Chernobyl-blighted land to be used for biofuel crops

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Vast tracts of land contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, so it was announced recently, could be used to grow crops for the production of biofuels.

The government of Belarus has teamed up with Irish specialists Greenfield to build one of Europe's biggest bioethanol plants.

The crops needed to produce the fuel will be grown on land affected by the meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor over which happened now over twenty years ago.

Food crops cannot be safely grown on the land, but it is still relatively fertile, making it an obvious candidate for biofuel production.

As well as providing feedstock for the bioethanol plant, growing crops on the land will also help with the clean-up as they absorb toxins from the soil.

Belarus Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov said: "Belarus depends on imports of energy resources, which is why we invest considerable effort in building up technologies which can work on local and renewable energy sources.

"We consider ethanol to be one of the most promising and sustainable sources of cheap and nature-friendly energy, and we have several advantages for its production here.

"Firstly, Belarus' agriculture can easily supply the necessary volume of biomass for ethanol production.

"Then, Belarus is probably the only country in Europe with vast territories which can be used for biomass production, the lands affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe 21 years ago.

"We can link the economic rehabilitation of these lands to agricultural production of biomass for the energy sector."

The Minister concluded: "The Government of Belarus has declared ethanol a priority topic for energy development, so we are very happy today to see the first steps being taken, in what we are sure will be a successful and large-scale development of ethanol production."

Greenfield chairwoman Ann McClain said the company also plans a program, connected to the cultivation of biomass crops to supply the ethanol plant, to remediate and decontaminate lands affected by radioactive particles from the Chernobyl nuclear explosion and return them to full use.

This project will also take in the two other countries contaminated by the accident, Russia and Ukraine.

She said the company planned to conduct field trials once the first ethanol plant is online to establish how the environmental benefits of its approach can be maximized.

Ms McClain said: "Greenfield's plan to produce bio-ethanol will use land which has been contaminated by radioactive isotopes to cultivate biomass crops for the ethanol distilleries.

"At the same time, we believe that growing the biomass crops will work to clean up

the affected areas.

"At a later stage, when we move on to second-generation cellulose ethanol, there will be even

greater advantages which will mean faster bio-cleaning of the contaminated zones.

"We hope we can build on research, field trials, and the experience we accumulate to go on to a comprehensive program to use biological methods to clean up the areas affected by Chernobyl.

"The benefits will be economic, of course, but above all they will be social and environmental."

The same land could also, and this is my opinion as a forester, be used to grow trees for pulp and furniture. The absorption of the toxins would be greater still and trees aqre, generally, a better clean up agent than other plants.

While it is good to see that this is first of all done by a smaller company and not the big fuel companies getting involved the notion of cleaning up the contaminated areas so that food crops can be grown there again is a good one too but... and here is the but... does the company doing all this work really believe that people will buy the “clean up for food production bit”.

Is someone really going to tell me that once they have a place that they can grow crops on for biofuels because food crops can, presently, not be safely grown there,t hey will relinquish the area soon so that Belarus and the Ukraine can grow food there again. Not when profits speak.

While the biomass production is a good idea as the contaminated areas can be used for little else my opinion is that putting that large contaminated land under trees would be better still, also as a carbon sink.

© 2009