What do hemp and Chernobyl have in common?

2021-11-22 14:48:56 Inga

Industrial hemp, thanks to its unusual properties is helping to save contaminated land in Chernobyl. Want to know how and why they do it? If you want to find out more about soil phytoremediation - in Chernobyl and elsewhere - read on!


The Chernobyl nuclear disaster as a symbol of the ecological threat to the whole world

On April 26, 1986, an explosion occurred in the fourth CAES block of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the scope and consequences of which exceeded any previous accidents at Soviet nuclear power plants.

The explosion occurred shortly after midnight, during a risky and inadequately prepared experiment on the reactor conducted by power plant personnel. The test has not been completed.

According to the Kiev KGB report of April 26, 1986, during the experiment, at 1:23 a.m. in the rooms of the fourth CzAES energy block, two explosions took place, as a result of which the roof and walls of the building completely fell apart, and the graphite blocks around the axis of the reactor core ignited. The reactor itself, which contained 200 tonnes of uranium, was completely destroyed. According to one account, the direct cause of the two powerful explosions was a sharp increase in the volume of water vapor and pressure, as well as the accumulation of flammable hydrogen. It was the greatest cataclysm in the history of nuclear power in terms of fatalities and environmental consequences.

Five years after the Chernobyl explosion, Ukrainian politicians during a meeting organised on the anniversary of the catastrophe, declared "The Chernobyl accident has not only become the most tragic chapter in Ukraine's modern history, but also a symbol of the ecological threat to the whole world (...)" .

As a result of the explosion, a cloud of radioactive dust was created, which covered not only Ukraine but almost the entire European continent.
Ukraine itself suffered a huge loss of human life and material resources. The people of Ukraine still suffer from various health issues, as well as consequences of evacuation and displacement from radioactively contaminated areas, which were carried out over the years following the disaster. The contaminated exclusion zone around Chernobyl covered a total area of ​​2,500 square kilometres, including 100,000 hectares of farmland.

Hemp and the Chernobyl soil radioactive phytoremediation project

Hemp and its wide use is an increasingly common topic of research. One important area of ​​cannabis research that is currently receiving special attention is phytoremediation (a technology that uses land plants to cleanse the environment) - although the fact that hemp cleanses the soil is a relatively recent development.

For nearly two decades, industrial hemp growing around the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, has helped reduce soil toxicity.

In 1990, just four years after the first explosion, the then Soviet administration asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for an assessment of the environmental situation. Within the 30-kilometre restricted zone around Chernobyl, high concentrations of various toxic metals including lead, caesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium have been found in soil, as well as in plant and animal tissues. In response to this, it was decided to reduce soil contamination by using beneficial plants. This process, known as phytoremediation, was implemented almost immediately.

Various plants have been used in Chernobyl for their ability to absorb specific pollutants - two brassica varieties to remove chromium, lead, copper and nickel, maize to absorb lead (various studies have shown the excellent ability of this important plant to absorb lead), recently also sunflower and hemp.

In 1998, the cultivation of hemp began. Slavik Dushenkov, a scientist at Phytotech, one of the organisations behind the planting of cannabis, said that "hemp turns out to be one of the best phytoremediation plants we have found". The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the site of the world's most tragic nuclear disaster, is slowly coming back to life and health, with plants and animals beginning to inhabit the land.

Just like in Ukraine, rural areas in neighbouring Belarus were affected by the Chernobyl incident, and the local authorities also considered the use of hemp as a soil cleansing agent.

Where else in the world is hemp used in phytoremediation?

In Puglia, Italy, industrial hemp is used extensively for decontaminating Europe's most polluted soils.

The Ilva steel plant, the largest of its kind in Europe, has been poisoning local soil, plants, animals and people with toxic emissions for decades. It is forbidden to graze farm animals within a radius of 20 kilometres from the plant. Since 2012, when the scale of the crisis became obvious, farmers have planted millions of cannabis plants in an effort to decontaminate the soil. During this time, the local hemp growing area increased from 3 hectares to 300 hectares. About 100 farmers grow cannabis, and the move has even proved to be an economic stimulus. A new hemp processing plant has opened, processing the crops into fibre for clothing and building materials.

In Japan, since the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster in 2011, there have also been calls to implement hemp phytoremediation. However, due to the Cannabis Control Act, introduced into Japanese law by the US occupation authorities in 1948, hemp can only be grown under a licence, and these are very limited and difficult to obtain.

Why is hemp phytoremediation so effective?

  • Hemp grows quickly and its cultivation is relatively simple and ecological. Industrial hemp has relatively low environmental requirements and a wide range of temperature tolerances. In addition, they grow and multiply very quickly - it takes them very little time to clean a large area of ​​soil.
  • Hemp has a long root system. One vast advantage that hemp has over other phytoremediants is its extensive rhizosphere. Its relatively long roots are able to clear deeper parts of the soil than most plants used for this purpose. Hemp phytoremediation is, therefore, more comprehensive.
  • Growing hemp is cost-effective. Compared to the cultivation of other plants used in phytoremediation, the cultivation of cannabis is relatively cheap.


What can be done with contaminated cannabis that has been used for remediation?

It is important to note that such plants cannot be used as they normally would be in all industrial sectors. Leaves, stalks or seeds with a high content of heavy metals can only be used as biomass for the production of biofuel. Contaminated hemp should be burned in boilers to produce electricity or distilled into ethanol.

When buying hemp products, it is important to make sure that the hemp used for their production comes from organic farming and that the plant itself has also undergone qualitative tests.


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