If you have a passing interest in pop culture, you’ll be aware of HBO’s TV series Chernobyl. The show, which dramatizes the 1986 Ukrainian nuclear disaster, has been earning rave reviews across the board and educated countless people about what occurred. What you may not be aware of, however, is the role that sunflowers played in the aftermath of the devastation.
Believe it or not, sunflowers are an essential part of the clean-up process after a nuclear disaster. This is because they soak up toxins from the ground, and even local ponds.
In addition to brightening up a scene of desolation, sunflowers help to increase the quality of air and speed up the process of making water supplies drinkable again. As a result, the sunflower has become a symbol of peace and a world free of nuclear weapons.
The science of sunflowers
Sunflowers are what scientists referred to as “hyperaccumulators.” This means the plants can soak up toxicity at a high rate.
Nobody is saying that the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl, Hiroshima, and Fukushima could have been avoided if the locals were a little more green-fingered.
However, when there is a need to make the best of a tragic situation, sunflowers can escalate the repair of the radiation-damaged terrain.
Like all plants, sunflowers absorb nutrients from the ground. In addition to the good stuff, however, sunflowers also suck up and retain toxic metals. Lead, in particular, can be stored in the long stem of a sunflower.
Testing has shown that land pollution dropped by over 40% in territories that contained rows of these aesthetically pleasing flowers. Naturally, government bean counters quickly acknowledged this and took action.
Planting sunflowers is significantly cheaper than digging up, moving, and replanting sizable quantities of soil. The same also applies when removing these toxins.
It’s a sad day when a beautiful field of sunflowers must be disposed of, but it’s certainly better than expecting humans and animals to live on contaminated land.
Sunflowers in Chernobyl
The impact of sunflowers on polluted land was first discovered in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Despite the loss of life, plants continued to thrive in the nuclear wasteland and even grew afresh. Intrigued by this, scientists entered Chernobyl and planted new seeds.
To their surprise – and delight – they learned that sunflowers. In particular, they were capable of absorbing toxic heavy metals from the ground. Perhaps more importantly, they also sucked toxicity from the local ponds. Ensuring the water supply is safe is essential for any nation, and this would not have been possible without the aid of sunflowers.
The planting of sunflowers, along with mustard seeds, flax seeds, and soybeans (which are believed to be equally effective, if not as aesthetically pleasing), is now standard practice in the event of radiation. As a result, the sunflower has become a symbol of peace and a nuclear-free world.
Quite understandably, Ukrainian officials lost their stomach for nuclear weapons after this historical tragedy. Before Chernobyl, the nation had an arsenal of some 1,900 nuclear weapons at their disposal. In the aftermath, all of these were dismantled in neighboring Russia.
By 1996, Ukraine was officially a nuclear-free country. To celebrate this landmark, ministers from Ukraine, Russia, and the USA convened at a disused missile base and planted sunflower seeds.
This new symbol of hope now grows on the area that once housed warheads, which would have been fired on America in the event of a nuclear conflict.
Sunflowers in Japan
Another country that knows a great deal about the tragedy of radiation – is Japan. This nation has been touched by such tragedy twice, the infamous Hiroshima bombings of 1945, and the nuclear disaster that unfolded in Fukushima Daiichi in 2011.
The Serakogen Farm, located in Hiroshima, is now hosting over a million sunflowers. This part of the devastated territory is safe to visit and has become a tourist attraction. People flock to the site in the summer months to observe these sunflowers in bloom and remember those who lost their lives.
The incident in Fukushima is much more recent and remains a fresh wound for many Japanese citizens. The fallout of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, a result of an earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, is still felt today.
It is expected to take around 40 years to complete the clean-up process, and the death toll due to radiation exposure may rise even higher. It is feared that foodstuffs produced as far as 60 miles away from the site were contaminated and consumed.
Sunflowers, however, remain a pivotal part of repairing this desolate territory. Over 8 million of these flowers have been planted. As always, the ambition is twofold.
These sunflowers bring something of a smile to the face of anybody passing, as they offer relief from an otherwise barren wasteland that is a stark reminder of a dark day in Japanese history. Besides, they will make the territory considerably safer. With some good fortune, they may even speed up the process of making Fukushima habitable once again.
Sunflowers are more than just decorative plants. They have become a symbol of hope for a better future when nuclear disasters can be consigned to the cautionary tales of history.
Tragedy cannot be undone, no matter how many flower seeds are planted. With luck, however, sunflowers can act as a natural reminder of the devastation that nuclear power is capable of, while also repairing the damage caused by the mistakes of previous administrations.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The Sized delivered to your inbox daily.