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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Unusual Reactors - A reactor in nature!

So far, I've discussed BWRs and PWRs fueled with Low-Enrichment U-235 (typically 5% enrichment)

Lets talk about some other reactors.  How about a naturally occurring reactor that once occured in nature in a seam of Uranium?

I will simply copy and paste bits from the Wikipedia article linked above, since I cannot improve on it in any way.

From Wiki:

A natural nuclear fission reactor is a uranium deposit where self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions have occurred. This can be examined by analysis of isotope ratios. The existence of this phenomenon was discovered in 1972 at Oklo in Gabon, Africa, by French physicist Francis Perrin. The conditions under which a natural nuclear reactor could exist had been predicted in 1956 by Paul Kazuo Kuroda.

The conditions found were very similar to what was predicted.

Oklo is the only known location for this in the world and consists of 16 sites at which self-sustaining nuclear fission reactions took place approximately 1.7 billion years ago, and ran for a few hundred thousand years, averaging 100 kW of power output during that time 

My aside:  This enought to power about 1000 light bulbs of 100 Watts each.

In May 1972 at the Pierrelatte uranium enrichment facility in France, routine mass spectrometry comparing UF6 samples from the Oklo Mine, located in Gabon, Central Africa, showed a discrepancy in the amount of the U-235 isotope. Normally the concentration is 0.720% while these samples had only 0.717%, a significant difference.

This discrepancy required explanation, as all uranium handling facilities must meticulously account for all fissionable isotopes to assure that none are diverted for weapons purposes. Thus the French Commissariat à l'énergie atomique (CEA) began an investigation. A series of measurements of the relative abundances of the two most significant isotopes of the uranium mined at Oklo showed anomalous results compared to those obtained for uranium from other mines. Further investigations into this uranium deposit discovered uranium ore with a U-235 concentration as low as 0.440%.

This loss in U-235 is exactly what happens in a nuclear reactor. A possible explanation therefore was that the uranium ore had operated as a natural fission reactor. Other observations led to the same conclusion, and on September 25, 1972, the CEA announced their finding that self-sustaining nuclear chain reactions had occurred on Earth about 2 billion years ago. Later, other natural nuclear fission reactors were discovered in the region.

Geological Situation in Gabon leading to natural nuclear fission reactors
1. Nuclear reactor zones
2. Sandstone
3. Ore layer
4. Granite
My aside:  Here is where the reactor physics gets interesting!
The natural nuclear reactor formed when a uranium-rich mineral deposit became inundated with groundwater that acted as a neutron moderator, and a nuclear chain reaction took place. The heat generated from the nuclear fission caused the groundwater to boil away, which slowed or stopped the reaction. After cooling of the mineral deposit, the water returned and the reaction started again. These fission reactions were sustained for hundreds of thousands of years, until a chain reaction could no longer be supported.

Fission of uranium normally produces five known isotopes of the fission-product gas xenon; all five have been found trapped in the remnants of the natural reactor, in varying concentrations. The concentrations of xenon isotopes, found trapped in mineral formations 2 billion years later, make it possible to calculate the specific time intervals of reactor operation: approximately 30 minutes of criticality followed by 2 hours and 30 minutes of cooling down to complete a 3-hour cycle.

A key factor that made the reaction possible was that, at the time the reactor went critical 1.7 billion years ago, the fissile isotope U-235 made up about 3.1% of the natural uranium, which is comparable to the amount used in some of today's reactors. (The remaining 97% was non-fissile U-238.) Because U-235 has a shorter half life than U-238, and thus decays more rapidly, the current abundance of U-235 in natural uranium is about 0.7%. A natural nuclear reactor is therefore no longer possible on Earth without moderation using heavy water or graphite.

The Oklo uranium ore deposits are the only known sites in which natural nuclear reactors existed. Other rich uranium ore bodies would also have had sufficient uranium to support nuclear reactions at that time, but the combination of uranium, water and physical conditions needed to support the chain reaction was unique to the Oklo ore bodies.

Here are a couple of pictures I found on the web of the Oklo reactors.

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