giovedì 28 marzo 2013

Fukushima two years later: a scientific report (2) - Gamma spectroscopy


This post appeared in Italian on wired.it. This is the secon part of a (poor) English translation. First part is here

Not only  the food is continuously monitored: also construction wood from the forests of the region is controlled. In this case too the safety limits are much more severe than that of  the volcanic pozzolans often used in the construction of houses and Italian schools.

Monitoring of radiation in a supermarket 10 km
from the coast of Fukushima


Comparison between radiation Italy (Rome) and Japan (Tokyo and Saitama). It is possible to see how radioactive background is higher in Rome than Tokyo. In  Rome the radiation environment is dominated by the peaks of Radon 222. The arrow indicates  where   the Cesium 137 (660 keV) peak should be located.


An estimation of  the amount of Cesium in food, wood or forage requires a spectrometer capable of determining the energy of each gamma ray. Since each isotope emits gamma rays of specific energies, it is possible to determine the quantities of the various isotopes present.

Among the recent devices there is a portable detector consisting of a crystal to stop the gamma  (CsI) and a Silicon Photomultiplier (MMPC or as they call them) to detect the energy measuring the light emitted in the crystal. The simplicity of this type of tools is that they do not require high voltages, are   small as a pack of cigarettes and is used as a USB device. The cost, however, is about 20 times that of a Geiger counter.

A spectrometer can  count, for each decay, the energy of the rays that strike it. In about an hour and then it is possible to obtain a spectrum which describes the type and amount of environmental radiation. To improve the statistics and better highlight the peaks is, however, advisable to wait a while longer. The picture above shows the value measured at Rome in an apartment on the fourth floor: it is 0.25microSv/hour  (with peaks of 0.35).

In the figure above it is possible to see how the spectrum in Rome (and in much of Italy) is dominated by radon 222, a noble gas source to the high amount of environmental radiation. Usually the radon comes from the soil and tuff, but in this case, since it is an apartment on the fourth floor, is more likely to come from pozzolana used in the construction materials . In figure are compared the spectra taken in Rome with those  acquired in Japan. The value of Rome is  higher (0.25microSv / h), followed by the basement workshops of Tor Vergata (0.10 microSv / h, where, however, there is much radon), Kokubunji (0.05), and the fourth floor in Wako (0035 microSv / h). Note the almost total absence of radon in Japan. It is worth mentioning that the environmental radiation at the onsen baths is higher due to the volcanic nature of the sulphurous waters.


Monitoring radiation in wood to be used for construction


In the samples collected in the hot spots, Cesium-137 is present in large quantities: this isotope decays into an excited state of barium (emitting an electron and an antineutrino). The de-excitation of barium emits a signal characteristic of this element: a gamma ray energy of 660 keV. The process is similar to that of fluorescence, only that in this case atomic electrons are excited. The return to the ground state emits light (between 2 and 3 eV), e.g. electromagnetic radiation. The energy levels in the nucleus are thousands of times more intense and therefore the electromagnetic radiation emitted has an frequency and associated energy thousands of times greater.

To the left of the peak  there is the so-called 'Compton edge', produced by gamma rays hitting an atomic electron of the Cesium crystal in the detector and accelerating it with a slightly lower energy (depending on the angle with which it is emitted). The spectroscopic analysis of a particularly contaminated sample, taken on  the side of a mountain road between the city of Fukushima and the coast. This sample shows the presence of the isotope cesium-134, which decays into barium with several peaks at 600, 790, 1400 and 1600 keV (the latter is out of range of the detector).

The cesium-134 has a decay time of two years, therefore the presence of this isotope represents the "signature" of the origin of the  Fukushima power plant. In other cases, the absence of cesium-134 was used to show how well mushrooms that had radioactivity above the threshold of 100 Bq / kg were not contaminated by the panel, but presumably from nuclear tests in the ‘60s.

Gamma spectrum from a pure Cs 137 source


Spectrum of a sample of soil containing cesium 134 and 137 of Fukushima region



The measures in the region of Fukushima were extremely interesting, but equally important on a personal level was the contact with the local population. Far from being disheartened, the people in Tohokoku did not give up and have rebuilt many of the structures destroyed by the tsunami. Although the plant has not resulted in deaths due to radiation (morbidly sought by national and international journalists), many deaths are due to poor management of the emergency in the first frantic days after the earthquake. Others are due to suicides after resettlement. The inhabitants of the regions closer to the center have been forcefully moved away and are now rebuilding the social fabric elsewhere, so sometimes it is difficult to return to their town of origin, even if it were decontaminated. The most relevant problem is economic: the damage to the primary sector and tourism are visible to all and will require years to get back to normal.

2. end  First part is here