Isotopic and Neutronic Composition of the Okelobondo Natural Nuclear Reactor

Palenik, C.S. (2004) Isotopic and Neutronic Composition of the Okelobondo Natural Nuclear Reactor. University of Michigan.

Published on: 5/1/2004

The Oklo-Okelobondo and Bangombe uranium deposits, in Gabon, Africa host Earth’s only known natural nuclear fission reactors. These 2 billion year old reactors represent a unique opportunity to study used nuclear fuel over geologic periods of time. The reactors in these deposits have been studied as a means by which to constrain the source term of fission product concentrations produced during reactor operation. The source term depends on the neutronic parameters, which include reactor operation duration, neutron flux and the neutron energy spectrum. Reactor operation has been modeled using a point-source computer simulation (Oak Ridge Isotope Generation and Depletion, ORIGEN, code) for a light water reactor. Model results have been constrained using secondary ionization mass spectroscopy (SIMS) isotopic measurements of the fission products Nd and Te, as well as U in uraninite from samples collected in the Okelobondo reactor zone. Based upon the constraints on the operating conditions, the pre-reactor concentrations of Nd (150 ppm +/- 75 ppm) and Te (<1 ppm) in uraninite were estimated. Related to the burnup measured in Okelobondo samples (0.7 to 13.8 GWd/MTU), the final fission product inventories of Nd (90 to 1200 ppm) and Te (10 to 110 ppm) were calculated. By the same means, the ranges of all other fission products and actinides produced during reactor operation were calculated as a function of burnup. These results provide a source term against which the present elemental and decay abundances at the fission reactor can be compared. Furthermore, they provide new insights into the extent to which a “fossil” nuclear reactor can be characterized on the basis of its isotopic signatures. In addition, results from the study of two other natural systems related to the radionuclide and fission product transport are included. A detailed mineralogical characterization of the uranyl mineralogy at the Bangombe uranium deposit in Gabon, Africa was completed to improve geochemical models of the solubility-limiting phase. A study of the competing effects of radiation damage and annealing in a U-bearing crystal of zircon shows that low temperature annealing in actinide-bearing phases is significant in the annealing of radiation damage.

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