Chernobyl’s Harvest

Sunday, April 13, 2008

It was 1:23 a.m. local time, April 26, 1986, when the operator flipped a switch to shut down Reactor 4. As he did so, a power surge triggered a blast of steam that blew the lid off of the top of the reactor, releasing a surge of radioactive particles into the spring night. A second explosion, again caused by the sudden buildup of pressure, turned part of the reactor into a fireball, sending more radioactive poison into the atmosphere.

The contamination fell onto vast areas of land that will remain radioactive for centuries. What was supposed to be a routine shutdown turned into the worst industrial accident in human history.

More than 20 years after the nuclear accident in Ukraine, an 18-mile perimeter around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant remains abandoned—the exclusion zone, still too radioactive for human occupation.

Farther out are huge toxic swaths in Ukraine as well as in neighboring Belarus and Russia—at least 70,000 square miles, an area larger than Iowa. These zones are less contaminated than the exclusion zone but still too radioactive to grow crops as food. Chernobyl is just four miles from the border with the nation of Belarus, where 20 percent of the land remains poisoned with radioactive fallout from the disaster.

These less-contaminated areas have the attention of Greenfield Project Management Ltd. of Dublin, Ireland. “With the right kinds of crops, technology, safety systems and processing,” says Basil Miller, Greenfield’s chief communications officer, “pure fuel ethanol can be safely produced from the nuclear zone.”

Scientists estimate that contamination in Belarus, the country hardest hit by the fallout, is severe enough to prevent the safe cultivation of food for 300 to 600 years. Through repeat harvests of grain for ethanol feedstock, however, Greenfield thinks that the land will be safe for food production in as little as 60 years.

That’s the dream, in any case. Greenfield’s chair, Ann McClain, says she and the nation of Belarus agree that ethanol is an “economically sustainable way of remediating and redeveloping the contaminated Chernobyl lands,” according to a release on the Greenfield Web site. McClain calls the effort a “long-term humanitarian and social project.” And, she claims, it’s good business—with stable supplies of feedstock in market conditions that are volatile in much of the world.

Ready-made Market
Belarus may nevertheless be a daunting place to do business. The government, led by President Alexandr Lukashenko, controls prices and currencyexchange rates and intervenes in management of private business, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Web site.

Central and local governments in Belarus have pressured businesses with “arbitrary changes in regulations, numerous rigorous inspections, retroactive application of new business regulations, and arrests of ‘disruptive’ businessmen and factory owners,” according to the CIA. Foreign investment is limited.

In any case, the government seems to welcome Greenfield. Belarus and Greenfield agreed in late 2007 to launch an ethanol production project that would use grains and sugar beets—perhaps from contaminated areas—as feedstock. A first Greenfield plant at the city of Mozyr would generate 550 MMly (145 MMgy) of ethanol annually.

The target market is Europe, which currently imports ethanol from Brazil. The European Union has set 2020 as the year by which member states must derive at least 10 percent of their fuel supply from biofuels (see “Vive la Difference” on page 144). It’s likely that many EU member states will resort to importing biofuels to meet the target—some already are, in fact—and sourcing ethanol from producers closer than Brazil would be advantageous.

Greenfield plans research to test the extent to which radioactivity can be removed by harvesting. Vegetation draws radioactive contamination from the soil and incorporates it into the plants themselves. Hypothetically, repeat harvesting would remove contamination faster than if the land lay fallow.

Ensuring Consumer Safety
“There are many scientific bodies behind our approach," claims Greenfield’s Miller. “Not just the Belarusian and Ukrainian research institutes, but the U.S. Department of Energy, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the Danish National Laboratory have all been involved in studies supporting this.”

Of course, Greenfield also needs a process to reduce the level of radioactivity in its ethanol to levels acceptable under international standards—and therefore safe for use in vehicles. “There is the perceived notion that the final product will contain radioactivity, which it won’t,” says spokesman Miller. “There was a headline in an Irish paper that said ‘Will Your Car Glow in the Dark?’ That’s just ridiculous.”

Observers agree it could work. “I can see the idea of letting the crops absorb the radioactive isotopes and up-concentrate them in a boiler, where they would be collected together with the fly ash and slag,” says Anders Jensen, sales manager at biomass specialist Bioener APS of Copenhagen. Didier Louvat, head of the Waste and Environmental Safety Section at the International Atomic Energy Association, says radioactivity could remain in the fuel, but only at acceptable background levels that are present worldwide. “After the oil processing,” says Louvat, the remaining radioactivity “doesn't make a big difference.”

Greenfield wants to begin field tests on crops harvested this year. It seeks to identify plant species that offer both rapid radioactivity absorption and high ethanol yield. Prime candidates are wheat and sugar beet. Wheat is expensive, to be sure, but available more cheaply under Belarusian price controls.

Danish and Swedish technology already exists to remove radioactivity from feedstock, says Greenfield’s Miller. Workers at the production facilities handling contaminated feedstock would follow existing international standards in what Miller describes as a setting that handles “medium to low” radioactivity.

In any case, Greenfield is going step by step. A plant at the city of Mozyr on the Pripet River would start producing ethanol as early as 2010—but at first with uncontaminated feedstock. Meanwhile, Greenfield anticipates building a pilot plant further north at Bobruisk less than one-fifth the size of the Mozyr facility to test ethanol production from contaminated feedstock. Success at the pilot plant would mean production using radioactive feedstock at the bigger Mozyr plant, all perhaps within five years.

Greenfield, which has already invested €8 million ($12.6 million) in the project, announced in late March it would spend another €65 million ($120 million) this year in its Belarusian
initiative toward an anticipated total of €220 million ($345 billion).

Chernobyl was the exclamation point at the close of the Cold War, the nuclear meltdown that foreshadowed a political meltdown. And although the living conditions in much of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have generally improved since the fall of communism, sometimes dramatically, the nuclear disaster has hurt Belarus and Ukraine economically. Belarus caught 70 percent of the Chernobyl radiation. The government estimates that the resulting economic loss has reached $235 billion.

If ethanol can help Belarus improve its economic situation, particularly in the areas devastated by Chernobyl, “this would be a very good solution,” says Louvat. “They need development there.”

Journalist Patti McCracken writes about energy and other subjects from Vienna, Austria.

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