Atomic Gardening History: Learn About Irradiating Seeds

Atomic Gardening History: Learn About Irradiating Seeds

By: Tonya Barnett, (Author of FRESHCUTKY)

The concept of atomic gardening may sound as if it belongsin a science fiction novel, but gamma ray gardening is a very real part ofhistory. Believe it or not, both scientists and home gardeners were encouragedto harness the power of radiation to begin experimenting within their gardens.With radiation, and plants produced using this technique, we have improvedvarieties of fruits and vegetables in our grocery stores today.

What is Atomic Gardening?

Atomic gardening, or gamma gardening, is the process bywhich plants or seeds were exposed to varying degrees of radiation in fields orspecially designed laboratories. Most often, a radiation source was placed atthe top of a tower. The radiation would spread outward in a circle.Wedge-shaped plantings were made around the circle in order to ensure that eachcrop received differing amounts of treatment throughout the planting.

Plants would receive radiation for a specific amount oftime. Then, the source of radiation would be lowered into the ground into alead-lined room. When it was safe, scientists and gardeners were then able togo into the field and observe the effects of the radiation on the plants.

While the plants closest to the radiation source most oftendied, those further away would begin to mutate. Some of these mutations wouldlater prove beneficial in terms of fruit size, shape, or even diseaseresistance.

Atomic Gardening History

Popular in the 1950s and 1960s, both professional and homegardeners throughout the world began experimenting with gamma ray gardening.Introduced by President Eisenhower and his “Atoms for Peace” project, evencivilian gardeners were able to obtain radiation sources.

As news of possible benefits of these genetic plant mutationsbegan to spread, some started irradiating seeds and selling them, so that evenmore people could reap the supposed benefits of this process. Soon, atomicgardening organizations formed. With hundreds of members throughout the world,all were seeking to mutate and breed the next exciting discovery in plantscience.

Though gamma gardening is responsible for several presentday plant discoveries, including certain peppermintplants and some commercial grapefruits,popularity in the process quickly lost traction. In today’s world, the need formutation caused by radiation has been replaced by genetic modification inlaboratories.

While home gardeners are no longer able to obtain a sourceof radiation, there are still a few small government facilities who carry outradiation garden practice to date. And it’s a wonderful part of our gardeninghistory.

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The IAEA was created in 1957 in response to the deep fears and expectations generated by the discoveries and diverse uses of nuclear technology. The Agency’s genesis was U.S. President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” address to the General Assembly of the United Nations on 8 December 1953.

The U.S. Ratification of the Statute by President Eisenhower, 29 July 1957, marks the official birth of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In the press conference following the signing ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., President Eisenhower evoked his address to the UN General Assembly in December 1953, at which he had proposed to establish the IAEA.

“In fact, we did no more than crystallize a hope that was developing in many minds in many places … the splitting of the atom may lead to the unifying of the entire divided world.”

The IAEA is strongly linked to nuclear technology and its controversial applications, either as a weapon or as a practical and useful tool. The ideas President Eisenhower expressed in his speech in 1953 helped shape the IAEA’s Statute, which 81 nations unanimously approved in October 1956.

The Agency was set up as the world’s “Atoms for Peace” organization within the United Nations family. From the beginning, it was given the mandate to work with its Member States and multiple partners worldwide to promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies. The objectives of the IAEA’s dual mission – to promote and control the Atom – are defined in Article II of the IAEA Statute.

“The Agency shall seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure, so far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.”

In October 1957, the delegates to the First General Conference decided to establish the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Until the opening of the Vienna International Centre in August 1979, the old Grand Hotel next to the Vienna Opera House served as the Agency’s temporary headquarters.

The IAEA has also two regional offices located in Toronto, Canada (since 1979) and Tokyo, Japan (since 1984), as well as two liaison offices in New York City, United States of America (since 1957) and Geneva, Switzerland (since 1965). The Agency runs laboratories specialized in nuclear technology in Vienna and Seibersdorf, Austria, opened in 1961, and, since 1961, in Monaco.

Beginner's guide: How nuclear power works

Nuclear power

The world's first large-scale nuclear power plant opened at Calder Hall in Cumbria, England, in 1956 and produced electricity for 47 years.

Nuclear power is generated using uranium, a metal that is mined as an ore in large quantities, with Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan providing more than half of the world's supplies.

Nuclear reactors work in a similar way to other power plants, but instead of using coal or gas to generate heat, they use nuclear fission reactions. In most cases, heat from the nuclear reactions convert water into steam, which drives turbines that produce electricity.

There are different kinds, or isotopes, of uranium, and the type used in nuclear power plants is called uranium-235, because these atoms are easiest to split in two. Because uranium-235 is quite rare, making up less than 1% of natural uranium, it has to be enriched until the fuel contains 2-3%.

Inside a nuclear reactor, rods of uranium are arranged in bundles and immersed in a giant, pressurised water tank. When the reactor is running, high-speed particles called neutrons strike the uranium atoms and cause them to split in a process known as nuclear fission. The process releases a lot of energy and more neutrons, which go on to split other uranium atoms, triggering a chain reaction. The energy heats up the water, which is piped out to a steam generator.

To make sure the power plant does not overheat, control rods made of a material that absorbs neutrons are lowered into the reactor. The whole reactor is encased in a thick concrete shield, which prevents radiation escaping into the environment.

In Britain, nuclear power stations provide 19% of our electricity and account for 3.5% of our total energy use. All but one of those reactors are due to close down by 2023.

Some groups oppose nuclear power stations because they produce radioactive waste and could release radioactive material if there was an accident. But nuclear power plants do not release greenhouse gases, which cause coal and gas-fired power plants to contribute to global warming. Without nuclear power stations, UK's carbon emissions would be 5% to 12% higher than they are.

In 1957, the world's first nuclear power accident occurred at Windscale in west Cumbria. A fire in the reactor caused a release of radioactivity, which led to a ban on milk sales from nearby farms. The site was later renamed Sellafield. Modern reactors are designed to shut down automatically. The worst nuclear power accident in history took place in Chernobyl in 1986 when a reactor there exploded, killing tens of people instantly and exposing hundreds of thousands more to radiation.

In January, the government reaffirmed its plans to expand nuclear power in Britain to help it meet stringent targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Nuclear weapons

There are two main types of nuclear weapon: atomic bombs, which are powered by fission reactions similar to those in nuclear reactors, and hydrogen bombs, which derive their explosive power from fusion reactions.

The first atomic bomb was produced at Los Alamos National Laboratory in America under the Manhattan Project at the end of the second world war. An atomic bomb uses conventional explosives to slam together two lumps of fissionable material, usually uranium-235 or plutonium-239. This creates what is known as a critical mass of nuclear material, which releases its energy instantaneously as atoms inside it split in an uncontrolled chain reaction.

Atomic bombs unleash enormous shock waves and high levels of neutron and gamma radiation. In atomic bombs, uranium is enriched much more than fuel, to about 85% uranium-235.

On August 6 1945, an atomic bomb called Little Boy was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, followed three days later by another, called Fat Man, on Nagasaki.

Hydrogen, or thermonuclear bombs, work in almost the opposite way to atomic bombs. Much of their explosive power comes from fusing together hydrogen atoms to form heavier helium atoms, which releases far more energy than a fission bomb. Two types, or isotopes, of hydrogen are used - deuterium and tritium. A deuterium atom is the same as a hydrogen atom, except the former has an extra neutron in its nucleus. A tritium atom has two extra neutrons.

A hydrogen bomb has a built-in atomic bomb, which is needed to trigger the fusion reaction. Hydrogen bombs have never been used in war and are thousands of times more powerful than atomic bombs.

The first test of a hydrogen bomb was at Enewatak, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. It released a three mile-wide fireball and a mushroom cloud that rose to nearly 60,000 feet, destroying an island in the process.

Nuclear waste

One of the biggest problems the nuclear industry faces is what to do with the radioactive waste it produces. Some of it will remain radioactive and hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years.

High-level waste is the most dangerous because it can melt through containers and is so radioactive it would be fatal if someone was near it for a few days. This type of waste makes up just 0.3% of Britain's total volume of nuclear waste, which is mostly waste from spent fuel rods. The largest amounts of radioactive waste are made up of nuclear fuel cases, reactor components and uranium.

Today, high-level waste is dealt with by cooling it in water for several years and then mixing it into a molten glass, which is poured into steel containers. These canisters are then stored in a concrete-lined building.

This is only a temporary measure, though. Scientists know that eventually they need to find a way of storing nuclear waste safely for thousands of years. Some countries, such as America and Finland, plan to store nuclear waste in deep underground bunkers. For this to be safe, scientists have to be sure the material could never leak out and contaminate water supplies or rise up to the surface.

Britain already has more than 100,000 tonnes of higher activity radioactive waste that needs to be stored. Large amounts of low-level waste are already stored in concrete vaults in Drigg in Cumbria. Other plans for disposing of nuclear waste have included dumping it at sea and blasting it into space.

Particle physics

One of the most significant branches of contemporary physics is the study of the fundamental subatomic constituents of matter, the elementary particles. This field, also called high-energy physics, emerged in the 1930s out of the developing experimental areas of nuclear and cosmic-ray physics. Initially investigators studied cosmic rays, the very-high-energy extraterrestrial radiations that fall upon Earth and interact in the atmosphere (see below The methodology of physics). However, after World War II, scientists gradually began using high-energy particle accelerators to provide subatomic particles for study. Quantum field theory, a generalization of QED to other types of force fields, is essential for the analysis of high-energy physics. Subatomic particles cannot be visualized as tiny analogues of ordinary material objects such as billiard balls, for they have properties that appear contradictory from the classical viewpoint. That is to say, while they possess charge, spin, mass, magnetism, and other complex characteristics, they are nonetheless regarded as pointlike.

During the latter half of the 20th century, a coherent picture evolved of the underlying strata of matter involving two types of subatomic particles: fermions (baryons and leptons), which have odd half-integral angular momentum (spin 1 /2 , 3 /2 ) and make up ordinary matter and bosons (gluons, mesons, and photons), which have integral spins and mediate the fundamental forces of physics. Leptons (e.g., electrons, muons, taus), gluons, and photons are believed to be truly fundamental particles. Baryons (e.g., neutrons, protons) and mesons (e.g., pions, kaons), collectively known as hadrons, are believed to be formed from indivisible elements known as quarks, which have never been isolated.

Quarks come in six types, or “flavours,” and have matching antiparticles, known as antiquarks. Quarks have charges that are either positive two-thirds or negative one-third of the electron’s charge, while antiquarks have the opposite charges. Like quarks, each lepton has an antiparticle with properties that mirror those of its partner (the antiparticle of the negatively charged electron is the positive electron, or positron that of the neutrino is the antineutrino). In addition to their electric and magnetic properties, quarks participate in both the strong force (which binds them together) and the weak force (which underlies certain forms of radioactivity), while leptons take part in only the weak force.

Baryons, such as neutrons and protons, are formed by combining three quarks—thus baryons have a charge of −1, 0, or 1. Mesons, which are the particles that mediate the strong force inside the atomic nucleus, are composed of one quark and one antiquark all known mesons have a charge of −2, −1, 0, 1, or 2. Most of the possible quark combinations, or hadrons, have very short lifetimes, and many of them have never been seen, though additional ones have been observed with each new generation of more powerful particle accelerators.

The quantum fields through which quarks and leptons interact with each other and with themselves consist of particle-like objects called quanta (from which quantum mechanics derives its name). The first known quanta were those of the electromagnetic field they are also called photons because light consists of them. A modern unified theory of weak and electromagnetic interactions, known as the electroweak theory, proposes that the weak force involves the exchange of particles about 100 times as massive as protons. These massive quanta have been observed—namely, two charged particles, W + and W − , and a neutral one, W 0 .

How Radioactive Cleanup Works

Already reeling from the devastation of an earthquake and a tsunami in March 2011, Japan faced another daunting hurdle on its road to recovery: cleaning up the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. After the earthquake and ensuing tsunami damaged the facility's coolant systems, plant operators worked tirelessly to limit the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi and restrict the release of radioactive material into the surrounding environment.

Cleaning up radioactive material under any circumstances can be a complicated, expensive undertaking, and Fukushima Daiichi will be no exception. Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesperson for Japan's nuclear safety agency, has already announced that it will be months before the agency will have the situation at the plant entirely under control, and some experts estimate the cleanup effort could last years or even decades. What's more, the cost of the cleanup could easily skyrocket past the cost of building the power plant in the first place [source: Klotz].

To understand why radioactive cleanup is so tedious and costly, it helps to know why radioactive material is so dangerous in the first place. Radioactive material, unlike most matter, is inherently unstable. Over time, the nuclei of radioactive atoms emit what's known as ionizing radiation, which can come in three primary forms: alpha particles, beta particles and gamma rays. Under certain circumstances, any of the three can harm humans, stealing electrons from atoms and destroying chemical bonds. Unlike alpha and beta particles, however, gamma rays can pass directly through the body, wreaking havoc in the process. Indeed, faulty attempts by the body to repair that damage can lead to cancerous cells.

Uranium and its byproduct, plutonium, both produce gamma rays at levels extremely dangerous to humans -- even brief exposure to a small amount of plutonium can prove fatal, for instance -- but nuclear power would be impossible without them. Thanks to rigorous safety standards and mechanisms, however, workers at nuclear power plants (and everywhere else radioactive material is handled) very rarely come in contact with harmful levels of radiation.

Still, these facilities can't operate forever, and that's when radioactive cleanup is necessary. In fact, it's called for in a variety of situations, not just meltdowns. Decommissioning a nuclear weapon? Disposing of radioactive medical waste? You're going to have to go through the highly involved ordeal that is radioactive cleanup. Before the process can start, crews need the equipment to do the job. We'll find out what trusty tools technicians turn to next.

Tools of the Radioactive Trade

As any agency involved in the cleanup will tell you, safety is first priority. Accordingly, all personnel working among potentially harmful levels of radiation wear thick vinyl hazmat suits, masks and rubber boots capable of blocking at least a percentage of harmful radiation.

Of course, instead of relying on safety equipment to protect them, workers would rather avoid radiation altogether whenever possible. To that end, crews often carry Geiger counters that give them both the direction and intensity of a radiation source. In addition, workers may carry dosimeters, portable devices that track the amount of radiation exposure workers receive during their shift. These devices prove particularly helpful when workers know they will receive intense doses of radiation and require a warning to leave the site once that dosage approaches harmful levels.

Depending on the type of operation, crew sizes can vary greatly. At Fukushima Daiichi, a relatively small team of 300 workers struggled to stabilize the power plant so that larger cleanup efforts could begin [source: Boyle]. After the Chernobyl disaster -- widely considered to be the worst accident to ever occur at a nuclear power plant -- around 600,000 workers were involved in the cleanup, and the areas surrounding the power plant are only now safe to visit for short intervals [source: U.S. NRC].

Interestingly enough, decontamination crews often use the same mops, brooms, shovels and brushes to perform their jobs that you might find at a local hardware store.

Thankfully, human workers don't have to handle every aspect of a radiation cleanup. For instance, Germany volunteered two robots to aid in stabilizing and, ultimately, decontaminating Fukushima Daiichi. Other robots can handle everything from dismantling nuclear bombs to fixing jammed equipment in highly radioactive environments. In some cases, the robots themselves become so contaminated that they're scrapped eventually as radioactive waste.

In the case of dealing with spent fuel rods, both heat and radiation are a concern. So, workers use a whole lot of water to both cool such materials and to contain their radiation, sometimes for years at a time. Along with water, concrete, glass and dirt prove fairly effective at storing radioactive material, particularly when paired with containment vessels and storage facilities.

If you're like many people, you have all manner of antibacterial soaps and cleaners in your household. It's somewhat ironic, then, that scientists have found a way to use the infamous bacteria E. coli to scour the environment. By combining the bacteria with inositol phosphates -- an agricultural waste material -- scientists can first bind uranium to the phosphates and then harvest the uranium to remove it from the environment. As an added benefit, the process produces uranium almost as cheaply as traditional mining.

Sweeping Up Radioactivity

Imagine sweeping your kitchen floor and then having to throw away not only the dirt you've swept up but also the broom, the dustpan and even the trashcan you threw everything into. That scenario gives you a glimpse of the difficulty and expense of cleaning up radioactivity workers have to address the source of the radiation and everything that source has contaminated. Yet as difficult as the process can be, it's not always complicated. In many cases, workers are tasked with simple chores like sweeping up low-level radioactive material, wiping down surfaces with decontaminating chemicals and collecting debris for disposal.

Much of the challenge comes from the fact that radioactive material can spread to the environment in several ways -- particularly when things go wrong -- making cleanup exponentially more difficult. For instance, radioactive particles can seep into groundwater, flow into nearby lakes, rivers and oceans, float through the atmosphere and even contaminate livestock and crops. Each type of environmental contamination requires a different response.

When radioactive material contaminates groundwater, organizations like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversee the construction of groundwater extraction and treatment facilities. If the soil itself is contaminated, on the other hand, it may need to be extracted and buried at a containment facility or even encased in concrete. When radioactive material spreads into large bodies of water or into the atmosphere, decontamination can be impossible. In such cases, fish, livestock and produce are closely monitored for increased levels of radioactivity.

Regardless of the type of contamination, mopping up radioactive materials is a dangerous task, and patience is sometimes the best approach to safely decontaminating a site. All radioactive material decays over time, eventually breaking down into stable -- and safe -- daughter elements. And while this process takes thousands of years for high-level radioactive waste, it occurs much more quickly for low-level waste like safety equipment and water used inside of a nuclear power plant. Accordingly, waste is often stored at the site where it was generated for years or even decades before it's properly disposed of.

Because the process of cleaning up radioactive material is so dangerous, it's highly regulated around the world. In the United States, federal agencies like the EPA, the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Committee set safety guidelines, issue licenses to operate nuclear power plants and oversee any cleanup efforts.

To date, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 stands as the largest disaster in the history of nuclear energy, exposing dozens of workers to intense levels of radiation. Within weeks, 28 of them had died after developing acute radiation syndrome (ARS).

Individuals with ARS immediately develop symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, followed by a period of seemingly perfect health. Before long, however, victims revert to a state of serious illness that, depending on the amount of radiation a person received, can often lead to death. Because ARS is so devastating, workers exercise extreme caution when working with nuclear materials.

Disposing of Radioactive Waste

The decontamination of a site like Fukushima Daiichi isn't truly complete until the radioactive material from the site is safely disposed of. Spent nuclear fuel rods, for instance, remain dangerous for thousands of years after they've been removed from a power plant [source: U.S. EPA]. And while scientists and researchers are working tirelessly to find ways to neutralize the danger from the ever-growing amounts of nuclear waste generated every year, for now the only option we have is to store it. But where? After all, the volume of radioactive waste increases every second, with experts predicting the generation of an additional 400,000 tons (363,000 metric tons) over the next two decades [source: World Nuclear Association].

In the case of waste-emitting low-level radiation, the disposal process isn't markedly different from taking trash to the local landfill. While engineers have to be careful that such materials won't disperse under any circumstances or contaminate the local water supply, these disposal sites are typically located close to the surface.

Facilities designed to hold high-level radioactive waste, on the other hand, are much more robust. The Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada, for instance, cost more than $13 billion to construct and would store radioactive materials 1,000 feet (300 meters) underground in a network of shielded tunnels, but scientists and policy makers still debate its ability to safely contain its cargo [sources: Associated Press, Eureka County].

Constructing a nuclear waste repository is just the first step toward disposing of high level radioactive material. Next, the material must be placed into specially designed metal casks for transport. Because all manner of accidents can occur during transport, the casks are designed to withstand everything from 30-foot (9-meter) drops to 1475 degree Fahrenheit (802 degrees Celsius) fires [source: Eureka County]. These casks, constructed of stainless steel, titanium and other alloys, then make the journey from the site of origin to the nuclear waste repository where the casks can remain for thousands of years.

Not all countries choose to store high-level nuclear waste like the United States does, instead reprocessing the fuel and reusing it to generate more power. Still, reprocessing doesn't eliminate the need to store nuclear materials, making disposal a critical issue for every country using nuclear power

As you might imagine, cleaning up and disposing of nuclear waste is a costly endeavor. Britain's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority estimated the cost of cleaning up all 20 of the country's radioactive sites would top $160 billion, for instance [source: Macalister]. Still, proponents of nuclear energy say access to a reliable, clean and abundant energy source more than justifies the costs associated with maintaining and cleaning nuclear facilities.

We all know that radiation is harmful, but the reality is that we can't escape some level of exposure. But how much radiation does it take to harm somebody? Background radiation and X-rays deliver far too little radiation to cause any harm, as does living near a nuclear power plant or even walking around the site of the Chernobyl disaster for an hour. In reality, only crews working directly with radioactive material ever receive enough radiation to endanger their health, and even then only in rare instances. Still, technicians working to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi plant recognized they were directly in harm's way and continued pressing forward, illustrating true bravery for the sake of their country.

Watch the video: Atomic Gardening