I’ve always been drawn to the nuclear age. There’s something to America’s vast and sudden post-war wealth, the growingly divergent half-McCarthy half-hippy culture, and rising technology that seems effortlessly and inherently American. But we as a country seem to be in love with things that are already half-departed. The cowboy only became a national symbol well after the range was fenced in. Similarly, the uranium reactor seems like it’s on the way out already. Germany just announced a planned retirement of its nuclear reactors. But even though the yellow-and-black triad may less than a hundred years old, nuclear reactors are actually far more ancient than most people realize.
Okay, a quick crash course. Nuclear reactors are powered by nuclear fission. In fission, radioactive atoms will sometimes shed a neutrons as they ultimately decay into more stable isotopes. The uranium atoms are usually too far apart and the neutron is usually absorbed by other surrounding elements, but if the uranium atoms are condensed enough it will actually set off a chain reaction. Think of it like tossing a single lit cracker into a fireworks factory. Each time something goes off it only makes the reaction stronger. Small cracker, big dense pile of fireworks, lots of energy. Small neutron, big dense pile of uranium atoms, lots of energy. Yeah? Yeah. (Okay, so it’s actually a lot more complicated than that, but you get the idea).
Anyways, back in 1956 someone named Paul Kazuo Kuroda hypothesized that this arrangement needn’t be man-mand and could actually be possible in nature. And sixteen years later, deep in the heart of Gabon, he was proven right. The French physicist Francis Perrin found evidence that one particular uranium mine was actually the home of an intermittent 1.7 billion year old reactor that must have run for more than a million years. The reactor had long run out of steam, but it’s still-radioactive by-products are still around today and still available for study.