Nature made it's own Nuclear Reactor long before humans existed

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Nature made it's own Nuclear Reactor long before humans existed

Post  Guest on Fri Feb 22, 2013 8:10 am

And it operated for hundreds of thousands of years before it died or whatever.

http://www.physicscentral.com/explore/action/reactors-research.cfm

The natural reactor was located at the Oklo uranium mine in Gabon, a country in the southwestern part of Africa (see map). The Oklo mine lies on the site of an ancient river that had concentrated eroded uranium deposits into a rich sludge all along the river bottom. Then, about two billion years ago, blue-green algae evolved, oxygenated the water, and enabled the formation of soluble uranium oxides. These migrated from all over the river into the delta, where reactions in sediments converted them back into insoluble uranium deposits, held in porous sandstone and concentrated in a small area.

The first evidence of this reactor, found in 1972, was a slight anomaly in the isotope abundance ratio of U-235 to U-238 in uranium from Oklo (see photo). The observed ratio was .717%, compared to the well-accepted value of .720%. When additional ore samples were analyzed, abundance ratios were found as low as .440%, confirming the U-235 depletion. This significant difference suggested that a nuclear reaction had been at work.

Fission of U-235 produces a well-established array of byproducts, with characteristic relative abundances, which have been carefully measured in the waste produced by nuclear reactors. At Oklo, these byproducts were captured surprisingly well by surrounding mineral grains, and careful analysis showed a match to known fission byproducts with great accuracy, establishing the existence of the natural reactor.

Further measurements provided information about when this natural reactor operated. When U-235 absorbs a neutron, about 20% of the time it does not fission but remains the long-lived isotope U-236, which decays with a half-life of about 2 x 107 years into thorium. Thorium is indeed found at the reactor site, in far greater abundance than elsewhere, whereas U-236 is not found there at all, indicating that the reactor ceased operation only after many half-lives had passed, at least 109 years ago .

How long did the natural reactor operate? Going back to the U-238 that made up 97% of the uranium deposit, multiple neutron capture by this isotope leads to the isotope plutonium 239, which can both fission and decay, with a decay half-life of 24,400 years. Analysis of the Pu-239 byproducts showed that the reactor must have operated for hundreds of thousands of years. Incidentally, the fact that plutonium was produced at Oklo, even two billion years ago, complicates the classification of plutonium as an “artificial element,” i.e., one not found in nature.

What was the moderator? And did the natural reactor operate continuously or in a pulsed mode? These questions were answered by investigators at Washington University. Their detailed analysis of the relative abundance of xenon isotopes, each with a characteristic half-life, indicated pulsed operation and also specified the length of the pulse (30 minutes) and the period between pulses (2.5 hours). Pulsed operation suggests that as the reactor went critical and heated up, it boiled off some of the surrounding water, reducing its moderating effects and stopped the reaction after 30 minutes. Then, after 2.5 hours of cooling, the reaction resumed. Incidentally, these times are typical of geysers, such as those in Yellowstone National Park.

The water moderator limited the reactor to a relatively low power level, to prevent boiling off the water immediately when the reactor went critical. The Oklo reactor operated at a power of about 100 kilowatts, typical of a small research reactor, and in its 150,000 years of operation consumed more than five tons of U-235.

This natural wonder was made possible by a confluence of circumstances that concentrated the U-235, moderated the reaction with a natural control system that prevented meltdown, and preserved the evidence for two billion years. Four of these reactors were found at Oklo, and it’s entirely possible that others existed elsewhere.

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Re: Nature made it's own Nuclear Reactor long before humans existed

Post  Flap Zappa on Sun Mar 24, 2013 3:23 am

interesting article and begs the question why don't we see more of them operating now in uranium bearing areas.

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Re: Nature made it's own Nuclear Reactor long before humans existed

Post  Guest on Sun Mar 24, 2013 11:32 am

Pope Flapius 1st wrote:interesting article and begs the question why don't we see more of them operating now in uranium bearing areas.

I would imagine because the fact a Nuclear reactor was created without human intervention is nothing short of a miracle.

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