Erosion Control

Applying Nuclear Science to Erosion

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Several countries in Africa are using an unusual technology to assess and prevent erosion and sedimentation: gamma spectroscopy.

Gamma spectroscopy is often used to detect nuclear contamination, such as the fallout from the accident at the Fukushima nuclear reactor or waste from nuclear fuel. I had not been aware of its use for gauging erosion, although it’s apparently been employed for several years for this purpose. This article published by the International Atomic Energy Agency—which is supplying the detectors through a technical cooperation program—explains in greater detail, but in a nutshell, here’s how it works.

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Radioactive isotopes like cesium-137 exist in the atmosphere and are deposited on the ground via precipitation, accumulating in the top layer of the soil. As soil erodes, the Cs-137 goes with it; where lots of erosion is occurring, the detectors pick up less Cs-137 in the topsoil. Where that displaced soil accumulates, they detect more. Soil scientists working with the IAEA say the technique provides a quick and inexpensive way to understand long-term patterns of erosion and sedimentation—much faster and cheaper than other types of soil monitoring. Conservation programs can be targeted to the areas that are most affected. The goal is to protect and improve agricultural productivity, especially in arid and semi-arid regions.

The detectors are already in use in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe. (You can read Mike Harding’s account of the erosion taking place in Madagascar in this article from Erosion Control.) Two more detectors are scheduled for delivery in Egypt and Senegal. As one researcher explains, “We will use the gamma detectors for the ‘fingerprinting’ of sedimentation in the Nile River to trace the origin of contamination from different sources, such as drainage from industrial and agricultural bodies located on the riverbank.”

The IAEA will also include a discussion of other ways nuclear technology can be used to improve agriculture at its upcoming conference.

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