2-Billion-Year-Old Natural Nuclear Reactor Has Lessons For Safe Storage

Cesium and barium hotspots from Oklo reactor site 13. Both metals were the products of natural nuclear fission that escaped the reactor and were captured by ruthenium nearby. PNAS

The presence of natural nuclear reactors 2 billion years ago beneath Africa sounds like a hoax, but it actually happened – they are the only known natural nuclear reactors to have existed. By studying the behavior of the elements produced, scientists are learning lessons for the storage of waste from modern reactors.

The remains of the Gabon reactor in Oklo were first discovered in 1972, and since then 17 reactor sites have been found nearby. Scientists examining the site as a potential uranium mine realized the metal's isotope ratio was different from anywhere else on Earth, indicating induced fission of uranium-235. The deposit also contained the products of induced radioactive decay such as neodymium-143 and ruthenium-99.

A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes an examination of these products. Although the radioactive decay chain initiated during fission is well studied, we know less about how the resulting isotopes behave if released into the environment. With so many sites, and different conditions at each, the Oklo reactors provided Dr Evan Groopman of the US Naval Research Laboratory and co-authors with a rich natural laboratory.

Groopman found most cesium (more than 10 percent of the reactors' yield) migrated into the surrounding environment. Along with barium, much of the cesium was captured by ruthenium some five years after the reactor stopped operating, and the metals have remained together ever since. With cesium being the most important source of radioactivity after the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima, this observation could be used to prevent cesium contamination in the future.

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