Sunday, February 1, 2015


"According to Takasi, bacteria exposed to radionuclides may become resistant to or even capable of chemically transforming and detoxifying radionuclides."

Wadoo, zim bam boddle-oo,

Hoodle ah da wa da,

Scatty wah !

Oh yeah !...

Well, it ain't necessarily so

Well, it ain't necessarily so

Dey tells all you chillun

De debble's a villun,

But it ain't necessarily so !

To get into Hebben

Don' snap for a sebben !

Live clean !
Don' have no fault !

Oh, I takes dat gospel

Whenever it's pos'ble,

But wid a grain of salt.

- George Gershwin , Porgy & Bess

In The Biochar Solution we suggested that biochar's highest purpose might lie less in its capacity to increase global food security and more in its power to restore Earth's ecological balance and return us to the comfortable Holocene that was the cradle of civilization — the only Earth we have known until very recently.

Now that our sciences have cracked the ancient code for Terra Preta — the Amazonian Dark Earths — and discovered the miraculous quantum entanglement of a microverse below our feet, in our guts, in the transfers between ocean and atmosphere, in the flow of nutrients from sunlight to cells there are a great many new biochar solutions that are rapidly coming into view. One of these solutions may be remediation of radioactively damaged soils.

That story can be found amid a remarkable collection of science articles recently published by CRC Press under the catchy title, Geotherapy: Innovative Methods of Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase, edited by Thomas J. Goreau, Ronal W. Larson, and Joanna Campe.

Chapter 31 of Geotherapy is an insightful look at the Fukushima disaster and the reaction and response of soil microbes (Kazue Tazaki, Teruaki Takehara, Yasuhito Ishigaki, Hideaki Nakagawa, and Masayuki Okuno, "SEM-EDX Observation of Diatomaceous Earth at Radioactive Paddy Soils in Fukushima, Japan"). In case you were thinking, after reading our post last month, that all hope for Japan is lost, hold on. It ain't necessarily so.

A small group of Japanese scientists began using diatomaceous earth, which as a soil amendment works essentially the same way that biochar does. Diatomaceous earth is a white powder made from the remnant shells of fossil diatoms and clay minerals. It has long been useful to organic gardeners because of its calcium content, micropore structure and abrasive shell edges that can deter ants and termites. It is widely used for soil improvement, compost, fertilizer with oyster shells, as a desiccant, or for filtration and other purposes.

Diatomaceous earth works to increase soil bacteria and fungi in the same way biochar does. Biochar, however, can be made anywhere, by anyone, and diatomaceous earth must be mined and transported from places, such as coastal areas, where it can be economically recovered.

According to Tazaki, et al., diatomaceous earth collected from coastal rice paddies around Fukushima in the months following the accident showed, at first, a concentration of  radionuclides such as I, Cs, Ba, Nd, Th, U, Np, and Pu, "suggesting absorption of both radionuclide and stable isotope elements from radioactive polluted paddy soils."

Coastal areas in Minamisoma City, Fukushima, Japan, were seriously damaged by the radioactive contamination from FDNPP accident that caused multiple pollutions by the tsunami and radionuclide exposure, after the Great East Japan Earthquake, on March 11 and 12, 2011. FDNPP leaked 17 kinds of radionuclides, such as 134Cs (1.8 × 1016 Bq; half-life time 2.1 years), 137Cs (1.5 × 1016 Bq; half-life time 30.0 years), 90Sr (1.4 × 1014 Bq; half-life time 29.1 years), and 95Zr (1.7 × 1013 Bq; half-life time 64.0 days) to the atmosphere and seawater in Japan (Atomic Energy Safety Agency, 2011). The paddy soils in Fukushima Prefecture have heavily been contaminated by radionuclides, especially by Cs (134Cs, 137Cs) and Sr (89Sr, 90Sr), even though more than 30 km north of the FDNPP.

Tazaki's group took samples from several of the most heavily contaminated Fukushima soils and transported them to test plots. There the group set up more than 20 control garden beds measuring 2m x 2m, filled them with radioactive soils (averaging 1135 "cpm" or gamma counts per minute); and then applied different materials, such as zeolite, fossil shell, and chaff. The most effective reduction in radiation cpm were in the radioactive soils sprinkled with diatomaceous earth. What the group observed, over the course of 13 months (from August 8, 2011 to September 24, 2012) was a gradual down-migration into the soil profile for the radioactivity, and then a gradual elimination (equal to background) beginning at around 6 cm.

In case you are saying, "Well that is to be expected with the decay of radionuclides," or "Must have just washed away in the rain," think again. Some nuclides, like 1-131 or Zr-95, are short lived, but others have half-lives of 30 years and more. Also, the scientists controlled for rain transport and measured that.

The radiation decreased by about half in the first 3 months as the radionuclides migrated from the surface to 2 cm deep. It decreased by half again as it reached 4-6 cm. Nothing survived to reach 8 cm. The thicker the sprinking of diatomaceous earth (2 cm vs. 1 cm) at the surface, the more rapid the decrease in dose rate.

What is the mechanism?

Looking for possible explanations, Tazaki looked to see if it might have to do with chemical reactions. Diatom shells, 10–100 μm size, are mainly made of hydrous amorphous silica (SiO2  94% and H2O 6%). Diatomaceous clay is mostly SiO2 (67–75 mass%), Al2O3 (8.0–13 mass%), Fe2O3 (3.0–5.0 mass%), TiO2 (0.35–0.60 mass%), CaO (0.9–1.4 mass%), MgO (0.15–1.5 mass%), K2O (1.2–1.9 mass%), and Na2O (0.6–1.0 mass%), with pH of 3.5–4.5 (acidic).

However, the chemical components of the diatomaceous earth were not significantly different than some of the other rock powder treatments used as controls, without any similar effect. Chemistry and ionic attraction could not explain the drop in radioactivity.

Then Tazaki looked at the biology, and here is where we start to glimpse the potential for a biochar solution in the offing. "Abundant organic bubbles were found after H2O2 treatment, suggesting large amounts of microorganisms and organic materials" in the diatomaceous earth, the group reported. Moreover, when a chunk of biologically "charged" diatomaceous earth was dunked in muddy water containing 1135 cpm fallout from Fukushima, it sponged up radionuclides.

The chunk of diatomaceous earth dipped in the muddy water absorbed large amount of dosage which transferred from the bottom (15 cm) to the surface (0–5 cm). … The diatomaceous earth showed high capabilities to adsorb radioactivity.
In the soils, Takasi concluded, due to elemental similarity of K+ and Cs+, both ions are taken up by the same biological-metabolism-dependent transport systems. Bacteria, eukaryotic algae, fungi, and moss plants are known to absorb most radionuclides. Cs-137 and Sr-90 are partially adsorbed on the surface of clay minerals and fixed by microbiota, reacting the same as might potassium and ammonium. The stability of Cs-137 and Sr-90 depends on coexisting cations in the soils. Some radionuclides will move more quickly through the soil profile with rainfall, others more slowly.

Microorganisms can interact with radionuclides via several mechanisms, some of which may be used as the basis of potential bioremediation strategies. Mechanisms of radionuclides–microbe interactions are biological sorption, bioaccumulation, biomineralization, biotransformation, and microbiologically enhanced chemical sorption.

So, this explains how and why soil microbes concentrate radioactivity, and from what we already know of the "soil reef" effect, we can say that diatomaceous earth, like biochar, serves to give the microbes a conducive habitat in which to flourish, thereby speeding the sequestration process. But how does that explain the acceleration of decay in long-lived radionuclides?

According to Takasi, bacteria exposed to radionuclides may become resistant to or even capable of chemically transforming and detoxifying radionuclides. He compares what is going on in the Fukushima soils to the microbial mats that biomineralize radiation in the radioactive natural hot springs in Japan, something that he studied and reported from 2003 to 2009.

The bacteria produce extracellular polymers around the cells, which form capsules and slime layers, defending them from radiation. It is possible that radioactive biofilms and microbial mats are capable of immobilization of radioactive materials and can be used to counteract the disastrous effects of radionuclides polluted water and soils.

So what apparently happens is that not only are radioactive materials concentrated by bacteria and fungi, but they are also absorbed into biofilms and microbial mats, where they are digested and made part of a slime layer that apparently absorbs errant electrons, neutron/proton-pairs, gamma and x-rays so that they cannot escape to be detected by radiation metering equipment, or for that matter, to damage healthy cells or disrupt delicate DNA/RNA exchanges.

You can set your atomic clock by the standardized rate of decay (as the Navy's Bureau of Standards does), and that will never change. Once set in motion, only time can defuse a nuclear decay chain. Takasi does not suggest that the radiation has vanished. What his study suggests is nonetheless hopeful, because it says biological systems, given the right conditions, can safely entrap radionuclides and their emissions in a slime that keeps them inert and unable to harm anyone.

In Mycelium Running, mycologist Paul Stamets describes a similar process, where fungi excrete a digestive fluid that entombs toxic salts inside a waxy coating so that the toxins are incapable of solubilizing or being transported up the food chain. This is precisely what Geoff Lawton observed and reported in Greening the Desert, when he was able, through the magic of the soil-food-web, to "desalinate" (actually entrain) a swath of Jordanian desert and turn it back into a garden.

We are surrounded by allies who want nothing more than to heal the planet and take us back to the garden. It is time we got out of their way and stopped giving them more work than they can reasonably handle all at one time.


Danny C said...

I think, for me at least, scientific inquiry and jargon notwithstanding, is that when we do "get out of the way" or at least take the passenger seat, the engine of nature seems to have answers that to some extent defy our current reasoning. I recall as a kid in San Diego my dad would go to Tijuana to place the races. On the way to the track, I would see all these small peasant holdings where maize and other crops were flourishing being watered by buckets of water. The farmers would use any organic refuse most often burnt in the field. They grew the most wonderful looking corn you can imagine with this "primitive" method without bagged amendments. The science is nice. But, maybe we shouldn't over think this and get on with it. Very nice article.

Joe said...

Very interesting. I wonder whether the land can be used for agriculture after the radionuclides have been encapsulated by microorganisms. How tough is the 'slime' capsule? If the soil is exposed to sun, from tilling for example, does the capsule break down and release its contents? Is the 'slime' subject to attack from other organisms(in which case the encapsulation might only be temporary)?

Robert Callaghan said...

Crop and Pasture Lands are responsible for 80% of species extinctions.
A 2% increase in carbon-charred soil will offset emissions 100%, making carbon-charred soil 6X more effective than anything else we can do. It also rejuvenates and recovers worn soils.
This buys us time to reconcile world hunger, mass extinction and emissions.
Easy to say, hard to do. I cut grass in a trailer park in Canada, so I'm no scientist, but I did dream up a solution, although not too comprehensive, it is fanciful.

Robert Callaghan said...

sent to Natue Bats Last & Ecoshock:

“We who think we are about to die will laugh at anything.”
― Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

Just because the world is ending, doesn’t mean we don’t fight, especially if it is hopeless. The Arctic Light Brigade’s “Omnicide 2023-2030″ is using fear to manufacture consent for geo-engineering the Arctic, all while we are doing nothing here at home to remedy the emissions-depletion-extinction problems.

The idea of geoengineering the Arctic while we still have diposable lighters, pens, phones etc. is reprehensible in the extreme. Performing crazy experiments while engaging in business as usual is morally repugnant.
And, this from someone who’s not even sure what that means.

Any of you who do pay attention, know that I’m some kind of crazy über-doomer, but I’ve been on a carbon-charred soil kick lately because it offers a small ray of hope. Albert Bates, over at , has found that some varient of carbon-charred soil can even remedy radioactivity from Fukushima using fossil diatoms and clay minerals.

If we don’t pay people to carbon-charr soil in 2015, we’re fucked.
A mere 2% increase in carbon-charred soils offsets emissions 100%, making carbon-charred soil 6X more effective than anything else we can do. It also rejuvenate and remediates worn soils. No-brainers don’t get easier than this.

Yet, we do have to have milestones, or, markers that show progress. So, if no mention is made of carbon-charring soils in Paris this year, then it is indeed time to bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.

Any plan to risk life on earth by fucking with the Arctic is incredibly asinine to the max, especially without picking the low-hanging carbon-reduction fruit here at home.

added on:
Listen to Dr. James White, University of Colorado, who says the earth's climate is not stable and Greenland's ice cores show that the temperature can jump 10-15°C in just a few years. There are even data showing 10°C changes in as little as a year. Rate of snowfall can double in 1-3 years, methane goes up 50% in a lifetime, nitrous oxide goes up 10% in a lifetime. While these dramatic changes in the Arctic are 3 times what the rest of earth experienced, they are definitely more than enough to jam the workings of civilization.

I strongly urge Guy to stop quoting Paul Beckwith because of the sheer number of credible climate scientists who do not support him, which by reflection hurts Guy's media credibility. You can listen to James White on this week's Radio Ecoshock. He's scary enough for sure, as well as credible enough i would guess.

Danny C said...

The Japanese studies bring up an interesting thought; that if all these radionuclides originally came from an element from the earth, uranium, then what is at play in the rock layers that has prevented it from being dangerous at the surface of the earth in the first place? Nature is amazing, isn't it?

Rickster said...

Greetings! This proposal got further than I ever thought it did, but alas, it ran aground. Still, I thought you might at least find it amusing.

Proposal for Ecological Approach to Remediation of Daiichi Nuclear Power Generation Plant in Fukushima, Japan

Dr. Richard Freeman
October 20, 2013

We propose that the clean-up team consider an ecological approach and immediately create some test plots based on this logic. In our nascent vision, an ecological approach would entail sopping up contaminated water with complex, life-supporting carbon structures (a a variety of wood chars, myceliated fungal substrates, humate-rich composts, and algae) and high-CEC clays, sequestering the water-borne isotopes within a complex, dynamic, living ecosystem, and harvesting/collecting and removing for processing surface vegetation and mushrooms containing high concentrations of isotopes (resulting from bio-magnification). This ecological vision also includes building two outlet baffles, one on each end of the inlet bay, in addition to massive structures to dissipate extreme forces from approaching and receding tsunami water flows around the plant. Aside from protecting against tidal force, these massive structures function to slow movement of contaminated water from the two water outlets, using flexible materials (like massive rock gabions) that allow flow but will withstand normal, pounding tidal force (mechanical energy) as well as immense mechanical force from tsunamis.

In the following sections, we will provide (I) a brief hypothetical example of this vision -- a starting point open to discussion, improvement, and revision -- and, (II) a hypothetical example of a test plot structure -- also open to discussion, improvement, and revision.

An ecological vision for remediation

We will start this section with a sub-section on building massive, rock-gabion structures to dissipate daily and tsunami-caused tidal forces. Then, will move on to the sopping, sequestration, and collection processes..... and more




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