Scientists may have a powerful new tool when it comes to cleaning up after nuclear accidents: the modest oat.
The much-loved breakfast cereal could play a key role in absorbing contaminants from the soil in areas where nuclear spills have occurred, researchers at the University of Western Australia's Institute of Agriculture have found. In a new study published in the International Journal of Phytoremediation, a team of scientists from the IOA as well as from China and Switzerland tested 26 varieties of oats, wheat, and barley, planting them in soil that was heavily contaminated with strontium, a byproduct of nuclear fission that's found in the waste of nuclear reactors. Of all the plant strains the researchers tested, a hull-less variety called the "naked" oat was most effective at stripping the potentially cancer-causing heavy metal from the earth in which it was planted.
As the name of the journal indicates, the process performed by the oat plants is called phytoremediation. Plants take up contaminants through their roots and store them in their leaves and shoots. When the plants are removed, the soil is left significantly purer—and, in the case of strontium, less dangerous.
Strontium's chemical composition is similar to that of calcium, which means that the human body processes it in much the same way. It's referred to as a "bone seeker," because once it's consumed—by eating plants that have been grown in strontium-contaminated soil—it travels into the bone marrow, where it can cause bone cancer.
"Food is the most likely pathway of strontium into humans, and high doses of strontium increases the risk of cancers and may induce skeletal abnormalities," Professor Kadambot Siddique of the IOA told Western Australia Today. "Plants might be used to help the clean up process where soils had been contaminated with heavy metals. They would absorb contaminants and store them in their shoots. The plants could then be safely disposed of."
Traditional cleanup of toxic spills is an extremely costly process. Most recently, at Fukushima, powerful filters were installed to control the leak of contaminants into the air, and cement was laid to try to head off the leakage of those contaminants into the sea. The decontamination and decommissioning process is estimated to last at least 30 years, and the total bill will amount to at least $105 billion USD. Planting oats—and then disposing of them—is an inexpensive process that would at least help purify a drainage ditch near the reactor, where 300 tons of highly toxic, strontium-saturated water was recently discovered. And with climate change predicted to spur an increase in global weather events like the tsunami responsible for the Fukushima disaster, research into the effective cleanup of toxic sites has taken on more urgency.
The fact that oats might be able to shield people from toxic radiation could go a long way towards reversing their earlier reputation for doing the exact opposite. Between 1946 and 1953, Quaker Oats teamed up with MIT to conduct an experiment in which more than 100 mentally disabled schoolchildren were fed radioactive iron- and calcium-laced oatmeal, in order to track how Quaker's nutrients traveled through the body. (The participants' families were told that the children would be fed a "high-nutrient" diet.) Although none of the children—many of whom were misclassified as mentally retarded—got sick from the laughably ill-conceived experiment, in 1998 they were awarded a shared $1.85 million settlement from Quaker and MIT.
This time around, though, sowing some oats could do a lot of good.