Sunflowers to clean radioactive soil in Japan

Campaigners in Japan are asking people to grow sunflowers, said to help decontaminate radioactive soil, in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster that followed March's massive quake and tsunami.

Volunteers are being asked to grow sunflowers this year, then send the seeds to the stricken area where they will be planted next year to help get rid of radioactive contaminants in the plant's fallout zone.

The campaign, launched by young entrepreneurs and civil servants in Fukushima prefecture last month, aims to cover large areas in yellow blossoms as a symbol of hope and reconstruction and to lure back tourists.

"We will give the seeds sent back by people for free to farmers, the public sector and other groups next year," said project leader Shinji Handa. The goal is a landscape so yellow that "it will surprise NASA", he said.

The massive earthquake and tsunami left more than 23,000 people dead or missing on Japan's northeast coast and crippled the Fukushima nuclear power plant that has leaked radiation into the environment since.

Almost 10,000 packets of sunflower seeds at 500 yen ($6) each have so far been sold to some 30,000 people, including to the city of Yokohama near Tokyo, which is growing sunflowers in 200 parks, Handa said.

Handa - who hails from Hiroshima, hit by an atomic bomb at the end of World War II - said the sunflower project was a way for people across the nation to lend their support to the disaster region.

"This is different from donations because people will grow the flowers, and a mother can tell her children that it is like an act of prayer for the reconstruction of the northeast," Handa said.

"I also hope the project will give momentum to attract tourists back to Fukushima with sunflower seeds in their hands. I would like to make a maze using sunflowers so that children can play in it."