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he practice of nuclear physics is quite a new phenomenon that is only 80 years old. Many people believe that it’s very first use was in World War II when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with nuclear bombs but nuclear fission was first used in 1942 when the first nuclear reactor was built in Chicago named CP-1.

Nuclear power is seen to have been the next step in human evolution in this modern era as it was a new type of power that required small amounts of resources to create huge amounts of power for years on end.

Although nuclear fission was discovered by Lise Meitner, nature had produced nuclear fission for billions of years.

The discovery of the ancient reactors

In 1972, scientists discovered 17 natural nuclear reactors in Gabon, Africa. This accidental discovery happened when nuclear physicists from a nuclear reactor in France were looking for new deposits of uranium in the southeast region of Africa.

The team of nuclear physicists observed a very strange correlation between uranium isotopes (uranium 235 and uranium 238). Uranium 235 is quite rare and is the actual uranium that sustains a chain reaction required to achieve nuclear fission. At first, the scientist believed that this correlation was provoked due to the contamination with used nuclear fuel that would lower the levels of radiation, but this wasn’t the case.

Another theory was that someone might have taken a large amount of uranium away which would provoke this strange correlation. Other theories stated that the natural uranium deposit may have been contaminated with waste from ancient African civilizations.

The location of the Oklo natural nuclear reactors in Gabon, West Africa in 1972 (Source: US Department of Energy)

The answer for this phenomenon was discovered in an academic paper written in 1953 by George W. Wetherill and Mark G. Inghram from the University of Chicago who theorized that some deposits of uranium around the world might have at some point in time operated as natural versions of the modern nuclear reactors. This would explain why so much of the Uranium 235 from the deposit was depleted.

Redefining history

These deposits from Gabon had been seeing nuclear fission for millions of years. A nuclear reaction only requires 3% of uranium 235, a lot of space, and the absence of any materials that absorb neutrons. Based on the strange correlation the nuclear physicist state that these uranium deposits had seen an abundance of uranium 235.

From the analyses of these “contaminated” uranium deposits, they discovered that the first nuclear reaction took place two billion years ago and it could have lasted for at least 100 million years.

Another 16 natural nuclear reactors have been found just like the one presented in the image above in the same location. Based on a paper published by Wetherill and Inghram we could expect to find many other uranium deposits around the world which would have produced nuclear fission for millions of years.

However, specialists say that the deposits found in Gabon are unique based on the concentration of different types of Uranium, therefore it is very unlikely that we’ll find any other natural nuclear reactors around the world.

Nevertheless, this find is very important as it offers us not only a new perspective on ancient history but also new information that can help humanity find a way to better deal with nuclear waste that is created around the world.

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