‘But will your car glow in the dark’ was the headline of an Irish newspaper article a few months ago describing a joint project between Irish-based company Greenfield Project Management, the Belarussian government and Swedish-based Chematur Engineering. The aim is to produce fuel ethanol from grain crops and sugarbeet grown on land contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986. Not being a regular reader of the business sections of Irish newspapers, I read about the project more recently in the journal Sugar Industry/Zuckerindustrie.
Although the area within 30 km of the accident site remains an exclusion zone unfit for human occupation (apparently wildlife is flourishing in the absence of human disturbance), there is a larger area that is unsuitable for food production — this article suggests that 70 000 square miles cannot be used. The chernobyl.info website (provided by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation) reports that the area completely unusable for agriculture is much smaller than that, but that agriculture in much of the wider area is not economically viable.
According to the article mentioned above, the project will start with crops from uncontaminated land, but soon phase in contaminated feedstock. The target is to produce 650 million litres of ethanol by 2010. It is already possible to ensure that no radioactivity gets into the final product (pure ethanol contains only carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, not the radioactive caesium or strontium). However, as the Greenfield website points out, grain is not very good at concentrating the radioactive elements. It is hoped that the development of second-generation ethanol production technology will enable the project to clean up the land as well as putting it to use — if the whole plant is removed and used, it takes the radioactivity with it. Initial investigations suggest that the land could be fully decontaminated within decades, rather than the centuries that it would take naturally. It is not clear to me what would be done with the radioactive residue, but presumably it is easier to deal with a small amount of this than with thousands of square miles of soil.
There are well-known questions about the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of biofuels, but Greenfield argue that they will not be removing land from food production, and that by using the existing vegetation for biofuels they will avoid releasing CO2 when the land is cleared.
There are hundreds of records on CAB Abstracts that mention Chernobyl, and many more that discuss radioactivity and either biofuels or bioremediation. Some, for example van der Perk et al. (2004)1, see the uptake of radioactivity by plants as a problem to be minimized; others, such as Dutton and Humphreys (2005)2, see it as an opportunity to decontaminate the land. Few mention what to do with contaminated plant material; Entry et al. (1996)3 suggest burning it at high temperatures to ensure that the radioactivity is concentrated in the ash. The production of ethanol from such material appears to be a new idea; I will be interested to see how successful this project is.
As an interesting aside, I found that CABI’s databases contain just one pre-1986 record mentioning Chernobyl, a German parasitological paper4 from 1942. It is intriguing to wonder how, in the middle of the Second World War, CABI managed to get hold of a German journal in time to abstract it by 1943.
1: van der Perk, M.; Burema, J.; Vandenhove, H.; Goor, F.; Timofeyev, S.: Spatial assessment of the economic feasibility of short rotation coppice on radioactively contaminated land in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. I. Model description and scenario analysis. Journal of Environmental Management (2004) 72 (4), pp. 217-232. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2004.05.002
2: Dutton, M.V. and Humphreys, P. N.: Assessing the potential of short rotation coppice (Src) for cleanup of radionuclide contaminated sites. International Journal of Phytoremediation (2005) 7 (4), pp. 279-293. doi:10.1080/16226510500327137
3: Entry, J.A.; Vance, N. C.; Hamilton, M. A.; Zabowski, D.; Watrud, L.S.; Adriano, D. C.: Phytoremediation of soil contaminated with low concentrations of radionuclides. Water, Air, & Soil Pollution (1996) 88 (1-2). pp. 167-176. DOI: 10.1007/BF00157420
4: Lubinsky, G. A.: Die zweiten Zwischenwirte des Katzenleberegels (Opistorchis felineus) in der Umgebung Kiews. Zentralblatt fur Bakteriologie, Parasitenkunde, Infektionskrankheiten und Hygiene, Abt. II (1942) 105 (14/16), pp. 255-257