Two long years after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan, signs of life are beginning to return. Just 15 miles from the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant, dome-shaped greenhouses powered by nearby photovoltaic solar panels dot the landscape. They are part of a self-sustaining solar-powered agriculture project that aims to help farmers grow produce while the area recovers.
Because of nuclear contamination in the soil surrounding the Fukushima plant, it’s unsafe to cultivate the soil. The air-filled, “vegetable factory” domes are a much safer workaround spearheaded by none other than a former executive of the nuclear plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco).
Called the Minamisoma Solar Agri Park, the flexible nylon domes stand alongside more than 2,000 solar panels in the same fields that were destroyed by tsunami waves and nuclear fallout in 2011. Inside, greenhouse domes have a unique layout like a wheel, with rotating “pockets” that accommodate the crops radiating out of the center at regular intervals, reports New Scientist. This means that farmers do not have to traipse up and down to sow and harvest, but can work from the “hub” of each wheel instead. A hydroponic system ensures that no soil is needed, and a computer controlled climate system keeps conditions ideal.
“I can’t help feeling a responsibility for the nuclear disaster,” said Eiju Hangai, 59, who quit Tepco just months before the disasters, told New Scientist. “It destroyed entire communities. After the disasters I vowed to find a way to help a recovery process that could take 20 or 30 years.”
Through a collaboration between Hangai’s new company, the Fukushima Solar and Agriculture Experience Association and the Mitsubishi Corporation Disaster Relief Foundation, the Solar Agri Park will also be home to an on-site training program for children. The program will provide kids with hands-on experience at the solar power plant and agricultural factory.
A major supermarket chain has already agreed to buy 64 tons lettuce produced by the farm, and extra solar energy, enough to power 170 households, according to Hangai, will be sold as feed-in tariff to the Tohoku Electric Power Company, a major utility in the region.