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What is the minimum thickness of an aggregate concrete membrane to prevent radioactive particles from escaping a broken reactor? I am interested in calculating the amount of concrete required to entomb a reactor.

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up vote 5 down vote accepted

Some amount of radiation always penetrates through a barrier of thickness $T$ - the proportion is given by $(1/2)^{(T/T_0)}$ where $T_0$ is the halving thickness. The decrease is exponential.

The halving thickness depends both on the material as well as the type of the radiation. Generally, gamma rays - heavier cousins of X-rays (photons) - are the most penetrating ones. See e.g.

The halving thickness for lead and concrete is 1 and 6 centimeters, respectively. However, the gamma radiation obviously escapes in random directions and is only a concern in the very vicinity of the source.

Beta-radiation - electrons that fly nearly by the speed of light - is somewhat less penetrating than gamma-rays, so the halving thickness is a few millimeters for solids:

The least penetrating ones are alpha particles and their heavier sisters, heavy radioactive nuclei, that are physically screened by dozens of micrometers of a solid; see the page above. So a minimal layer of a solid - with no holes - is always enough to protect a tomb against the release of some radioactive material.

When thinking about the tomb, it may be more important to guarantee that it will be mechanically stable against excessive pressure inside etc. that could lead to explosions etc. It's not quite trivial to decide how to lower the pressure in the hermetically isolated tomb because the stuff that creates the pressure is radioactive and harmful.

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I would add to this that it is not only the cover that is important, but also the underlying layers, to avoid long term seepage to the water level of the region. It is not clear from whatever news we get if at Fuhushima the substrate under the reactors is stable and impenetrable to seepage. That is what is hard to control, imo. – anna v Mar 31 '11 at 11:34
Also one needs to take into about Earthquake engineering. Another earthquake in that region can split concrete. – Roy Simpson Mar 31 '11 at 13:00

To prevent particles from escaping, a few centimeters of concrete is enough. To prevent gamma radiation from escaping, one has to define what levels one considers acceptable outside the enclosure. To prevent the hot air emanating from press weenies and the anti-nuclear lobby from escaping, several lightyears' thickness of lead might not be enough.

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although a royal wedding on the other side of the planet should work to cancel the press interest. – Martin Beckett Apr 18 '11 at 17:34
hmm, yes. But producing enough of those to keep them occupied would possibly create a supercritical mass of royalty, and we can't have that. – jwenting Apr 18 '11 at 19:19
lol - global weenie warming – Anonymous Type Jan 14 '15 at 2:16

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