Belarus was seriously affected by the fallout and now has a plan to use biofuel crops to suck up the radioactive strontium and caesium and make the soil fit to grow food again within decades.
This is a significantly shorter
time period than the hundred of years, the 40,000 square kilometre area of south-east Belarus, would normally take to be ready to grow food.
The isotopes won't, on their own have decayed sufficiently. However, a team of Irish biofuels technologists, employed by Greenfield Project Management is in the capital, Minsk, looking to make a deal with state agencies to buy radioactive sugar beet and other crops grown on the contaminated land to make biofuels for sale across Europe.
The company insists no radioactive material will get into the biofuel as only ethanol is distilled out.
"In distillation, only the most volatile compounds rise up the tube. Everything else is left behind," says Basil Miller of Greenfield. The heavy radioactive residues will be burned in a power station, producing a concentrated "radioactive ash". This can be disposed of at existing treatment works for nuclear waste, he says.
The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency is less certain The Agency's head of waste, Didier Louvat said while the biofuels process should be safe, neither Belarus nor Ireland has an adequate way of disposing of the radioactive residues at present.
"The disposal facilities Belarus set up after the Chernobyl accident are not acceptable, so they will need safe storage until they have something better."
Belarus is eager to solve the problem and last September Andrei Savinkh, Belarus representative at the UN in Geneva, called decontamination of the soil "the number one priority for the Belarus government".
Chernobyl left vegetation and soils heavily contaminated with strontium-90, caesium-137, plutonium and americium. The most heavily polluted areas remain evacuated but 8 million people live in a much wider contaminated zone.
Farmers are able to grow crops, but, the radioactive material concentrates in roots and stalks, which the farmers plough back into the soil after harvesting.
The result is the soil is almost as contaminated now as it was after the accident. The Belarus government hopes that by growing biofuels and using the whole plant, it can cleanse the soil. "Instead of centuries of natural decay [of the radionuclides] this process will cut the time to 20 to 40 years," Savinkh says.
Greenfield has plans to build the first biofuels distillery next year at Mozyr which is close to one of the most contaminated areas. (see map).
Beginning in 2011, the €500 million plant will turn half a million cubic metres of crops a year into 700 million litres of biofuels and up to 10 more plants will follow provided funding can be raised..
Greenfield is partnering with, among others, Belbiopharm, a state biotech company that wants to develop genetically modified crops able to clean the soil more quickly.