Scientists may use cosmic rays to assess Fukushima nuclear reactor damage

Scott Sutherland
August 21, 2013

Scientists with the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico have proposed a novel solution to the problems with monitoring the damaged Fukushima Daichi nuclear reactor — use cosmic rays from space!

It's been over two years since the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, but we seem to be hearing about new problems cropping up with the damaged Japanese nuclear power plant all the time now, with the most recent being radioactive water leaking into the sea and from storage tanks on the property.

[ Related: Wrecked Fukushima storage tank leaking highly radioactive water ]

While solutions are planned to contain the leaks, one of the problems is that it's difficult to know what's going on inside the power plant. People going in would be subjected to lethal levels of radiation and even robotic methods may not work due to the effects of the radiation.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory may have the solution to this problem, though, with a defense technology they developed to help find nuclear materials in cargo containers, called a muon detector. As cosmic ray particles enter the upper atmosphere they are smashed apart into muons. Muons are deflected more by heavier elements (like uranium and plutonium) than they are by other elements (like those in building materials and water). Therefore, by watching muons as they stream down from the sky into the Fukushima plant and then out the bottom of the plant, the scientists can measure how much they were deflected and see where radioactive materials are in the building.

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Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the power company that runs the Fukushima Daiichi plant, flew the Los Alamos crew out to Japan to test their detector on-site last summer, and they also tested it at a researcher nuclear plant run by Toshiba. According to LiveScience, the results of the study aren't public yet, and the Japanese government hasn't signed off on the idea, but there are high hopes that the data will convince them of the detector's value and they can start using it on-site by 2015.

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