Can the Lowly Muon Save Japan?

One of the biggest hurdles facing cleanup personnel at the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi plant is that much of what is actually happening inside the plant at this time is purely speculation.  It’s too dangerous to go inside in person, too risky to send in a camera, and there’s not enough data to produce a valid computer model.

Decision Sciences International believes they have the technology to help – and that’s where the muon comes in.

Muons (pronounced MYU-ons)  are subatomic particles similar to electrons, but much heavier.  They are harmless – millions of them rain down upon us all the time, travelling at the speed of light and penetrating far into the earth.  But they have one little quirk:  If a muon happens to strike an atomic nucleus, it will abruptly change direction.  Observing the muons’ movement can yield important clues as to an object’s size, shape and density.

This technology, known as muon tomography, is already being used in security applications for the shipping industry, where it can detect attempts to smuggle plutonium and uranium inside ordinary shipping containers (although not in great detail.)  Scientists at Los Alamos believe they can adapt this technology to get a 3-dimensional view of the inside of the Fukushima plant.

An interesting side note: muon tomography was first used in the 1960’s to get a glimpse inside of the Great Pyramid at Giza.  Hopefully this new application of the technology will give us the means to peer inside and assess the radioactive tomb that is the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

Full article by  New York Times (June, 2014)