Brave People Are Building Futuristic Farms on Japan's Radioactive Soil

What does radioactive salad taste like? How about rice sprinkled with nuclear fallout? Well, if you're truly curious, consider taking your next vacation in Fukushima, where some intrepid farmers have begun the daunting task of farming the region's tainted soil.

Construction just began on a rather futuristic project in the Fukushima prefecture. The so-called Renewable Energy Village is both a farm and a solar park with 120 photovoltaic panels that generate 30 kilowatts of power, which are sold to a local utility company. The "solar sharing" layout means that the crops grow beneath the solar panels. There are plans to add windmills and possibly an astronomical observatory on the land as well.

But the big question remains: Is it really safe to grow crops in Fukushima's radioactive soil? The answer is complicated. Generally speaking, it's not a good idea to grow food in soil that's been contaminated by nuclear fallout. However, if the radiation levels in the soil are low enough, and if farmers pick the right crops—some absorb radiation more than others—consuming the plants can be harmless.

Farming started up in Fukushima last spring for the first time after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Rice was one of the first crops grown, in small quantities at first. Some farmers first treated the soil with minerals like potassium that reduce the amount of cesium and other radioactive materials. Once harvested, the rice also underwent extensive radiation checks before being sold on the open market.

Nowadays, locals are warming to the idea of farming on the land again, since consumers are getting comfortable with the idea of eating their crops. Last fall, the major fast food chain Yoshinoya announced that it would start to grow rice, onions, and cabbage in the Fukushima prefecture. The company said in a statement that it believes "this will lead to support for reconstruction." And the region needs it: Agriculture has traditionally been the lifeblood of the local economy, and the region was hit hard as farming was brought to an abrupt halt after the disaster.

The creative approach taken by the Renewable Energy Village seems like a good next step. Even though the crops they're growing (rapeseed in this case) are safe, just think of it this way. If farming doesn't work out, they can just focus on the solar energy business—one of Japan's burgeoning markets. [New Scientist]