Nuclear engineers at UC Berkeley have sent critical radiation detection systems to scientists in the Chernobyl area, who have suffered setbacks due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
According to Kai Vetter, a campus nuclear engineering professor, the shipment aims to assess radioactive contamination in the area. In the long term, scientists also hope to reestablish a laboratory with state-of-the-art equipment in Chernobyl.
“With the invasion from the Russian army, all of the equipment was stolen and removed,” Vetter said. “After, they had no means in Chernobyl to assess what they wanted to assess before.”
Vetter added that invading soldiers may have cross-contaminated the region by walking through potentially contaminated areas and into other locations. In order to assess this contamination, he said, the scientists at Chernobyl need equipment that they previously lacked.
Jake Hecla, a doctoral candidate in the campus department of nuclear engineering, said the tools sent to Chernobyl are sodium iodide scintillators. A form of radiation detector, these scintillators release measurable visible light when they interact with radiation.
“This is not extreme in the sense of cutting-edge technology,” Hecla said. “This is a staple. This is equipment that is necessary for the maintenance and normal operation of laboratories.”
Scintillators, along with other parts of the detector, date from around the 1930s, Hecla said. However, the larger sodium iodide scintillators involved in this shipment were developed half a century later.
Hecla noted that these tools may be used to detect small amounts of radiation in environmental sampling. In addition, they could be used alongside other detectors to create more sensitive systems for detecting radiation.
“We are lucky enough that we have additional equipment we could send,” Vetter said. “What we sent already might be sufficient, but if needed, we have some other detectors we might be able to send them.”
Additional equipment might include 3D mapping technology developed over the past decade at UC Berkeley, according to Vetter. This would allow scientists to make radiation contamination visible in 3D, a powerful tool for assessment.
The engineers are also looking to send radiation safety equipment such as personal dosimeters, said Hecla, along with survey meters — what he described as the radiation-measuring tool that often appears in movie scenes involving contamination.
Hecla said the team hopes to add more shipments in the coming weeks and months. The recent shipment of scintillators will provide a reference for the difficulty of sending supplies. If they can be sent relatively easily, Hecla said, they will send more and reliance on remaining supplies in Ukraine will diminish.
“Our goal here is to be a bridge,” Hecla said. “Give them the basic tools necessary to continue operations to some low level while other funding agencies slowly get the gears in motion such that they can provide the truly massive funding needed to bring these places back online and keep the Ukrainian people safe.”