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From the College of Natural Sciences
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Tagged by Fukushima

Tagged by Fukushima

Before beginning my usual irreverence, let me just say that one of the great stories of modern bravery was that of the workers who stayed on at Fukushima nuclear power plant, isolated, surrounded by death, and did their jobs.

That said, I have thought a lot about this crippled reactor, ever since the tsunami tore it asunder. The reason is, it’s such an anomaly. There’s almost nothing like it on this Earth.

fukushima-300x201.jpgBut first a digression. Being an official old person, I was actually a graduate student at the time of the last major nuclear disaster, Chernobyl. In fact, I was in Switzerland at the time, with my then-advisor Professor Steven Benner, at the ETH. The plume that was created by Chernobyl was a very real thing. Since we were graduate students in a molecular biology lab, of course we had Geiger counters (dosimeters), and it was not a problem to find the short-lived isotopes that were spewed across borders. They were on our balconies, the street, our shoes … everywhere. It was sort of neat. You could run the probe along a railing, and just pick out the little dribs and drabs of radioactive debris that had fallen from the skies; hot-not hot-hot-not hot-screaming hot. In a few days, it was gone, mostly, since the really hot stuff dissipated pretty quickly.

And this must be what it’s like to live downwind of Fukushima these days. Except it is nominally a more urban area than Chernobyl, and it hasn’t yet been sealed in a protective caul.

But the uniqueness of Fukushima, like the uniqueness of Chernobyl, stems from its chemistry, that heady brew of elements that aren’t found many places outside of nuclear power plants or stars. Fukushima is essentially a point source for weird chemistry. And the radioisotopes it spews forth are relatively easy to identify, especially if you use detectors that are much more sensitive than our puny handheld dosimeters. Moreover, those elements have a variety of decay rates, and as they fission downward can create reasonably long-lived isotopes, in an abundance that should reflect the time of their generation. Isotopes of plutonium, iodine, cesium, tellurium barium niobium, ruthenium, molybdenum, technetium, lanthanum, beryllium, and silver, all found in the soil outside of Fukushima. And, if we are to believe the reports of monitoring stations, the plume wafted almost worldwide.

“Nine days after the accident, the radioactive cloud had crossed North America.Three days later when a station in Iceland picked up radioactive materials, it was clear that the cloud had reached Europe. By day 15, traces from the accident in Fukushima were detectable all across the northern hemisphere. The radioactive materials remains confined to the northern hemisphere as dividing line between the northern and southern air masses.”

Except for the local areas, I’m not particularly worried about the long-term health effects. No, it isn’t good to have additional radioactive isotopes in the environment. But, again, the critical effects are relatively short-lived outside of the area immediately affected.

What interests me, as I said, is Fukushima as a chemistry point source. We know the time and the place of release of isotopes with few other cognates in the environment. We know something about the plume of release, and presumably something about the continuing release. Some of those isotopes are taken up by green things and beasties in the food chain and ultimately by, well, us.

When I was a kid, I’d hear parents ask each other “Do you remember where you were when JFK was shot?” Now we may not even need our parents to ask “Where were you when Fukushima went down?” Could someone with a sufficiently sensitive detector figure out where on the Earth you were based on the proportions of radioactive clocks in your blood or other tissue sample? Does Fukushima nail all of our positions, like a giant chemical GPS? And even better, does Fukushima continue to tag us, day-by-day, so that algorithms could be developed to track our movements as we move in and out of the worst of the plume?

Hey, don’t laugh: your hair contains an excellent chemical record of what you’ve come in contact with over time. Why shouldn’t that chemical record extend beyond arsenic and lead to radioisotopes, and beyond mere composition to a detailed, cumulative analysis of the half-lives of the little clocks, ticking away, from plutonium in the millions of years to xenon in a few days.

Normally I like to think I rise above paranoia, that I know my own oddities well enough to disavow them. But remember the old one about how the Germans absolutely knew the Americans were working on nuclear weapons prior to the onset of World War II because there were so few publications on fission! Obviously the government was restricting the work (as opposed to the reality that no one had made sufficient progress to publish much). Well, giving a nod to past and current paranoia, I wonder: why hasn’t anyone else written about using Fukushima as a chemical GPS? Is it because the men in black are already doing it?

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Wednesday, 25 November 2020

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