Heat your greens

By Rob Edwards Sunflowers and spinach could be used to clean up spillages of radioactivity from around nuclear plants if an experiment by the British nuclear industry proves successful. British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) is growing dwarf sunflowers, spinach, sugar beet and Indian mustard on an 80-metre stretch of land contaminated by leaks from the Bradwell nuclear power station in Essex. The company hopes to remove radio-activity from soil by the plants’ natural ability to absorb nutrients through their roots. The ground at Bradwell was polluted in the 1970s by a leakage of liquid waste, which contained caesium 137, from an underground effluent pipe. Three years ago, after heavy rain brought some of the radioactive material to the surface, sections of the pipe and surrounding soil were dug out and disposed of at Britain’s low-level waste repository at Drigg in Cumbria. The resulting trench is still contaminated with about 100 becquerels of radioactivity per gram of soil, much higher than normal. Robin Sellers, a senior scientist with BNFL, hopes that the plants will be able to reduce the contamination by between 10 and 20 per cent. Further reductions should be possible by planting more crops next year, he says. BNFL is considering using the technique to clean up spills at other sites. “These are early days for phytoremediation but the concept clearly has tremendous potential,” argues Sellers. “It looks low-tech, environmentally friendly and cost-effective.” Once the plants are grown they will be incinerated,
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