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Construction has just begun on a futuristic farming project in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture. A combination farm and solar park, the Renewable Energy Village will contain 120 photovoltaic panels that will generate about 30 kilowatts of power to be sold to a local utility company. Crops will be grown beneath those panels in what’s being called a “solar sharing” layout. Of course, the biggest question on most people’s minds isn’t how much energy the project will generate, but whether it’s safe to grow crops in radiation-contaminated soil.

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Unfortunately, there aren’t any easy answers to this question. Ultimately, it depends on a number of factors, from the way the soil is treated to which plants are grown. Adding potassium to the fields prior to planting will reduce the amount of cesium and other radioactive materials in the soil. Planting crops which are resistant to radiation and tend not to absorb it will also yield safer harvests. For example, rice grown in the area in early 2013 was tested repeatedly for radiation, and was found to be safe enough to sell on the open market, and one Japanese fast food chain is starting to experiment with growing cabbage and onions in the region.

While it’s temping to write off the entire effort as misguided or dangerous, the truth is, the people of Fukushima need the work. The region’s economy has traditionally revolved around agricultural labor, and the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster have been devastating to the local population. Even if it turns out the new farming methods aren’t safe or successful, being able to capitalize on Japan’s fast-growing solar market should give those who’ve been hit hardest by the disaster a much-needed financial boost.

Via Gizmodo