Arsalan Adil, ’18, has always been proud of his home country of Pakistan. So when the physics major read an article outlining concerns over a planned nuclear reactor just 12 miles outside his hometown of Karachi, he was naturally worried.

“The article, written by a well-known physicist in Pakistan, talked about how the reactor will be bad for the environment and bad for the people in Karachi, but that the government is not taking the consequences of the reactor into account because they’re more concerned about power,” Adil said.

Pakistan is currently facing a huge power shortage; they need electricity wherever they can get it. While most countries are moving away from nuclear power, Pakistan is moving toward it. Nuclear power, however, has the potential to be harmful its citizens if the necessary precautions aren’t taken.

“There have been three major nuclear disasters in recent history: Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island,” said Adil. “All of them happened in technologically advanced countries. The hazards of nuclear power are not easy to stop.” Karachi is a city of 20 million people so the potential for disaster, if there is a problem with the reactor, is enormous even if the risk of a problem is low. 

According to Adil, people in Pakistan take pride in the fact that they have nuclear capability, but the average citizen has no idea what that means. As a physics major, he has a better understanding of the issues surrounding nuclear power and, after discussing the article with Dr. Con Beausang, whose expertise is in nuclear physics, the pair formulated a research project for Adil around the topic.

In the United States, scientists regularly test the air and soil surrounding nuclear reactors and test sites, and publish their results publicly. Adil found no similar public data for Pakistan’s KANUPP reactor located outside of Karachi, which was in use from 1972 until 2011 when it was shut down in an emergency. The reasons for the shutdown were never disclosed to the public.

Beausang and Adil saw an opportunity for Adil to test soil from near the KANUPP reactor and compare its radioactivity to soil samples from other locations in the United States where nuclear testing had previously taken place.

Adil obtained soil samples from Karachi, from New York City, from Washington, D.C. and from Florida. He used a gamma ray spectroscope to analyze the soil, which detects the number of each type of gamma rays that are emitted from the sample. By analyzing the concentration of each type of gamma ray, Adil could determine which isotopes were present in the sample. “Some isotopes occur naturally, so I expect to find those, and eliminate them from the data set,” said Adil. “Then, I start looking for things I shouldn’t be finding, like Cesium-137, a man-made radioactive isotope. You shouldn’t be finding it in soil because it doesn’t exist in nature.”

The results of his tests surprised him. “I was expecting to find some Cesium-137 in the soil from Karachi, but I didn’t,” Adil said. He did find it in the soil from New York and Washington, D.C., though it was a small amount. Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years; if it is released now, its amount decreases by half in 30 years, and then to half of that amount in another 30 years. As a result, even though there hasn’t been nuclear testing on American soil for many years, the radioactive isotopes continue to be present in the soil. “It’s a very small amount, it’s not going to damage you, but it reminds us of the harms of having nuclear weapons, and nuclear power to a certain extent,” he said.

While he didn’t get the results he anticipated, Adil still sees great value in his work. “Even if there are no radioactive contaminants in the soil, there’s still a huge need to establish a baseline. At a later date, if someone wants to carry out this same investigation, or if there is any disaster, this data will be helpful. No one else has tested this soil, that I’m aware of,” he said.

It also gives him hope, as he looks to return to Pakistan after he finishes his education and contribute to the scientific community. “It’s becoming more difficult to go into the pure sciences in Pakistan. The trend is toward more practical fields like engineering and medicine,” said Adil.

“My biggest fear was that if I went into a field like physics, which I love, would I be able to return to Pakistan and contribute in a significant way? Being able to do research that had a direct implication for Pakistan validates that I’m on the right path, and there isn’t a conflict between my love for my country and what I want to do with my life.”