Natural nuclear fission

9 February 2007

I firmly believe that very many of the things we think science does that are really nifty should be examined more closely in their social context. GMOs and nuclear power are two exemplars of this idea. So I generally try not to just blather in the abstract about how neat whatever aspect of those two that I’ve just learned about is.

But.

It seems to me that somewhere during the course of my education I should have heard (and not in an offhand mention in an article about the Manhattan project) that there are fifteen now-defunct natural nuclear reactors on the coast of Gabon in Africa. The site, called Oklo, was apparently active about two billion years ago when water seeped into deposits of uranium with a high U-235 isotope ratio. The water enabled fission off and on for several million years, and then the spent ‘fuel’ was fairly well sealed in the layers. Fission wasn’t seen again on earth until 1942 on the squash court at the University of Chicago.

Talk about wierd science.

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