This picture of how the Oklo reactors probably worked highlights two important points: very likely they pulsed on and off in some fashion, and large quantities of water must have been moving through these rocks—enough to wash away some of the xenon precursors, tellurium and iodine, which are water-soluble. The presence of water also helps to explain why most of the xenon now resides in grains of aluminum phosphate rather than in the uranium rich minerals where fission first created these radioactive precursors. The xenon did not simply migrate from one set of preexisting minerals to another—it is unlikely that aluminum phosphate minerals were present before the Oklo reactors began operating. Instead those grains of aluminum phosphate probably formed in place through the action of the nuclear-heated water, once it had cooled to about 300 degrees Celsius.
During each active period of operation of an Oklo reactor and for some time afterward, while the temperature remained high, much of the xenon gas (including xenon 136 and 134, which were generated relatively quickly) was driven off. When the reactor cooled down, the longer-lived xenon precursors (those that would later spawn xenon 132, 131 and 129, which we found in relative abundance) were preferentially incorporated into growing grains of aluminum phosphate. Then, as more water returned to the reaction zone, neutrons became properly moderated and fission once again resumed, allowing the cycle of heating and cooling to repeat. The result was the peculiar segregation of xenon isotopes we uncovered.
It is not entirely obvious what forces kept this xenon inside the aluminum phosphate minerals for almost half the planet’s lifetime. In particular, why was the xenon generated during a given operational pulse not driven off during the next one? Presumably it became imprisoned in the cagelike structure of the aluminum phosphate minerals, which were able to hold on to the xenon gas created within them, even at high temperatures. The details remain fuzzy, but whatever the final answers are, one thing is clear: the capacity of aluminum phosphate for capturing xenon is truly amazing.
Nature’s Operating Schedule
After my colleagues and I had worked out in a general way how the observed set of xenon isotopes was created inside the aluminum phosphate grains, we attempted to model the process mathematically. This exercise revealed much about the timing of reactor operation, with all xenon isotopes providing pretty much the same answer. The Oklo reactor we studied had switched “on” for 30 minutes and “off” for at least 2.5 hours. The pattern is not unlike what one sees in some geysers, which slowly heat up, boil off their supply of groundwater in a spectacular display, refill, and repeat the cycle, day in and day out, year after year. This similarity supports the notion not only that groundwater passing through the Oklo deposit was a neutron moderator but also that its boiling away at times accounted for the self-regulation that protected these natural reactors from destruction. In this regard, it was extremely effective, allowing not a single meltdown or explosion during hundreds of thousands of years.
One would imagine that engineers working in the nuclear power industry could learn a thing or two from Oklo. And they certainly can, though not necessarily about reactor design. The more important lessons may be about how to handle nuclear waste. Oklo, after all, serves as a good analogue for a long-term geologic repository, which is why scientists have examined in great detail how the various products of fission have migrated away from these natural reactors over time. They have also scrutinized a similar zone of ancient nuclear fission found in exploratory boreholes drilled at a site called Bangombe, located some 35 kilometers away. The Bangombe reactor is of special interest because it was more shallowly buried than those unearthed at the Oklo and Okelobondo mines and thus has had more water moving through it in recent times. In all, the observations boost confidence that many kinds of dangerous nuclear waste can be successfully sequestered underground.