Lake Chagan (“Atomic Lake”) was formed in 1965 following a thermonuclear cratering explosion on the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan. More photos from my recent trip to the site are here. Merely visiting the site does not answer some of the most interesting questions about its current state, such as the isotopic origin of the significant (1-2 mR/hr) gamma radiation.
I decided to take a more scientific look at the gamma rays emitted from Chagan’s fused rock—the glassy, vesiculated slag (“atomsite” or “kharitonchiki”) that covers the ground near the shore of the lake. A grab sample was acquired, and transported home by means other than my own return flight from Almaty (this airport’s departure lounge is guarded by a notoriously-sensitive portal scintillator made by Aspect). I filled a 3-ounce plastic jar with the material for counting.
My method of analyzing this unique “soil sample” is HPGe gamma-ray spectrometry. I followed the same approach discussed in my earlier analysis of Japanese soils, involving comparison of the test specimen with an identically-shaped Cs-137 sand standard. My germanium detector is operated via a homebrew LabVIEW program built around Mark Rivers’ EPICS interface for the Canberra 556 AIM MCA and Carsten Winkler’s CA Lab; I subsequently analyze the spectra (peak fitting, background subtraction, energy calibration) with FitzPeaks. In this experiment I collected an 8000-second count of the slag sample and a 2000-second count of the Cs-137 sand standard. An appropriate long-duration background was subtracted from each. The quantitative calculation of activities relies on a single major line from each nuclide, chosen (to the extent possible) to be close to 662 keV. Corrections for detector energy response were made by calibrating the energy-dependent photopeak efficiency in FitzPeaks to a point Ra-226 source, covering the range of roughly 200-1600 keV with a power-law model. Corrections for material attenuation, including density variations from the standard, are NOT made from a calibration but are calculated based on an exponential attenuation model that assumes the sample has the elemental composition of concrete. It’s probably not a bad comparison, and typically results in a correction of under 20%. However, I expect better accuracy in the quantitative analysis for peaks that are closer to 662 keV. Finally, no corrections are made for count losses to coincidence summing. An Excel spreadsheet of this data and analysis may be downloaded here.
Referring to the 0-1600 keV gamma spectrum below, the first major observation is that most of the lines belong to europium isotopes, Eu-154 and Eu-152. These isotopes were produced when neutrons from the “device” were captured by the ~1ppm naturally-abundant Eu-153 and Eu-151, respectively, which have remarkably high capture cross-sections. These activation products are also long-lived enough to persist in significant quantity to the present day. The other major long-lived gamma-emitting activation nuclide is Co-60. Some of this cobalt could be from metal in the bomb’s well casing, but it could also be from activation of crustal mineralization. The remaining major activity, Cs-137, is a product of fission in the bomb’s fissionable components.
If we examine the smaller peaks in detail (click on below thumbnails), long-lived isotopes of holmium (Ho-166m), silver (Ag-108m), and barium (Ba-133) are in evidence. Am-241 is present at a low concentration; on the basis of its 59-keV gamma line I cannot confidently estimate its concentration using the Cs-137 reference source technique. Am-241 is the daughter of Pu-241 produced by neutron capture on plutonium in the bomb, and thus is a reliable proxy for the presence of plutonium in the sample. The gamma radiations from plutonium itself are too weak and swamped by the spectrum’s low-energy continuum to be observed.
The chart below presents the results of the quantitative analysis. Gamma-emitting radionuclide activity in “Chaganite” exceeds 375 Bq / g, with Eu-152 being the most concentrated.
Chaganite versus Trinitite: when the activities are normalized to their initial values at the time of the respective explosions (1965 and 1945), a direct comparison can be made that illustrates just how much more radioactive the Chagan slag is (see beow). The data for Trinitite is taken from Pittauerova, Kolb, et al., “Radioactivity in Trinitite: a review and new measurements,” Proc. 3rd Eur. IRPA Conference, Helsinki, 14-16 June 2010.
The Chagan slag contained almost an order of magnitude more Cs-137 at the time of formation, but it is the rather staggering ratios of the activation nuclides that surprises me the most: 400 times as much Eu-154 in Chaganite versus Trinitite. 70 times as much Eu-152. And 370 times as much Co-60. Why? One fairly obvious explanation is found in the facts that Chagan was a more powerful bomb, detonated in closer proximity to the crustal rock that its neutrons activated since it was underground. Some further considerations may also be relevant. According to Carey Sublette’s Nuclear Weapons Archive, Chagan “was reported to be a low-fission design, which had a pure thermonuclear secondary driven by a fission primary with a yield of about 5-7 kt.” In contrast, the Trinity bomb was a pure fission core surrounded by a uranium tamper. Thus, escaping neutrons with a hard DT fusion spectrum probably carried a significantly higher fraction of Chagan’s energy yield relative to Trinity’s.
There is not a statistically-different concentration of Ba-133 between the two slags. I think most of Trinity’s Ba-133 came from the bomb’s explosives, while Chagan’s probably came from crustal concentrations of barium.
Finally, if the Trinity bomb had a fission yield more than three times larger than Chagan, why is the latter’s concentration of Cs-137 higher? The best reason I can suggest is Chagan’s better underground containment of volatile fission products. In a surface explosion, volatile Cs and its beta-decaying precursors exist as gases for a long time, enabling atmospheric dispersal. In an underground explosion, volatiles are condensed rapidly near where they were formed.