On my way up to Glasgow from London I did a spot of sailing. On the trip from Fleetwood, Lancashire, to Whitehaven, Cumbria, for a long time we could see the nuclear fuel plant Sellafield. It spans a vast area of the Cumbrian coast line.
So it was with interest that I spotted a poster by PhD student Sarah Wallace from Leeds University in the UK.
She has been looking at how strontium, a waste product from Sellafield, will move in the sediment near the plant, and if it might make it into the groundwater.
The contaminant plumes from the plant tend to have a high pH, and what Wallace had found so far is that in these conditions strontium-90 likes to stick to sediment. This could actually be good news for Sellafield because the half life of strontium-90 is such that as long as it sticks to the ground it will have decayed within 300 years or so.
Strontium is potentially nasty because it’s in the same chemical group as calcium, a major bone component. So if strontium gets into the water and into the body, it can compete with calcium in the bones and cause diseases such as leukemia.
Wallace’s work involved a fake contaminated bit of land – taking normal soil and untouched groundwater from the area and spiking it. In future she hopes to see what the longer term effects of strontium-90 are.