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Itsy bitsy spiderwort

"Permaculturists are the emergency planetary technicians, and bioremediation is our bailiwick."

Since the reactor meltdown in Japan we have been in communication with the Permaculture Institute there, offering advice, equipment and public health-related resources. They were quick to inform us that the shelves in stores were becoming barren of canned goods and water, that fresh produce and tap water was no longer reliable, and that people were afraid to garden because the possibility of soil contamination. While there is no quick and easy solution to these problems, there are things that dedicated permaculturists can do. We are the emergency planetary technicians, and bioremediation is our bailiwick.

Firstly, lets have a look at the problem. Like most developed countries, Japan has gone from a nation of people who walked and used animals for transport, to one that depends on cars, trucks, trains, and high tech. Using first coal and oil, and then nuclear power, they have been able to hire versatile energy slaves for every purpose, and have become utterly dependent on many technological prosthetics. With high speed rail and fast highways carrying food from country to city, Japan has urbanized its population to more than 15,000 people per square mile in its cities.

So, when a collapse of the nuclear house of cards finally came — and it is inevitable everywhere they have been built, it is just a matter of time — it affected a great many people. Lets briefly recap where the Japanese ‘accident’ stands at this writing.

The 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake of Friday, March 11, 2011, has been long expected. Japan is located near the boundary of three plates (the Boso Triple Junction) that have been relatively quiet since a 8.3 magnitude quake in 1923 that killed 142,000 people. While Japan has engineered its buildings to withstand such events and prevent great loss of life, the 2011 quake produced maximum ground accelerations that exceeded the design specifications for 4 of the 6 reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant (as well as for all of the nuclear plants in the United States). Although Fukushima was protected by a seawall that was designed to withstand a tsunami of 5.7 metres (19 ft), the wave that struck the plant, which is on the coast, was estimated to be more than twice that height at 14 metres (46 ft). At least three nuclear reactors suffered explosions due to hydrogen gas that built up within their containment buildings after cooling system failure.

At the Fukushima complex, roughly 70 percent of the core of reactor No.1 suffered severe damage, but is now being hosed down, so that the oxidizing fuel in the core is no longer melting. Still, a witches’ brew of long-lived radionuclides are being carried away in steam and ocean runoff. The melted rods have been encrusted with salt from seawater, which will make them a continuing health hazard until they have cooled and are encased in concrete.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said it has found a crack in the pit at its No.2 reactor, generating readings of 1,000 millisieverts of radiation per hour in the air inside the pit. For those old enough to remember the rads and rem nomenclature, that would be 10 rem per hour. Actually, they probably meant to say 10 grays per hour, but they got it wrong.

The nuclear industry switched from rads and rem a decade or more ago to grays and sieverts because that made the worst cases seem much more minor. A sievert is 100 rem so a rem is 10 mSv. A millisievert is 100 millirem (0.1 rem). Rem (for “radiation equivalent for man”) is a health physics term that attempts to calculate what portion of a rad (rate of disintegration in dry air) is biologically absorbed. Grays are the new rads, sieverts the new rem. Decimals have been shifted to confuse us.

While no amount of radiation is safe — the tiniest fraction has the potential to either kill you or leave you undisturbed, much like taking a stroll through a mine field — the industry allows its workers to receive an annual dose of 17 rem or 170 mSv in the US and 20 mSv in Japan. The limit for workers during Fukushima emergency has now been elevated to 250 mSv/year. Therefore the observed dose in Reactor No. 2 exceeds the annual allowable dose in about fifteen minutes. To work inside that space, TEPCO would need to replace every employee every fifteen minutes, and the retiring employees would need to go somewhere far enough away to be uncontaminated for a year before they could return to work.

Workers at Reactor #2 are attempting to plug the crack with concrete, presumedly working in 15 minute shifts.

Over at Reactor #3, which violently exploded on YouTube on March 14— some days before TEPCO and the Japanese government admitted it had a serious problem there — a long vertical crack is running down the side of the reactor vessel itself. Since the surrounding containment building has been blown away, it is easy to view the reactor from Google Earth. According to TEPCO, the crack runs down below the water level in the reactor and has been leaking fluids and gases since the explosion. “It’s up and down and it’s large,” TEPCO said. “The problem with cracks is they do not get smaller.” Number 3 is where they were using MOX fuel, or a mixture of plutonium and uranium. When you blend in plutonium in that volume, the public health threat is cubed.

Reactor #4 was out for service and the core was being stored in a swimming pool when the earthquake and tsunami took out offsite power. The heat from the fresh fuel quickly evaporated the coolant and once exposed to air the zirconium cladding oxidized (burned away) allowing the uranium and transuranic elements in the fuel pellets to collect at the bottom of the pool and melt together like radioactive lava. The hot mass has now cracked the concrete bottom of the pool but water is being poured in at a faster rate than it is going out, so for now the fuel is being cooled. Nonetheless, because of the random configuration, the potential for recriticality of the pile cannot be excluded, and in such an event a rekindled chain reaction could produce considerably more heat than fire hoses can cope with, meaning the core would once more uncover and burn.

As of last Friday, the fuel in the #4 pool was once more uncovered and burning. Observed “blue flashes” above the plant at night suggest that a rekindled chain reaction is indeed taking place.

High levels of radiation have been measured 40 km from the complex, well outside the evacuation zone. Low airborne levels, and contamination of fresh food and tap water have been measured in Tokyo, 140 km to the South. Some operating problems have also been reported at other nuclear reactor complexes in Japan that are attempting to go to cold shutdown status but have not succeeded.

With that situation in mind, we were asked by people in Japan what they should do with respect to food. Our reply has been three-fold. Firstly, people should eat only foods packaged prior to the March 11 earthquake, or imported from well outside the zone of potential contamination.

While we initially thought it a wives’ tale, we discovered some scientific support for miso soup and presumedly other fermented foods as well (natto, ontjom, tempeh, kim chi, sauerkraut, etc.). According to a group of Japanese researchers at the Department of Environment and Mutation, Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine, Hiroshima University, miso (a fermentation product from soybeans) has a radioprotective effect on mice. Miso at three different fermentation stages (early-, medium- and long-term fermented miso) was mixed into biscuits at 10% and administered from 1 week before irradiation. Animal survival in the long-term fermented miso group was significantly prolonged as compared with the short-term and medium-term fermented miso. Delay in mortality was evident in all three miso groups, with significantly increased survival. At high doses (10 and 12 Gy X-irradiation at 4 Gy/min), the treatment with long-term fermented miso significantly increased survival. Thus, eating foods with prolonged fermentation appears to be very important for protection against radiation effects.

See: Ohara M,  et al, (2001) Radioprotective effects of miso (fermented soy bean paste) against radiation in B6C3F1 mice: increased small intestinal crypt survival, crypt lengths and prolongation of average time to death, Hiroshima Journal of Medical Sciences 50:4;83-86.

Secondly, food producers who are threatened with contamination should either evacuate the area, or if the contamination is slight or indirect, they should move growing operations indoors, erecting glass houses and polytunnels as needed. We recommended to the Permaculture Institute of Japan that they build a bioshelter and monitor anything going into the enclosed growing area as it came in — soil, water, seed, tools, people, etc. — to maintain radioactive sterility. Of course, there is no way of knowing if a single hot particle of plutonium carries in on someone’s clothes, but you do what you can. We are supplying Geiger counters from SE International here on The Farm.

Thirdly, obtain KU-9 Tradescantia cuttings from Dr. Sadeo Ichikawa at the University of Saitama, Uruwa, and clonally propagate those. Distribute them widely. For those unfamiliar with Tradescantia, our illustrated 1978 book, Honicker v. Hendrie: A Lawsuit to End Atomic Power, describes them in detail. Professor Ichikawa, while doing genetic research at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY in the early 1970s, studied the effects of gamma radiation on reproductive integrity of stamen hairs in polyploid Tradescantia. After studying effects on chromosomes of various Tradescantia species (commonly known as spiderwort), Ichikawa was able to select and clonally propagate a number of cultivars in a species he named Tradescantia nonukes.

Tradescantia nonukes has two genes for color in the cells of the stamen hairs and petals. The dominant gene codes cells to display blue. The recessive gene codes cells to display pink. Spiderwort produces its flowers daily, so a change from blue to pink, or blue with purple splotches, would instantly signal the presence of an environmental mutagen. Well, “instantly” may be a stretch. Since mutagens can reach the sites of cell division by air, water and soil mineral uptake, the display may lag the exposure by some days.

Nonetheless, this is a very low cost and accurate biological Geiger counter. How accurate? By taking daily cell counts for color change along the single-cell strands of stamen hairs under a low-power optical microscope, Ichikawa and his SUNY-Brookhaven students were able to chart subtle changes in background radiation from day to day. In field trials outside a nuclear plant in Japan, Ichikawa accurately correlated known emissions data to responses by his plants.

The clones are highly sensitive, and moreover, they are not measuring ionizing radiation by static charge in dry air the way a Geiger tube does, using a mathematical model to extrapolate biological dose from studies of mice and dogs to humans. The plants are measuring biological uptake in the first instance and therefore monitoring all possible exposure pathways.

See C. H. Nauman, A. G. Underbrink and A. H. Sparrow (1975) Influence of Radiation Dose Rate on Somatic Mutation Induction in Tradescantia Stamen Hairs. Radiation Research 62:1; 79-96; Ichikawa, S. (1981), In Situ Monitoring with Tradescantia around Nuclear Power Plants, Environmental Health Perspectives 57:145-164, The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS); and Ichikawa, S., et. al., (1995), Flower production, stamen-hair growth, and spontaneous and induced somatic mutation frequencies in Tradescantia cuttings and shoots with roots cultivated with nutrient solutions, Japanese Journal of Genetics 70:5;585-600.

To those in Japan, and others, we urge that it is important to obtain genuine Tradescantia nonukes and not some common garden variety that does not have genetically dipolar coloration. The KU-9 clone is a perennial that can overwinter from Texas and Florida into Southern Canada, going back to its roots while dormant and re-emerging again in the Spring after last frost. In a greenhouse it can bloom all year. Every temperate climate permaculturist should have a supply.

We met Dr. Ichikawa in Louisville, Kentucky in 1976 and returned to Tennessee with samples of clonal Tradescantia nonukes that we have propagated since that time. Because of genetic variation, it should never be grown from seed, and any Spiderwort you get from a seed packet will not be a reliable radiation detector.

To clone Tradescantia is very easy. Select a long strand with at least three nodes between root and flower. Cut the strand near the root zone and then trim it back so that there are two extant nodes on the cut stem. Remove flowers and trim the leaves to one-half or one-third size (this reduces stress, since the plant cannot supply leaves and flowers until it has re-established roots). The cutting can remain dry for a few days, but the root end should be wrapped in moistened bathroom tissue to keep it from drying out. As soon as feasible, place the root end into a small vase or water glass. This will allow it to retain moisture and begin to grow new root hairs. Within a few days of cutting, or even immediately, the clone can be placed into moistened soil. It should establish there within a few weeks and in a month or so be making new flowers. The original stem will likely die back before flowering, but then re-emerge from its roots with fresh growth.

Reconditioning damaged soil is the next challenge, and we will discuss that here next post.

And by the way, smoking 1.5 packs/day gives you a radiation dose of 13-60 mSv/year. Tobacco is grown using superphosphate fertilizers that contain thorium, which decays to radium and its radioactive daughters (lead, bismuth and polonium). These particles are deposited on the sticky hairs of the tobacco leaf and then burned into the smoke you inhale, lodging in your lungs for decades, or being carried by your bloodstream to various long-term residences in your body. Just because you don’t work in a nuclear plant or live in Japan doesn’t mean you are free of risk from inhaled radioactive particles.

Try blowing smoke on a spiderwort plant and watch what happens.

MISO SOUP (serves 2)


3 ounces dried soba noodles

2-4 tablespoons white miso paste

2-3 ounces firm tofu, chopped into 1/3-inch cubes

Handful of spinach, washed and trimmed

2 green onion, tops removed, thinly sliced

3 small shiitake caps, preferably hanadonko grade (white with black cracks)

Small handful cilantro, optional

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Cook soba noodles in salted water according to package directions. Drain and run cold water over the noodles to stop them from cooking. Set aside.

Stem, clean and slice the shiitake caps. If dried, rehydrate for some hours. In an iron skillet brown them lightly in olive oil and shoyu. This brings out the mushroom flavor. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan bring 4 cups water to boil. Reduce heat to gentle simmer and remove from heat. Pour a bit of the hot water into a small bowl and whisk in the miso paste…this allows the paste to thin out and prevents clumping. Stir the paste back into the pot. Add the tofu and shiitake, remove from the heat and let sit for a minute. Split the noodles between 2-3 bowls and pour the miso broth, shiitake and tofu over them. Add some spinach, green onion, cilantro, and (if desired) red pepper flakes to each bowl and serve.

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