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Americium Travels Along The Rivers


The Moscow radiochemists have developed and applied in practice new methods for analysis of transuranium elements in the environment objects. With the help of the most up-to-date techniques, they have investigated in detail the americium and plutonium migration paths in water and soils of some regions in Siberia and Southern Ural which are in particular need for such type of monitoring – in the vicinity of the Federal State Unitary Enterprise “Mayak” Manufacturing Company and Federal State Unitary Enterprise “GHK” (“Mining and Chemical Enterprise”) - i.e. the areas where nuclear fuel is produced and nuclear waste is utilized.

This investigation seems too specific at first sight, but in fact it refers to every inhabitant of the planet. As in the post-nuclear epoch, after all types of experimental and not only experimental explosions, radio-active waste discharge into open water bodies, technological failures and accidents at the nuclear fuel cycle enterprises, there is not a single location on the Earth which is absolutely free of transuranium elements. Apparently, there would be no such locations in the future. Therefore, Russian researchers are now actively developing new analytical methods to ensure safety of people.

The problem is that the concentration of these radionuclids in the objects of the environment are extremely low, therefore, the researchers have to literally seek individual atoms. Before chemical analysis is carried out, these elements need to be educed from water and soil and concentrated. Respective analytical methods were developed in the Radio-Chemistry Laboratory, Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry, Russian Academy of Sciences. Doctoral thesis by Alexander Novikov, who has recently withheld it successfully, is devoted to this topic.

The researchers have found out the following after they analyzed multiple water, soil and bottom sediment samples, including samples from Karachai Lake, where water contaminated by radionuclids was discharged for a long time, and from the wells near “Mayak” Manufacturing Company, and also from the Yenisei River almost 200 kilometers downstream from the Krasnoyarsk Mining and Chemical Enterprise.

It has turned out that various transuranium elements behave differently in the natural environment. Some of them remain for a long time in the vicinity of the source of contamination and get accumulated at the bottom of water bodies. Some others “prefer” to travel along the rivers and float away hundreds of kilometers downstream.

Plutonium, for example, is mainly accumulated on the bottom, where it is tightly retained by silt. This radionuclid remains there almost infinitely long: the half-life period of 239-Plutonium (which is not the most long-lived isotope) makes 24 thousand years. Certainly, if the silt is not taken out of the water body and the kitchen gardens are not fertilized by it. In contrast, extremely toxic americium is a “fidget”. Having saddled colloid particles of several nanometers in size, americium is capable of floating downstream for tens and even hundreds of kilometers and also of percolating rather deeply into the soil.

Therefore, ecological monitoring should in no circumstances be limited by measuring of the transuranium elements concentration only in the vicinity of their evident sources. Unfortunately, transuranium elements sometimes migrate rather successfully.

And secondly, people should be cautious about catching and buying fish in some regions. Even if the fish seems to have been swimming far from dangerous locations, as some radionuclids can also float that far. It is worth taking radiochemists’ opinion into account. The more so, as the methods which allow to determine precisely how much and what radionuclids are contained in the water are now available for radiochemists and ecologists.

Sergey Komarov | alfa
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