BNFL, Britain's most controversial nuclear company, says using the waste as compost is a highly effective , and "green", way of getting rid of it.
This low-tech discovery will amuse anti-nuclear activists because it means their bitterest enemy has made use of their oldest campaigning symbol. The sunflower has been used by opponents of nuclear power for decades - it is the trade mark of Green parties across Europe.
Scientists at BNFL now claim spinach and sunflowers are "pleasurable, green and cost- effective tools" for cleaning contaminated land.
The scientists turned to horticulture because they needed to find a better and cheaper way of dealing with radio-active soil than digging it up and carting it to its one nuclear waste site at Drigg, near Sellafield. They reasoned that as plants lived by "mining the soil for nutrients" they could also be used "to take up and sequester contaminants from the ground". They grew four kinds of plants - spinach, perpetual spinach, Indian mustard and the sunflowers - on land contaminated 30 years ago by waste from a burst pipe in BNFL's nuclear power station at Bradwell, Essex.
After eight weeks they cut and dried the plants and found the sun flowers and perpetual spinach had taken up large amounts of the radioactive contaminant caesium 137 from the soil. They say "repeated planting and harvesting" should "enable the gradual removal" of the radioactivity. They do not say what they do with the "hot" sunflowers. Sunflowers were first used as an anti-nuclear symbol by a German environmentalist, Rowland Vogt, because they follow the sun. Sarah Parkin, a former leader of the British Green Party, a historian of green politics worldwide, says the flower was taken up as a "positive affirmation of the true source of energy, the sun".
She adds: "It is nice to see BNFL taking up green symbolism. But it would be better if they took up the philosophy and did not produce the nuclear waste in the first place."
The perpetual spinach took up waste more thoroughly than the sunflower. So it could be used to take up nuclear radiation from the sites of accidents such as Chernobyl, though even Popeye would not advise bringing the resulting fodder to the dinner table.