Biofuels could clean up Chernobyl 'badlands'

New Scientist, June 2009

Chernobyl is in Ukraine, close to the Belarus border. But prevailing winds meant 80 per cent of the fallout from the burning reactor fell in Belarus. The accident left vegetation and soils heavily contaminated with strontium-90, caesium-137, plutonium and americium. The most heavily polluted areas remain evacuated but 8 million people live in a much wider contaminated zone.

A 40,000 square kilometre area of south-east Belarus is so stuffed with radioactive isotopes that it won't be fit for growing food for hundreds of years, as the isotopes won't have decayed sufficiently. The contaminated lands could be cleaned up in a clever way: by growing biofuels. Belarus is planning to use the crops to suck up the radioactive strontium and caesium and make the soil fit to grow food again within decades rather than hundreds of years.

A team of Irish biofuels technologists hopes to do a deal with state agencies to buy radioactive sugar beet and other crops grown on the contaminated land to make biofuels for sale across Europe. The company, Greenfield Project Management, insists no radioactive material will get into the biofuel as only ethanol is distilled out. The heavy radioactive residues will be burned in a power station, producing a concentrated "radioactive ash". This can be disposed of at existing treatment works for nuclear waste.

The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency is not so sure, however. It is because that, while the biofuels process should be safe, neither Belarus nor Ireland has an adequate way of disposing of the radioactive residues at present. Greenfield plans to build the first biofuels distillery next year at Mozyr, close to one of the most contaminated areas. The €500 million plant will turn half a million cubic metres of crops a year into 700 million litres of biofuels, starting in 2011. As many as 10 more plants will follow provided funding can be raised. The European Union reckons it will need about 25 billion litres of bioethanol by 2020 to meet green fuel targets.