The Radioactive Lake of Kazakhstan

By Anupum Pant

If you haven’t heard about the operation Plowshare, it was a US operation focused at developing techniques that would help them utilize the massive power of nuclear weapons for peaceful construction purposes. Now if that sounds dumb, remember, it was the year 1961 when they thought of trying it out. Look back at other things from that time and you’ll realize how dumb those times were. Maybe the next generation will say the same for the year 2014.

How would someone use nuclear weapons for construction, you ask? If you think about it, using it to make huge holes in the ground, blasting rocks for mining seems like a good idea at first. How quick it would be, right? No.

After 27 such experimental blasts, the researchers from US learnt that this wasn’t a very wise thing to do, even if it seemed like a good idea. However, they ended up inspiring the Soviets.

While US had learnt about the ill effects of it and had stopped the operation by the year 1977, Soviets made their own version called “Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy” and continued doing it till the year 1989. 156 such tests were done by them.

Among all of them, one was done at the edge of a test site in Kazakhstan. In the year 1965, a 140 kiloton device was placed at about 180 meters below the surface, and detonated. As a result, a 400 meter wide and 100 meter deep hole was created in the ground.

This hole was planed to be a reservoir for an overflowing river nearby and it eventually got filled with water. A lake was formed. It has since been known as lake Chagan.

Lake Chagan contains water that remains radioactive till date. Even today the lake has “100 times more than the permitted level of radionuclides in drinking water“. Only at a distance of about 100 to 150 meters from the lake the radioactivity levels are at a background level.

Here is the video of the test that created this radioactive lake. The audio is in some other language, so you might have to do with just the video…

via [AmusingPlanet]

Radioactive Toothpaste + Shocking Ad from the 50s

By Anupum Pant

Advertisements in the past were far more dishonest than the ones we come across these days. By promoting quack applications and building a multi-million dollar empire in those days, businesses were far ahead of today’s corporations in terms of dishonesty.

Read about Radioactive batteries here. [Link]

Serious Quackery

One such advertisement by a German company under the brand name of Doramad, till the year 1945, was able to convince thousands of people to shell their money on a specially formulated toothpaste that contained a little amount of Thorium – a naturally occurring radioactive element. The toothpaste sold for astronomical prices and brought in big money to businesses and individuals. It claimed that the radioactive element present in the toothpaste would bring the users great health benefits and would make their teeth shine brighter.

After it was certain that Germany would lose the war, a German company the Auer Company rerouted thorium from the Nazi atomic program in the year 1944. Thus, the company saw a future for nuclear materials in cosmetics and created Doramad toothpaste.

The Doramud brochure came with information like this:

Its radioactivity increases the defenses of teeth and gums. The cells are loaded with new life energy, the bacteria are hindered in their destroying effect. This explains the excellent prophylaxis and healing process with gingival diseases. It gently polishes the dental enamel so it turns white and shiny. Prevents dental calculus. Wonderful lather and a new, pleasant, mild and refreshing taste. Can be applied sparingly.  – [SadAndUseless]

Another man by the name of Alfred Curie sold a similar toothpaste that contained both Thorium and Radium. This person was in no way related to Marie Curie, yet he did not leave the chance of making a big buck using that name.

More than just Radioactive Toothpaste

It did not stop there. Alfred also managed to make his other radioactive cosmetic products extremely popular among the common people. He sold cremes, powders and lip-sticks under the brand name of Tho-Radia. These cosmetics claimed that they would transform your dull skin into an extremely healthy rejuvenated skin.

During those times when the science behind radioactivity was still being studied by the famous scientists like Rutherford and Marie Curie, radioactivity was not well understood by the common people. Random people claimed that Radium was the cure for everything and made a lot of money out of this propaganda. In fact, even in newspapers one could find seriously mis-informed headlines like –

Radium Makes Blind Girl See 

Who knows, people in the future might find the ads we see today, as shocking…

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Radiotrophic Fungi Feeds on Gamma Radiation

By Anupum Pant

Background

On April 26th 1986 a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine and is still considered the worst nuclear power plant accident ever (another one happened in Japan recently). The massive explosion spewed out huge amounts of radioactive particles into the air which spread till Europe.

As a result of this tragedy, it was reported that 31 people died within a few months due to acute radiation sickness. In total, more than 200 people were affected. It is estimated that deaths caused due to cancer by Chernobyl may be around 4,000 among the 5 million persons living in the surrounding area.

The disaster was responsible for turning green trees, in the 10 square kilometers of pine forest around the reactor, into red trees. Eventually the trees died and the forest has been called the “Red Forest” ever since.

Today, an area covering 30 km in all directions from the power plant has been labeled as the “zone of alienation“. Mostly it is uninhabited by humans (excluding those 300 odd residents who have decided that they won’t leave). Till date, the radiation levels remain extremely high. Workers who are responsible for rebuilding the place are only allowed to work for a maximum of five hours a day for one month and are asked to take a 15 day rest after that.

With an environment where the radiation level even today is about 500 times higher than the normal environment, it is estimated that the area will remain uninhabitable for humans for the next 20,000 years.

But something lives inside the still-highly-radioactive ruins

Few years back when a robot was sent into the devastated reactor, it returned with samples from the walls of the ruined power plant. These samples contained a black colored substance which piqued the researchers’ interests.

After performing several tests on these samples they concluded that the black samples comprised of two kinds of fungi. Both of them contained a pigment called melanin (the pigment that colors our skins). The fungi had been using melanin to convert radiation into chemical energy. It was mind-boggling for everyone to learn that amidst the toxic sarcophagus a creature was living and was feeding on gamma radiation for making food and to grow. Scientists decided to call it, the “radiotrophic fungi” – the fungi which feeds on gamma radiation.

It is like plants using solar radiation for making food, just that, in this case, the frequency of the electromagnetic radiation being used, is different.

Feeding the spacemen

Scientists say, since the pigment is also present in our skins, and as ionizing radiation is prevalent in outer space, in the future, astronauts could probably rely on melanin as a source of food during long missions or for living on other planets; Just like the radiotrophic fungi does.

According to Dr Casadevall:

While it wouldn’t be enough energy to fuel a run on the beach, maybe it could help you to open an eyelid.