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See Inside November 2005

The Workings of an Ancient Nuclear Reactor

Two billion years ago parts of an African uranium deposit spontaneously underwent nuclear fission. The details of this remarkable phenomenon are just now becoming clear

In May 1972 a worker at a nuclear fuel-processing plant in France noticed something suspicious.

He had been conducting a routine analysis of uranium derived from a seemingly ordinary source of ore. As is the case with all natural uranium, the material under study contained three isotopes--that is to say, three forms with differing atomic masses: uranium 238, the most abundant variety; uranium 234, the rarest; and uranium 235, the isotope that is coveted because it can sustain a nuclear chain reaction. Elsewhere in the earth's crust, on the moon and even in meteorites, uranium 235 atoms make up 0.720 percent of the total. But in these samples, which came from the Oklo deposit in Gabon (a former French colony in west equatorial Africa), uranium 235 constituted just 0.717 percent. That tiny discrepancy was enough to alert French scientists that something strange had happened. Further analyses showed that ore from at least one part of the mine was far short on uranium 235: some 200 kilograms appeared to be missing--enough to make half a dozen or so nuclear bombs.

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