Tag Archives: halflife

Long half-life ≠ dangerous

Nuclear waste is often quoted as having a “half-life of millions of years” as if this is a bad thing in and of itself.* But there’s another way of looking at it.

Radioactive decay occurs when an unstable atom emits either a helium nucleus, a high-speed electron, an electromagnetic wave called a gamma ray or more rarely one of a number of other possibilities. Being in the way of these emitted particles and waves is generally considered to be a Very Bad Idea.

Radioactive decay occurs at random, with each atom having a chance of decaying at any given moment. The more likely it is that atoms decay, the quicker they decay, and the shorter their half-life.

Imagine the radioactive atoms are ammunition cartridges; when they decay the cartridge “goes off” and a bullet is released. Now imagine you’re standing next to two piles of cartridges representing some nuclear waste: one pile with a short half-life and one pile with a long half-life

The bullets in the short half-life pile will go off over a short period of time, and the bullets in the long half-life pile will go off over a longer period of time. Which pile would be safer to stand next to?

Caesium-135 and caesium-137 are both common isotopes found in nuclear waste: Cs-135 is formed when xenon-135 produced as a fission fragment decays by beta emission; and Cs-137 is formed as a fission fragment itself (a uranium nucleus splits to form one caesium-137 and one rubidium-98 nucleus).

Cs-135 has a half-life of 2.3 million years and emits beta particles with an energy of 267 keV. Cs-137 has a half-life of 30 years and emits beta particles with an energy of 605000 keV. On a graph of 100 years the change in caesium-135 is invisible; only at a scale of a million years does the change become visible:

If you stood next to a million atoms of Cs-137 for a year 22840 atoms would decay, for a total energy release of 2.2 nanojoules. Standing next to a million atoms of Cs-135 for a year less than one atom (0.301) would decay and the total energy released would be 13 femtojoules, less than 150 thousandth of the energy released by the caesium-137.

So you have a tradeoff: caesium-135 is less dangerous than caesium-137 but becomes less dangerous more quickly. Both Cs-135 and Cs-137 decay to form stable (non-radioactive) barium so if you can turn a profit selling barium then you’re better off buying a truckload of Cs-137; you’ll be able to sell it as barium sooner.

* It’s worth bearing in mind that nuclear waste eventually becomes safe. Chemical waste from the production of solar cells like silicon tetrafluoride and cadmium telluride remain toxic forever.