[I]t's been known for 30 years that Mother Nature once did nuclear chain reactions by her lonesome. Now, Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have analyzed the isotopic structure of noble gases produced in fission in a sample from the only known natural nuclear chain reaction site in the world in Gabon, West Africa, and have found how she does the trick. Picture Old Faithful.
Analyzing a tiny fragment of rock, less than one-eight of an inch, taken from the Gabon site, Alexander Meshik, Ph.D., Washington University senior research scientist in physics, has calculated that the precise isotopic structure of xenon in the sample reveals an operation that worked like a geyser. The reactor, active two billion years ago, worked on a 30-minute reaction cycle, accompanied by a two-and-a-half hour dormant period, or cool down.
Prior to this calculation, it was known that the natural nuclear reactor operated two billion years ago for 150 million years at an average power of 100 kilowatts. The Washington University team solved the mystery of how the reactor worked and why it didn't blow up.