Tag Archives: Radioactive

Plot twist: Anti-5G bracelet worn by conspiracy theorists is actually radioactive

Undated picture of the “Smiley Kids armband with negative ions” flagged by the Dutch authorities. Image credits: ANVM.

If you thought the 5G conspiracy theories went away — well, they kind of haven’t. Among some groups, such as QAnon believers or anti-vaxxers, the belief that 5G caused the pandemic (or that it’s some form of conspiracy meant to make us ill) hasn’t gone away. Obviously, there’s no scientific evidence to back it up. Still, some go to great lengths to “protect” themselves from 5G.

For instance, some opted for a “magnetic bracelet” with “negative ions” that allegedly protects wearers from the “nefarious” effects of 5G. The bracelet, which can be purchased from a vendor which we will not name nor link towards (to avoid further exposure), was sold for approximately $24. The vendor did not market it as an anti-5G product (as far as we can tell, based on a year-old screenshot of the product page), but it was popularized as such on conspiracy theory groups.

It was still sold as pseudoscientific, spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Here’s what the product description reads:

“Negative ion jewelry is a hot trend theme – many athletes and health-conscious people swear by it. According to the ancient Yin-Yang theory, negative ions can compensate for a surplus of positive ions in our environment.”

Regardless of how it was sold, however, it turns out it’s radioactive, and it’s not the only wellness product sold that was found to be radioactive. The organization for nuclear safety and radiation protection in the Netherlands issued a warning after 10 products they analyzed were found to be giving off harmful ionizing radiation. Wearing them long-term could be harmful to wearers, the warning said.

“The 10 consumer products examined contain radioactive substances…Ionizing radiation can damage tissue and DNA,” the warning says. “The amount of radiation measured on the examined products is low, however in the case of prolonged and continuous wear of these examined products (a whole year, 24 hours a day), the strict limit value in the Netherlands for exposure of the skin to radiation can be exceeded.” This is the full list of the products found to be radioactive.

Conspiracy theories have fueled the emergence of an “anti-5G” market — devices or products that typically have no effect or, as is the case here, are actually harmful. For instance, a simple Amazon search reveals hundreds of “anti-radiation stickers” or “anti-5G” products, and there are plenty more bogus products on the darker corners of the internet. If you’re considering buying these, maybe reconsider.

Marie Curie's tale is one of sacrifice and suffering for science and of unparalleled dedication to unlocking nature’s secrets.

Marie Curie: The Price of Knowledge

Marie Curie is rightly regarded as not just one of the greatest women who ever lived, but also, one of the most accomplished scientists in history. Her tale is one of sacrifice and suffering for science and of unparalleled dedication to unlocking nature’s secrets. 

The life and work of Marie Curie will, for better or worse, forever be tied to one substance  — radium. It was Curie, with her husband at her side, that would first isolate this extremely dangerous radioactive element in 1902. The duo synthesized one single gram of radium, which they would use in their work on radioactivity in the following years. The discovery would lead to Curie’s second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, in 1911. 

Marie and Pierre at work in their lab (Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images/ CCbySa 4.0)

In 1921, whilst touring the states, she would be awarded another solitary gram of the element in recognition of her service to science by the women of America. Poignantly, and cruelly ironically, radium would eventually lead Curie to her death in 1934 as a result of pernicious anemia caused by chronic radiation poisoning. 

But, Curie’s ties to radium would be so monumental that the relationship would continue after her death. Her daughter, Irène, herself a groundbreaking scientist, and her husband Frédéric Joliot, would use the gram of radium Marie had travelled across the Atlantic to obtain as the bedrock that would earn them their own Nobel in 1935. Irène would also follow in her mother’s footsteps in another, far less enviable way, as radiation poisoning would majorly contribute to her death also.

Beyond Curie herself, those two grams of radium have a storied tale surrounding them, if only elements could speak. The first had to be protected against the ravages of the First World War. Whilst the second would not only be saved from the clutches of the Nazis but was so coveted and valuable that before Frédéric married Irène, Marie made her daughter’s suiter sign a prenuptial agreement forfeiting all rights to the radium should they separate. 

The Early Days of Radioactivity

I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.”

Marie Curie. 

‘Radioactive’ is a word we take for granted today. It’s well known outside journals and the halls of academia, capturing the attention of the general public from the 1950s onwards thanks to lurid sci-fi tales, and radioactive spider-bites granting teenagers amazing powers.

Yet unlike many other words in common parlance, the first published use of ‘radioactive’ has not been lost to time, it is preserved and still relevant today. That first usage was in the title of Marie and Pierre’s July 1898 paper: ‘On a New Radioactive Substance, Contained in Pitchblende.’

Curie in 1898, the year she and her husband published their paper featuring the first recorded use of the word ‘radioactive’ (Public Domain)

The story of Curie’s exposure to radium and radiation doesn’t begin with her, but with another great scientist, Henri Becquerel. In 1895, whilst intending to study the fluorescent properties of substances such as uranium salts, the French physicist had noticed that uranium blackened photographic plates wrapped in black paper and sealed in a drawer before they had been exposed to sunlight. What Becquerel had discovered was the spontaneous radioactivity of uranium. 

In the same year that Becquerel was making his finding, Marie married her first husband Pierre, who would come to share in many of her accolades. Marie, born Maria Salomee Sklodowska on November 7th, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, had first met Pierre Curie after moving to France, studying at the Sorbonne and acquiring a position studying magnetism. In order to conduct this research, she would need a lab.

Pierre Curie was a teacher and the head of the laboratory in which Marie found herself, he was also already fairly well-known for his work with magnets. As Marie studied towards a mathematics degree, simultaneously conducting experiments with steel in the lab, Pierre attempted to woo her, at one point attempting to win her affections with an autographed copy of one of his studies. 

After a brief sojourn back to her country of origin, Marie agreed to marry Pierre in July of 1895. She attended the ceremony in a dark blue suit so that she could return to the lab and resume work after the wedding.

Marie, Pierre and daughter Irene, sit on an outdoor bench posing for a picture in 1902. (CORBIS/ Public Domain)

A year later, the couple celebrated the birth of their first child Irène. It was in this same year, 1896, that Marie would become fascinated with the work of Becquerel. Many researchers and scientists had pretty much ignored Becquerel’s uranium finding, but Marie saw further than they did. She decided that his ‘uranium rays’ would make an excellent subject of study for her doctorate. 

The First Gram: Polonium and Radium are isolated

“All my life through, the new sights of nature made me rejoice like a child.”

Marie Curie.

Pitchblende, or ‘bad luck rock’ from the German origin of the name, was the substance that Martin Klaproth, a pharmacist from Berlin, first used to extract and isolate a new element in 1789. This element, uranium, would soon also be joined by polonium — named by Marie for her home country — when the Curies isolated it from pitchblende in 1898.

Pitchblende, a ore that the Curies will become very familiar with. (Jędrzej Pełka/ CCbySA 3.0)

The Curies had examined pitchblende detecting extra radiation that could not be accounted for by considering uranium alone. Marie herself was determined to discover the source of this extra radiation.

The identification of polonium, described in the paper mentioned above, was something of a first in science, marking the first time that an element had been discovered solely as a result of the rays it emitted. It was also the first material to be officially described as radioactive. 

By the point that she discovered that pitchblende contained another element that could be isolated, Curie had checked the periodic table as it existed at the time, finding that thorium also produced rays in a similar way to uranium. 

By December in the same year, Marie was certain she and her husband had isolated another element in pitchblende, one even more radioactive than polonium. She had discovered radium. But if the Curies were to sway the scientific community about the existence of these two new elements, they would have to isolate a pure enough sample of both to establish that both had unique atomic numbers  —  the number of protons in an atom — a count that is unique to every element. 

After obtaining large amounts of pitchblende from a mine in Austria, the Curies set about isolating pure enough radium to identify its atomic number. The process took years and required strenuous physical labour, with Marie having to melt pitchblende and stir it with a metal rod that she described as being larger than she was. During this period, Marie also produced several papers, worked to complete her doctoral degree, taught at a teacher’s college in Sevres, and raised her daughter, Irène.

To give a hint at just how difficult and excruciating the work of isolating the first gram of radium was, consider that the second gram Marie would work with took a team of scientists 500 tonnes of ore, the same amount of acid, over a 1,000 tonnes of coal and 10,000 tonnes of water to extract. Marie and Pierre did themselves. By hand.

Finally, in July of 1902, Marie’s dedication and hard work would pay dividends. She was finally able to determine the atomic weight of radium, identifying it as possessing 88 protons, marking it out from any other elements. 

Words can’t really do justice the sheer physical strain that extracting radium from tonnes of pitchblende put on Marie and Pierre. Nor can it do justice, the damage to their health. (Wellcome Collection gallery/ CCby SA 4.0)

If anyone was in doubt of Marie’s dedication and love for the field of science and the pure pursuit of knowledge, then the action she took upon the identification of radium should be the deciding factor. Had Marie and Pierre claimed the rights to the process of purifying radium, they would have become very rich indeed.

Instead, the Curies rebuffed ideas of personal wealth and shared their process with the wider scientific community. But still, accolades and recognition awaited the pair. 

Unfortunately, so did tragedy and hardship. 

Accolades and Tragedy

“Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.”

Marie Curie

By 1903 Marie had become the first woman in Europe to receive a doctorate, and she and her husband’s reputations and fame had begun to grow exponentially. But, this increase in notoriety was inversely proportional to their mutual decrease in health.

From the symptoms displayed by the couple at the time, it would now be easy to diagnose severe radiation exposure. Marie, in particular, was suffering from the effects of her work. In addition to the constant state of exhaustion and burnt fingers and hands, shared by Pierre, Marie had suffered a miscarriage and was rapidly losing weight.

Ironically, at the time, radium was being widely touted for its health benefits, it even found its way into cosmetics. It had also already been selected as a cancer treatment showing great potential in curtailing the growth of cancer cells. 

Radium was so touted for its health benefits in the early 20th Century it even found its way into cosmetics. (New York Tribune Magazine, page 12/ Public Domain)

Marie’s ill health prevented her from travelling to Sweden in 1905 to speak on her 1903 Nobel Prize in physics, which she and Pierre shared with Becquerel. 

Yet, despite deteriorating health the three year period between 1903 and 1906 was a happy one, both professionally and personally for the Curies. Pierre would be awarded the Humprey Davy Medal in chemistry in 1903 in addition to his joint Nobel. The substantial monetary award associated with the Nobel prize allowed the Curies to not only continue their research but also, to upgrade their laboratory and equipment.

Thus, the Curies were established as leaders in the field of chemistry, and in radioactivity, of course.

In 1904, the same year as Pierre was made a professor at the Sorbonne and Marie his paid assistant, reflective of the poor treatment of women in science at the time, she gave birth to their second daughter Eve. 

Two years later, tragedy would rear its ugly head in the lives of the Curies, taking with it Pierre. As he crossed the streets of a rain-soaked Paris, a tired and ill Pierre slipped and fell under the wheels of a horse-drawn carriage. The scientist was killed instantly.

A devasted Marie continued her work without her husband, accepting his position at the Sorbonne. She began her first lecture shortly after his death in a crowded lecture hall, stood within steps of where her husband had very recently delivered his last.

 Pure Radium

A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.

Marie Curie

In 1909, Marie achieved something that Pierre, her late husband, had dreamed of, when plans were drafted to establish the Radium Institute in Paris. Here Marie would oversee her own lab, the Curie Pavillion, a fact that was no doubt bittersweet for the scientist, as her husband had never lived to see it. 

Marie stand resolute in her own lab in 1912, a sight her husband did not live to see. (Public Domain)

The Radium Institute would be completed in 1914, whilst Marie helping considerably in the war effort supplying x-ray equipment for locating shrapnel and bullets in the broken bodies of troops returning from the front. Marie also showed incredible bravery during the First World War, opting to stay in Paris to protect the gram of radium that she and her husband had extracted from tonnes of pitchblende. 

Over this period, Marie continued to synthesise purer and purer radium and polonium, driven on in no small part by the scepticism of some of her fellow scientists, such as Lord Kelvin, who still believed these were not elements in their own right. By 1910 she had produced a bright white metal with a melting point of 700⁰C — pure radium. 

Her professional achievements continued with the publication of work ‘Treatise on Radiation’ published in 1910, and the award of her second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry awarded in 1911. The same year she was rejected for membership to the French Academy of Sciences. This rebuttal very likely came because of the fact she was a woman, as no one could doubt the pedigree of her work.

Also in 1911, the need for a unit of measurement to describe radiation was determined by an international group of scientists. The Radiology Congress honoured the Curies by naming this unit the ‘Curie,’ but Marie would not simply accept the honour passively. She herself would set about the difficult task of calculating the value of the ‘curie unit (Ci).’

The unit was equivalent to the radiative activity of one gram of radium per second. Unfortunately, as experiments into radioactivity progressed the value of the curie, 3.7 × 10¹⁰ radioactive decays per second., was too large for precise work. It was eventually replaced by the Becquerel (Bq) as the standard unit for radioactivity. 

Marie in a mobile x-ray vehicle used to search soldiers bodies for bullets and shrapnel. (Public Domain)

By the 1920s the dangers of contact with radioactive materials were finally being realised by the scientific community at large. Researchers were using increasingly stringent safety precautions. But it was too late for Marie. 

The damage to Curie’s health had been done. Yet her dedication to her studies, institute and science en masse would take her across the Atlantic on a strenuous speaking tour of the US. For Marie though, the reward wasn’t fame or recognition.

The reward was another gram of radium. 

The Second Gram: Curie’s Sacrifice for Science

“Life is not easy for any of us. But, what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves.”

Marie Curie.

Marie Curie must have created quite an impression on American journalist Marie Maloney when they met in 1920. By this point, her hands were permanently bandaged. She was near deaf and her vision was afflicted by severe cataracts for which she would need a series of operations to keep at bay.

Curie’s perception in the public’s eye was similarly afflicted. Scandal had surrounded her friendship with physicist Paul Langevin after he left his wife. The newspapers had dogged Marie and the negative attention had had a further detrimental effect on her health. 

1921 visit to the United States: Marie Mattingly Meloney, Irène, Marie and Eve Curie. (Public Domain)

Maloney was determined to restore Curie’s public image, and despite the scientist’s mistrust of journalists in general, the two quickly struck up a friendship. This relationship got off to a notably spikey start. Moloney had already been nervous to interview Curie, and it was only shortly after the process began that the scientist became interrogator questioning the journalist on her knowledge of radium. 

The article Maloney produced for the Delineator hailed Marie Curie as the ‘greatest woman in the world’ and a brilliant scientist. But it was a piece of information that Curie had given Maloney during the interview that reshaped the two women’s lives. 

Maloney was already shocked by the virtually impoverished conditions of Curie’s lab compared to the setups of other scientists the journalist had interviewed such as Edison and Bell, when the scientist informed her about the prohibitive cost of radium. At the time a single gram of the element cost an incredible $100,000 or more. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $1.3 million dollars today.

Maloney was outraged, and rightfully so. It wasn’t right that this great scientist was denied the resources she desperately needed to conduct her work, whilst her male counterparts seemed well provided for. 

The journalist began a drive across the United States, which had just given women the right to vote, to raise funds to enable Curie to continue her work less constricted by petty financial concerns. 

The Radium Drive, as it would become to be known, was even more of a success than Maloney expected, raising a staggering $156,413 — $2 million today. Not only was Maloney able to acquire the radium for Curie, but she could use the rest of the money to set Marie and her daughters up with a trust fund. 

In return for the generosity, Maloney requested that Curie tour the States and speak to American women. Despite ill-health and being a naturally retiring person, in 1921, Curie agreed. The draw of radium was just too tempting. 

It was only a short time after her arrival in the US with daughters Irène and Ève that the press and public began to notice the strain on Curie. The scientist hated to be seen as vulnerable, to conceal what she saw as a weakness she had kept her many cataract operations secret, but her ill health could not be denied. 

It was at the White House that President Warren Harding presented Marie with the one gram of radium in a 130-pound lead-lined case that opened with a suitably auspicious gold key. Or that was what the press was lead to believe. The radium was actually stored securely at a local government scientific facility.

On July 2nd, Curie returned to Paris. Her arrival home could not have been more in contrast to her arrival in the US via New York. In Paris, there were no brass bands, crowds of well-wishers, girl scout troops to greet her here.

For Marie, there was something much more important here than pomp and circumstance, however. This was where her work was.

After Marie

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Marie Curie.

The gram of radium that Curie collected, which had been extracted for her by scientists at the Standard Chemical Company, near Pittsburgh, would form the bedrock of Curie’s work until 1934 and her death as a result of complications arising from severe radiation exposure. 

Curie in 1925. (American Museum of Natural History/ No Restrictions)

Just the year after her death the same gram of radium would lead Irène and Frédéric to a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 for their discovery that stable atoms could be encouraged to become radioactive. An important step in nuclear chain reactions.

Irène would follow her mother’s footsteps in another way, displaying remarkable bravery to protect the radium when Nazi troops invaded Paris in 1940. She and her husband, who Marie had forced to sign a prenuptial agreement to waive rights to the element should his marriage to her daughter falter, fled west with the radium to Bordeaux. 

And the trust fund that Maloney had provided for Curie and her girls would be a life-saving asset to Irène and her own daughters in 1944 when Marie’s eldest used it to flee to Switzerland. Sadly, Marie Maloney would never get the satisfaction of knowing that her devotion to Marie Curie had saved her daughter and granddaughter from war-torn Franca, as the firebrand journalist had passed away from pneumonia just the year previous to their daring escape. 

Marie Curie’s life was one of great irony, she risked it many times over for the substance that eventually ended it. But, Curie’s sacrifice, the hardship she worked through, her struggle with grief, physical pain, illness and war, wasn’t really for radium. Nothing so mundane.

It was for knowledge itself and for the betterment of humankind.

I am one of those who think like Nobel, that humanity will draw more good than evil from new discoveries.

Marie Curie.

Chernobyl is transforming into a massive solar plant — and it’s almost done

Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in human history, is about to get a complete makeover. A new, almost completed project, will provide the local grid with one megawatt of renewable solar power.

The nearby city of Pripyat has become a ghost town. Over 100,000 people were evacuated in 1986 when Chernobyl exploded. Image via Pixabay.

The Chernobyl Disaster was one of mankind’s worst fears. Nuclear power, this tremendous tool, backfired — ironically, not because of a scientific or technological failure, but due to an operating failure. Contamination from the Chernobyl accident was scattered irregularly depending on weather conditions, affecting virtually all of Eastern Europe and going as far as Switzerland or Greece. As for Pripyat, the nearby town which had a population of about 50,000 people, it was completely evacuated, becoming a ghost town. Chernobyl was sealed and the area around it became a black hole in the middle of Ukraine.

Now, all that might change.

Engineers have installed 3,800 photovoltaic panels across an area the size of two football pitches, just 100 meters from the containment zone — the giant concrete sarcophagus which covered the nuclear reactor.

That’s enough to fulfill the needs of a small town of about 2,000 homes, and eventually, Rodina (the company behind this project) says the area could generate 100 times more energy.

Rodina isn’t the only company interested in investing in Chernobyl. In 2016, two Chinese companies announced a plan to build a huge 1 GW solar farm in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, although little progress seems to have been made. The French company Energie SA also announced plans to conduct a pre-feasibility study for a billion-euro solar plant near Chernobyl, according to Ars Technica.

The reasoning is fairly simple: first of all, the land is cheap, for obvious reasons — it’s literally a radioactive wasteland. Secondly, Ukraine is offering “relatively high feed-in tariffs,” which makes investing in the area much more attractive. Also, the area is already connected to the grid, thanks to the previously existing infrastructure from the nuclear power plant. It’s still extremely challenging to build anything there, but at the end of the day, it’s not impossible. The new containment dome, completed in 2016, helps greatly by preventing further contamination from the nuclear plant.

For the Ukrainian authorities, it also makes a lot of sense. It’s not like you can use the area for anything else — the area is still radioactive, and the soil is greatly contaminated, making agriculture impossible for thousands of years in the future.

Unlike other projects, Rodina’s $1.2 million investment is nearing completion. It hasn’t started producing electricity yet, but we can probably expect to see it kick off sometime this year. There’s some poetic justice in having Chernobyl once again produce energy — but this time, from the Sun.

Radioactive boars spark concern in Sweden

A boar likely originating from the Chernobyl area of Ukraine was shot after it was discovered to have 10 times more radiation than established safe levels.

A non-radioactive boar from Germany. Image credits: Michael Gäbler.

When the Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986, it showed mankind just how careful it needs to be with nuclear energy: hundreds were killed directly, thousands indirectly, and exposing even more to dangerous radiation. To this day, several European countries still test boars, mushrooms, or other organisms likely to accumulate radionuclides from Chernobyl.

Sweden was one of the countries most affected by the fallout. Masses of air moved dangerous elements towards Sweden, and rain brought them down to. After Chernobyl, a toxic cloud of radioactive iodine and caesium-137 rained over the Scandinavian country.

Radiation levels are still high in wild creatures like elk and reindeer — and, most notably, in boars. Levels have increased significantly in recent years and according to The Local, more and more radioactive boars are appearing in the north of the country. A recent analysis from a boar shot in August showed a radiation level of 13,000 becquerel per kilogram (Bq/kg) — the limit set by Sweden’s Food Agency is 1,500 Bq/kg.

Ulf Frykman, an environmental consultant, says things are only going to get worse for the local boars — and for meat consumers.

“When they reach our worst areas, we’re expecting maybe 40,000 Bq/kg — that’s starting to look like 1986 for us all over again,” Mr. Frykman said.

This is not an isolated case. Out of the 30 samples they’ve tested this year, just 6 had levels within the acceptable limit. It is believed that radiation levels in the soil are very high, and this will further increase the radiation levels in boars even more.

“Wild boar root around in the earth searching for food, and all the caesium stays in the ground,” Mr Frykman explained. “If you look at deer and elk, they eat up in the bushes and you do not have not so much caesium there.”

Wild boars have slowly been moving towards the north of Sweden. They were hunted to extinction in the 1700s, and were then reintroduced to the south of the country in the 1970s. Since then, they’ve slowly expanded their territory, aided in part by rising temperatures. Locals say the radioactive boars are already causing problems — not by being radioactive… but just by being boars, digging holes in the field and eating a lot of food.

At the end of the day, radioactive or not, boars will be boars.

Cooking nuclear waste into glass and ceramic materials could provide safe, efficient containment

Containing radioactive waste in glass and other ceramic materials might be the key to protect people — and the environment — from their harmful effects.

Image via Pexels / Public Domain.

Nuclear power is awesome. Splitting the atom can yield huge amounts of energy for no greenhouse gas emissions. The downside, however, is that you’re left with piles of radioactive by-product (waste) that is really, really harmful for people, animals, plants, pretty much everything. The good news is that radioactivity naturally decays over time — usually a few million years.

The bad news is that the waste is chemically mobile in water (it gets carried around by rain or rivers) and in air — so you have to keep it well isolated and locked up until that time passes. Which is quite a hassle. The way we go about it now is geological disposal — a fancy way of saying “we bury it really deep” — in disused mines, ocean floor disposal, or (planned) specialized deep-storage.

Rutgers University researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering Ashutosh Goel thinks he’s found a better way to go about it, by immobilizing radioactive waste in glass and ceramic materials. Goel is the principal investigator (PI) or co-PI for six glass or glass-related waste containment projects. His work may help to one-day safely dispose of highly radioactive waste, now stored at commercial nuclear power plants.

“Glass is a perfect material for immobilizing the radioactive wastes with excellent chemical durability,” said Goel.

One of his projects involves mass-producing apatite glasses to immobilize iodine-129 atoms in a chemically-stable form. This isotope of iodine has a half-life of 15.7 million years and is highly mobile in water and air according to the EPA. Exposure to iodine-129 affects the thyroid gland and increases the risk of cancer. Another one of his projects developed a way to synthesize apatite minerals from silver iodide particles. Goel is also studying how to capture sodium and aluminum atoms from highly radioactive wastes in borosilicate glasses which resist crystallization.

Containing waste in glass might provide us with a safe way to dispose of them in the future. And it will look like this.
Image credits Albert Kruger / U.S. Department of Energy.

Among Goel’s major founders is the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which currently oversees one of the most wide-scale nuclear cleanup programs in the world, following the U.S.’s 45 year-long nuclear weapon development and production program. This project once included 16 major facilities throughout Idaho, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington state, according to the DOE. The site in Washington state, Hanford, is one of the biggest clean-up challenges the department faces. This complex manufactured more than 20 million pieces of uranium metal fuel, processing around 110,000 tons of fuel from nine reactors on the Columbia River.

Around 56 million gallons of radioactive waste from the Hanford plants went to underground storage in 177 tanks. It’s estimated that 67 of these tanks — more than a third — have leaked part of the waste, the DOE says. In 1989, clean-up efforts started at the site. The liquids have been pumped out of the tanks, leaving behind mostly-dry waste. Work began on a radioactive liquid waste treatment plant in 1999, which is nearing completion.

“What we’re talking about here is highly complex, multicomponent radioactive waste which contains almost everything in the periodic table,” Goel said. “What we’re focusing on is underground and has to be immobilized.”

The DOE hopes to start churning out radioactive-waste-glass by 2022 or 2023 at Hanford, Goel said.

“The implications of our research will be much more visible by that time.”

“[The process] depends on its [the waste material’s] composition, how complex it is and what it contains,” Goel added. “If we know the chemical composition of the nuclear waste coming out from those plants, we can definitely work on it.”

The full paper “Can radioactive waste be immobilized in glass for millions of years?” is still awaiting publication. Materials provided by Rutgers University can be found here.

A radioactive couple: the glowing legacy of the Curies

A motif present in virtually all Balkan countries’ folklore is that of the creator sacrificing part of himself for his work. In Romanian folklore, this theme surfaces in the story “Meşterul Manole“, who immured his wife in the walls of the monastery he was tasked with building. I couldn’t help but remember that story as I was reading about the Curies, who laid the groundwork on which our understanding of radioactivity is based.

Marie and Pierre Curie.
Image via Wikimedia, author unknown.

Marie Curie, born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw on November 7, 1867, was the daughter of a secondary-school teacher. She received a general education in local schools with some scientific training from her father. In 1891, she went to Paris to continue her studies at the Sorbonne University where she obtained Licentiateship in Physics and Mathematical Sciences. There, she met Professor of Physics Pierre Curie and in 1895 they got married.

But that’s just context — this story starts in 1895, when German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-Rays but couldn’t uncover the mechanisms by which they formed. One year later, in 1896, French Nobel Laureate Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium salts spontaneously emit radiation very similar to X-Rays and proved that they originate from the uranium atoms.

Uranite (or pitchblende) crystals from Topsham, Maine.
Image via wikipedia, credits to Rob Lavinsky.

Intrigued by these findings, Marie started her own research on pitchblende, today sought-after as an uranium ore. Using a version of the electrometer that her husband had developed fifteen years earlier, she discovered that the “uranium rays” caused the air around the samples to simply conduct electricity. Using this method, she observed that the pitchblende with higher uranium content would give off stronger radiation. She also recorded this behavior in minerals containing thorium.

Then one day, as she was performing radioactivity measurements on a samples of pitchblende, she recorded a much higher radioactivity than its uranium content would allow for — and there’s no thorium in pitchblende. The only explanation was the presence of another, unknown radioactive element. This is when Pierre, excited by the idea of discovering a new element, put his own research aside and started working with Marie.

The two would go on to discover Polonium, named for Marie’s home country, and Radium, from the Latin word for ray, in 1898. They also coined the term “radioactivity” to describe the effects seen by Becquerel. Either together or separately, they published more than 32 papers, including the first paper to describe how tumors can be destroyed by exposure to radium. Their work attacked the previously held beliefs that atoms are indivisible.

Their work wasn’t even sponsored by the University, the couple drawing on private, corporate and government funds. Unaware of the dangers they were exposing themselves to, they worked either in their home laboratory or out in a converted, leaky shed next to the School of Physics and Chemistry. They wore no protective gear, just woefully inadequate lab coats.

Their achievements and vision helped shape the world as we know it. But as Uncle Ben used to say, “with great scientific results comes great genetic damage by processes you don’t yet fully understand,” or something close to that.

The Curies’ work literally bathed them in radiation, day in and day out for decades. They handled samples without any care or protective gear. They took the pieces of radium they were able to refine — and today we know this is the most radioactive element in the periodic table — in their bare hands to examine. Even when she wasn’t in the lab, Marie carried her passion with her: she would have test tubes of radioisotopes in her pocket or stashed in her desk drawer.

Radium clock-hands from 1940-1950’s watches.
Image credits Mauswiesel.

The Curies knew about radioactivity but had no idea of the damage it was wreaking on them. Their research attempted to find out which substances were radioactive and why, so many dangerous elements–thorium, uranium, plutonium–were just sitting there in their home laboratory.

“One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles or capsules containing our products. It was a really lovely sight and one always new to us,” she wrote in her autobiography.

“The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights.”

Pierre died 19 April 1906, aged 46, run over by horse-drawn carriage on a rainy day in Paris. Marie continued their research and had several breakthroughs. She died at age 66 in 1934 from aplastic anemia, believed to be an effect of her prolonged exposure to radioactive materials.

Now, researching any famous historical figure is a daunting task, and there are mountains of obstacles to overcome if you want to get your hands on any of their papers or objects. But in the Curies’ case, it’s actually dangerous to do so. Because of how they worked, their papers, clothes, pretty much every worldly possession is still dangerously radioactive — and will be for at least 1,500 years to come. If you want to look at her manuscripts at France’s Bibliotheque Nationale, you first have to sign a liability waiver. Only then can you access the papers, which are stored in a lead-lined box.

Marie Curie’s manuscript. A book to die for. Literally.
Image credits The Wellcome Trust.

Their house remained in use up to 1978 by the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Paris Faculty of Science and the Curie Foundation. Authorities finally became aware of how insanely dangerous it was when people in their neighborhood, suffering from very high rates of cancer, blamed the Curies’ home. The building and laboratory were decontaminated in 1991.

Marie Curie was an incredibly gifted person, and her achievements speak for themselves. From a humble birth, she was to become the first woman to ever hold the position of Professor at the University of Paris, the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the first and only woman to win it twice, the only person to have ever received the award in different fields of research and the first woman to be entombed for her merits at the Panthéon in Paris. Pierre was a pioneer in the fields of crystallography, magnetism and piezoelectricity, in addition to his work with Marie, for which he jointly received the Nobel Award.

Together, these two brilliant people forever changed how we understand the world we live in. They did so at a huge cost, with incredible levels of radiation exposure, that would in the end claim Marie’s life. But by tackling some of the deadliest forces known to man with their bare hands, they earned life unending in the scientific community.