August 19, 2011

Melting Nuclear ‘Snow’ With Flowers

In both an attempt to raise the spirits of Japanese residents still reeling from the March earthquake and tsunami disaster and to absorb radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that was damaged in the event, Buddhist monks have planted hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of sunflowers and other plants in the surrounding area of their temple and Fukushima prefecture.

The Fukushima power plant, some 30 miles away from the Buddhist Joenji temple, suffered a series of core meltdowns and explosions following the events of March 11, which had knocked out its cooling systems, and then set off the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

As many as 80,000 people were forced to evacuate from the vast area of land around the reactor as engineers battled radiation leaks, explosions and overheating fuel rods -- and many have no idea when, if ever, they will be able to return to their homes.

The radiation then spread well outside the evacuation zone, contaminating the ground wherever it reached, in the country's once rich agricultural region. In many areas, rice has gone unplanted and unshipped after radioactive cesium was found in rice straw. And more radiation has been found in beef, vegetables, milk, seafood, water and tea.

Now, Koyu Abe, chief monk at the Buddhist Joenji temple, and his followers have planted "sunflowers, field mustard, amaranthus and cockscomb," all believed to absorb radiation, with the hope that it will give residents some peace of mind and help to reverse the tragedy befallen on the peoples of Japan.

"So far we have grown at least 200,000 flowers (at this temple) and distributed many more seeds. At least 8 million sunflowers blooming in Fukushima originated from here," said Abe.

Some 100 volunteers have also helped with his project to light candles in preparation for Obon, a festival honoring the spirits of the dead. Buddhist chants echoed the buzz of cicadas from nearby trees as Abe burned paper inscribed with the names of the dead, a ritual in which their spirits are symbolically "reunited" with their neighborhood. Abe encouraged temple visitors to take home flowers and seeds to aid in the recovery project.

Sunflowers were used near Chernobyl after the 1986 meltdown to extract radioactive cesium from contaminated ponds nearby. Sunflowers are also being used by Japanese scientists who are carrying out tests to prove their usefulness in fighting radiation.

Abe, deciding on not waiting for the results of scientific testing, believed that by taking action now, his team could help battered local towns shake off a sense of stagnation and give them hope. And so far, his plan seems to be working.

"We've been so busy with hundreds of locals coming to collect the flowers. It helps me forget about radiation too," said Tomoe, a volunteer who declined to give her last name.

Sunflowers are now growing in unusual places, such as unused rice paddy fields, all over the countryside.

"I planted the sunflowers from the temple alongside other vegetables, hoping they would suck up radiation," said Mura Akiba, a local villager and gardener.

Akiba, who lives near a radioactive hotspot, said she was ashamed to go to a shop to buy her fruit and vegetables. "I have never done this before in my life," she said.

"But now I just stare at my blueberries and blackberries as they grow in my garden, thinking I won't be able to eat them this year," she added.

A dosimeter placed near her showed radiation levels of more than 5 microsieverts per hours, far exceeding government safety levels.

As more and more people came to get flowers at the temple, they told Abe of their concerns and worries about the contamination of the soil in their gardens. With the government still far from a decision on how to handle such soil, Abe decided to take it himself, storing it on the vast temple grounds.

"We accept up to 3 bags of up to 30 kg per bag per household. Right now we have received over 200 bags," Abe said. "To overcome this disaster, we should accept that it has already happened and face the reality. Then we should pursue what we can do at this very moment, what impact can we make and how each and one of us can diligently work to improve the situation."