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How could we make the best out of the Chernobyl disaster?

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J. Nikola
J. Nikola Feb 13, 2022
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Introduction
The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe is considered to be the worst nuclear accident in cost and casualties. Today, the nuclear power plant and a surrounding area, also called the exclusion zone is an area of 2600 km2 with increased levels of radiation. The iodine-131, cesium-134, and cesium-137 account for most of the radiation. Iodine-131 has a "short" half-life of eight days, but is rapidly ingested through the air and tends to localize in the thyroid gland. Cesium isotopes have longer half-lives (cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years) and are a concern for years after their release into the environment . In general, Chernobyl presents an unsolved environmental and economical problem.
Besides radiation monitoring, surveillance of flora and fauna, and building of new safe confinement, people also visit the Exclusion zone for touristic purposes. But how could we make the best use of the existing radiation and the specific conditions in the area?
Current projects
  • In 2016, local authorities decided to use the close perimeter around a plant as a nuclear dump
  • In 2018, high interest in building a solar power plants was initiated due to the availability of land and an easy access to transmission lines previously used by the nuclear power plant
  • They even produced a vodka with the grain and water from the exclusion zone and it was evidently radiation-free, giving hope for economical recovery of the area
Questions
  • What other creative uses of radiation can we think of?
  • What can the area be use for, that it doesn't require a radiation-free environment?
  • Can we think of a cool way to use this disastrous, but specific conditions?

[1]https://www.livescience.com/39961-chernobyl.html

2
Creative contributions

Radiation hormesis for improved health

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Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni Feb 14, 2022
Low doses of ionizing radiation may be beneficial in activating the molecular repair mechanisms of the body that protect against disease. These mechanisms are not activated in the absence of ionizing radiation. The repair mechanisms are hypothesized to cancel the detrimental effects of future ionizing radiation and also inhibit other diseases not related to radiation exposure.
As an example, in a long term study of the Chernobyl disaster, it was found that: "paradoxically longer telomeres were found among persons, who have received heavier long-term irradiation," and "mortality due to oncologic diseases was lower than in the general population in all age groups that may reflect efficient health care of this group." It is also suggested that although Sun UV exposure increased the frequency of cells with chromosome breakage, DNA misrepair was decreased. Also, mortality in those exposed to gamma radiation was lower than those that were not in the 1982 Taiwan cobalt-60 contamination of building steel.
Therefore, zones in the current Chernobyl radiation area could be identified that have optimum radiation for radiation hormesis and patients and even healthy humans (as a preventive therapy) could be exposed to it for better health.

[1]https://www.rsu.lv/sites/default/files/dissertations/JReste_Promocijas_darba_kopsavilkums_EN.pdf

[2]Visalini Nair-Shalliker, Michael Fenech, Peta M. Forder, Mark S. Clements, Bruce K. Armstrong, Sunlight and vitamin D affect DNA damage, cell division and cell death in human lymphocytes: a cross-sectional study in South Australia, Mutagenesis, Volume 27, Issue 5, September 2012, Pages 609–614, https://doi.org/10.1093/mutage/ges026

[3]https://www.jpands.org/vol9no1/chen.pdf

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J. Nikola
J. Nikola3 months ago
I think this idea is great! I was thinking the same - turning the exclusion zone into the therapy zone. Yes, it could be difficult to convince people to come to the radiation zone to enhance their health. Therefore, it could primarily be a prevention training for astronauts. They could visit the exclusion zone, gradually getting closer and closer to the center, while not endangering their health. That way they could get prepared for cosmic irradiation while exploring space.
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Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni3 months ago
J. Nikola Perfect! I hadn't thought of hormesis for astronauts. I had cancer prevention and therapy in mind. More of prevention because the world is moving towards personalized medicine and radiation therapy would be like going in the opposite direction. It may not be a good business model. So, the applications include cancer prevention, prevention of other diseases that people have studied and are prevented by radiation, astronaut training, anti-aging therapy... what else?
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Farming the "radioactivity-eating" fungi and using them as a biofuel and radioactivity shield

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J. Nikola
J. Nikola Feb 15, 2022
My idea is to farm radiotrophic fungi on a large scale to create:
  • a system that absorbs and reduces the radioactivity levels in the surrounding area
  • biomass that can be turned into biofuel

Why?
  • Radiotrophic fungi were discovered in Chernobyl
  • They are easy to farm
  • They can grow huge in biomass which can be used for biofuel (sustainability)
  • They can absorb radioactivity and serve as a Chernobyl powerplant shield (radioactivity buffer)
How would it work?
Farming the fungi
There are three species of fungi that can turn radioativity into an energy used for growth: Cladosporium sphaerospermum, Wangiella dermatitidis, and Cryptococcus neoformans. They are all yeast-like fungi that reproduce by budding. It was shown that when exposed to radioactivity 500 times higher than in the normal environment, these fungi increased in biomass and accumulated acetate faster . To farm fungi on a large scale, an automated facility with many fungi bioreactors should be established.
Creating biofuel
Since most of the bioreactors have the maximum capacity of the organisms they can sustain, any excess of biomass would be extracted and used to produce a biofuel. Since biofuel is created by the fermentation of the carbohydrates, fermentation properties of the above-mentioned fungi should be explored. If the production of biofuel is not efficient, specific genetically-modified fungi with great fermentation properties could be engineered.
Shield against radiation
Levels of radiation are still very high around the Chernobyl power plant. Although the second confinement was built to reduce the levels of radiation, no significant progress was done. I propose creating a "shield" against radioactivity by establishing giant bioreactors with radioactivity-absorbing fungi around it. It would function the same like previously-built confinements, but it would be organic, self-sustainable and energy-producing. The trial that supports this idea was performed on an Internation Space Station during 30 days. The results showed that a 1.7 mm thick shield of melanized radiotrophic Cladosporium sphaerospermum, reduced the radiation by 2.42%, demonstrating radiation deflecting capabilities five times that of the control group. Scientists also say that a 21 cm thick layer could significantly deflect the annual amount of radiation received on Mars’ surface . With that in mind, 1 meter thick bioreactor around Chernobyl powerplant could significantly reduce the amount of radiation in the Exclusion zone and possibly enable people to repopulate the area once again.
Additional infromation
Potential problems could be the pathogenicity of the mentioned fungi, which could be solved either by strict safety procedures or by genetical engineering of non-pathogenic fungi species.

[1]500 times higher than in the normal environment

[2]https://www.innovabiomed.com/glass-tank-bioreactor.html

[3]https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.16.205534v6

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Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni3 months ago
Awesome! Radioactivity-eating bacteria could have several applications. The responsible enzymes could be made into drugs to treat people suffering from radiation exposure. I am not sure but could they be used as a source of food for humans on Mars? Solar energy (solar irradiance) on Mars is about half that on Earth. Therefore, colonies on Mars may require additional sources of energy.
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