in water, allowing it to spread quickly. However, some soils can strongly retain various pollutants and prevent them from moving into water.
It is this research that intrigued Dr. Ferreira.
He is currently conducting research into the use of plants to try and remove the radiocesium that is so strongly bound to the clay minerals in the soil.
And he hopes that his research will help the Japanese government to deal with the problems posed by the contaminated soil.