Why Scientists Plant Sunflowers after Nuclear Disasters

It was just after lunch on March 11, 2011, when a catastrophe struck the east coast of Japan. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake, followed by a quick tsunami, struck the Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, killing thousands of people. Then, as a catastrophic completion, the Akumar Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered multiple explosions and released toxic radioactive waste into the surrounding environment.

Its effects are still felt today, locally known as “3.11”, as Japan seeks to find ways to deal with millions of tons of radioactive wastewater and half the solid waste. But among all the controversy and high-tech solutions there is a cleanup program that you may miss: Sunflower. “We plant sunflowers, field mustard, amaranths, and cockscombs, all of which are believed to absorb radiation,” he told Reuters a few months after the disaster. “So far we have grown at least 200,000 flowers … and distributed many more seeds. At least 6 million sunflowers blooming in Fukushima originated here.

But this is far from the knowledge of some people in Japan: hard science supports it. Turns out that sunflowers are fantastic for cleaning radioactive waste from the environment – which is why they were planted in their drawers after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. “Sunflowers are really good at accepting certain radioactive isotopes,” explained soil scientist Michael Blailock in a 2011 interview. “And it’s really the connection between the sunflower and the nuclear power plants we’ve found … Some of the consequences of the Chernobyl accident we’ve been able to address by planting sunflowers in the affected area.”

Joyful plants are not chosen for their appearance – although this is certainly a bonus. Sunflowers have a whole host of practical features that make them ideal for nuclear cleaning work: they grow quickly, easily, and anywhere. Even better, they store most of their biomass in leaves and stems, so the radioactive material absorbed by plants can be disposed of without digging roots. The use of trees for phytoremediation, or the removal of toxins from the environment, was a huge success at Chernobyl, where nuclear catastrophic radioactive material cesium and strontium kept nearby soils and water heavy.