Crops for biofuel near Fukushima

About one year ago, a devastating earthquake hit Japan, causing a nuclear accident at Fukushima. Today there are plans to grow crops for biofuel in the vicinity.

The ground surrounding the area of the nuclear power plant remains contaminated with radioactive material. It used to be farmland, but is now useless as such. The Japanese government however has made new plans, asking the Dutch company, Waterland International, to investigate whether it’s possible to grow crops for biofuels in the area of Soma, thirty kilometres outside Fukushima.

Scientific data shows that the level of radioactivity there isn’t harmful for people; however, although the ground remains contaminated, crops for biofuel may work, the government believes, because they’re not eaten by humans.

“It’s an interesting idea, but I wonder if it’s going to work out, says Professor Luuk van der Wielen (faculty of Applied Sciences, bioseperation technology section). “If the ground isn’t suitable for growing food, I doubt whether it’s suitable for biofuel crops. Radioactive material shouldn’t be in biofuel, either, because it’s being used close to people and released uncontrollably”,

The radioactive material should therefore be removed from the crops. Van der Wielen emphasizes that this may be difficult and expensive: “There’s not a factory in the world that I know of that has set up a production process to get rid of radioactive material in biofuel.”

Tests were already done with rapeseed and sunflower, but according to the results, they took up to much caesium, waste from the nuclear power plant. Prof. Van der Wielen stresses that it’s also an option to plant crops that take the caesium out of the soil, and to then remove them and plant new crops for biofuel: “They could also look for a plant that does not take up the caesium, so it won’t get contaminated.”

Japan wants to use the biofuel to generate electricity. Waterland International is talking with Japan Airlines about using biokerosine. The Dutch company and a Japanese partner will invest about 1.4 million euros in this area of 2,000 to 3,000 hectares.

In addition to the crops for biofuel, there is another sustainable project set up in the vicinity. In October, 25 kilometres from Fukushima, a new solar power plant will be built. It seems that Japan, once seen as one of the countries supporting nuclear power, is now focusing on sustainable energy.

“I think that’s a premature conclusion,” says associate professor Jan Leen Kloosterman (faculty of Applied Sciences, physics of nuclear reactors section). “The nuclear power plants are closed in Japan and being inspected. One of my former PhD students is now working there, and he told me that the local governments want to have independent stress tests for the plants. That’s perfectly understandable. The local governments have cold feet because of what happened a year ago.”

Kloosterman believes the tests will show that some improvements could be made, depending on the location of the plant. “I think that after that Japan will go on with nuclear power. Of course our sector has internationally had a lot of negative publicity, and some projects and plants have been cancelled or put under pressure, but I’m still positive about the future. We can build very innovative and safe nuclear power plants. And at Delft we do ingenious research to make sure the plants are safe.”

Willem Smit woont sinds januari in een Virgielhuis op Raamstraat 41. Tot september studeerde hij luchtvaart- en ruimtevaarttechniek, nu werkt hij tijdelijk als koerier. In zijn oude huis had hij een campuscontract: je studie onderbreken betekent verhuizen. Hij kan tijdelijk terecht in dit huis op de Raamstraat. In augustus moet het leeg opgeleverd worden aan de aannemer die het gekocht heeft van de vader van een inmiddels verhuisde huisgenoot. De verhuisdozen blijven dus nog even ingepakt. 

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