Literatus: Boric acid and fatalism

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

THE reactor fire in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan has sent radioactivity into air, putting at high risk lives even as far away as Tokyo.

As of March 15, 2010, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported this radiation leak amounted to 400 millisievert (mSv) per hour. Exposure to over 100 mSv a year, said the World Nuclear Association, can already lead to cancer. To help control this radioactive cloud, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) considered using boric acid. So, what’s in boric acid that can help control radioactivity from spreading?

Boron, its basic element, is chemically inert, making it a good fire retardant, and resistant to boiling even with such strong acids as hydrochloric and sulfuric acids.


One of its naturally occurring and stable isotopes, boron-10, is good at capturing thermal neutrons—free neutrons with a kinetic energy of 2.4 megajoule per kg weight.

Most fission reactors, where nuclear fissions occur, are thermal reactors. Fission, the splitting of an atomic nucleus into neutrons and photos, produces highly energetic (fast-moving) neutrons that require a neutron moderator to slow down.

Moderation also allows more neutrons to cause further fission, and for the energy-producing chain reaction to continue. This is how energy is created inside a nuclear plant such as the one in Bataan, Philippines, or the light water types in Fukushima, Japan.

Only a neutron captor, an element that captures thermal neutrons and removes them, can break this chain reaction. That element is boron. And when Tepco dispersed boric acid over the plant from a helicopter, it hoped to slow down the spread of radioactivity outside the plant area.

The radiation often referred to is simply the highly radioactive, ionized particles escaping into the air from the nuclear reactor. It looks much the same as the “free radicals” we are already familiar with these days. But these are much more dangerous, more damaging, because its radioactivity make them capable of causing cancer many times faster than the free radicals.

Boron, an essential plant nutrient, can be found in the natural antibiotic, called boromycin, which kills Gram-positive bacteria by disrupting the cytoplasmic membrane, causing the cell to lose potassium ions.

Radiologist Fred Mettler reminds on the dangers of fatalism: “People have developed a paralyzing fatalism because they think they are at much higher risk than they are, so that leads to things like drug and alcohol use, and unprotected sex and unemployment.”

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on October 03, 2012.


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