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Distillation : Will it Remove Radiation from a Dirty Bomb?
Eldon C. Muehling
This question has come up again several times lately in light of increased terrorist threats. Several years ago, Pure Water Inc. had 3rd party water testing done by independent laboratory facilities in Orlando, Florida. It included the testing of radioactive water samples but I must admit it was pretty limited. Knowing the nature of radioactive contaminants, the results turned out predictably well.

Radiation is the result of elements having atoms with unstable nuclei. When these unstable nuclei break up, the result is two or more smaller nuclei and radiation. The three most common forms of radiation are: alpha particles (nuclei of helium atoms), beta particles (very high speed electrons) or gamma rays (similar to very powerful x-rays). All forms of radiation can cause great bodily damage including cancer and genetic damage.

Any form of radiation is a cause for concern, but gamma is the worst. It is relatively easy to shield oneself from alpha particles. Beta particles are considerably more penetrating. Practically nothing stops gamma rays but they can be slowed down by thick layers of concrete or lead.

When you hear the term "dirty bomb" this refers to a conventional explosive that contains one or more radioactive substances. It is not a nuclear bomb (chain reaction with typical mushroom cloud) but possesses many of the same characteristics because it scatters radioactive contaminants. It would be much easier to assemble and detonate.

The question as to whether distillation of water containing these radioactive contaminants is effective can be predicted safely based on the chemical identity of the contaminants. If a particular element is removed by distillation when it is a non-radioactive isotope, it would be safe to predict removal if it is a radioactive isotope. For example laboratory tests show that the element iodine (normally not radioactive) is removed by distillation. It is safe to predict the removal of radioactive iodine as well. In other words the fact that an element is radioactive does not materially alter its other chemical and physical properties.

PWI had laboratory tests performed on water that was spiked 5 times the EPA maximum contaminant level (MCL) with radium 226 and radium 228. After allowances for background radioactivity, there was virtually no sign of gross alpha or gross beta activity. This could be predicted by the fact that radium is a heavy metal (in the same chemical family as calcium and magnesium) with a boiling point of 1737 degree centigrade. (This is more than 1600 degrees higher than the boiling point of water!) This means that the radium would be retained in the residue water that remains behind in the boiling chamber.

In short, if distillation removes the radiation emitters from the water, the radioactivity itself is likewise removed. An analogy would be this. Consider the emitter to be like a flashlight and the radiation to be the light. If you remove the flashlights, there would be no light.

One thing that is not clear and difficult to predict is what effect distillation of radioactive contaminants will have on the distiller itself. Chances are that metallic parts of the distiller (such as iron) would most likely become somewhat radioactive giving off secondary radiation.

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