Radioactive sulfur over California shows exactly how bad the Fukushima radiation leak was

Illustration for article titled Radioactive sulfur over California shows exactly how bad the Fukushima radiation leak was

When emergency technicians in Fukushima attempted to cool the overheating reactor with seawater, they didn't realize they'd be enabling a set of incredibly accurate calculations that would allow researchers half a world away to calculate how bad the leak had been, and where it was going in the environment.

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When the seawater hit the reactor, the leaking neutrons pinged off a proton from the chlorine in the liquid, transforming it into 35S, a radioactive isotope of sulfur. Vaporizing from the heat, it was then vented, and formed sulfur dioxide and sulfate particles, and was blown across the ocean to San Diego, where it was detected by UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The researchers there were able to use some pretty hefty mathematics to figure out just how much energy was leaking. "You know how much seawater they used, how far neutrons will penetrate into the seawater and the size of the chloride ion. From that you can calculate how many neutrons must have reacted with chlorine to make radioactive sulfur," said researcher Antra Priyadarshi.

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Illustration for article titled Radioactive sulfur over California shows exactly how bad the Fukushima radiation leak was

While the radiation levels in California were far too low to be of any concern to humans, back in Fukushima they were 365 times higher than normal — 400 billion neutrons were released per square meter surface of the cooling pools.

Since these radioactive isotopes can be used as markers, the researchers also hope they can use them to trace the labeled sulfur through the ecology of Japan, to understand how the radiation will spread and effect the environment.

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DISCUSSION

Corpore Metal

I realize that the purpose of this study is not really to alarm us all but to indicate how much better our instrumentation and tracking of these events have become in the last few decades but, let's put this in perspective shall we?

How does this compare to Chernobyl? Or all the above ground testing of weapons we did in the 40s, 50s and 60s? Or all the radioactives put out by burning coal? Is it worse or better?