Wine from a Radioactive Age

There’s little doubt that a fair amount of good can come out of the synthesis of radioactive isotopes in the fields of medicine and pure research. The most common radioisotope used in diagnosis is technetium-99, with about 40-45 million procedures performed annually. Without carbon-14 as a tracer, the pathway of photosynthesis’ dark reactions would never have been elucidated. Without ratios such as that of ²H to ¹H in ice cores, we would not have been able to verify that for tens of thousands of years temperature has correlated well with levels of carbon dioxide. (Of course given that CO2 molecules absorb heat, we have both causation and correlation between the two variables).

Image of French physicist Philippe Hubert from

The nuclear industry does not keep such facts secret. Another truth is that these isotopes can be produced in fairly small reactors, and even at that, they are not incident-free; maintenance and regulation are essential, and eventually old reactors have to be shut down, such as will occur with the one at Chalk River in Canada in 2018.


Radioisotopes can also serve as interesting probes in the wine industry. Shortly before and after various countries banned nuclear testing (mostly in the 1960s; although France persisted until the 70s and China, 1980s) the level of cesium-137 was much higher in the environment. Before the nuclear age, that particular isotope did not exist in nature. It was first formed from the fission of 235U. Vines absorbed 137Cs that had spread in the environment, and it ended up in wines.  By measuring the amount of gamma radiation, which goes through the wine’s glass bottle, scientists can authenticate the dates on the label and expose fraud. Thanks to the testing-bans and to its half-life of 30 years,the concentration 137Cs has steadily declined in the environment and Bordeaux wines produced since 1990 should emit near-zero levels. It is true that without the 1990s development of low background germanium (Ge) semiconductor detectors, the very low levels of radioactivity found in wine  (0.01 to 1 Bq– 1 disintegration per second) would never have been detected. In contrast, a banana has 15 Bq due to its small percent of beta-emitting potassium-40. One kilogram of low-level radioactive waste accounts for 1 million Bq. Multiply that by 107, and that’s what’s found in 50-year-old high-level waste!

ChelyabinskCesium-137 can also come from nuclear accidents. The little-known Kyshtym Disaster of 1957 in Russia released 7.4 X 1016 Bq, which killed 200 people, evacuated 10 000 and affected about a quarter of a million others. Another source claims that in the same Chelyabinsk province region, about half a million people were irradiated in three separate incidents, exposing them to as much as 20 times the radiation suffered by the Chernobyl victims in 1986.

For fear of ringing alarm bells over levels in old wines,  comparison to natural background radiation is made and points out that whatever gamma released by those wines is insignificantly smaller.  Even if we consider that cesium-137 wasn’t the only isotope released—beta-releasing carbon-14 in Australian wines shows a similar pattern— the combined amount of radiation originating from those 1960s wines is still miniscule. But for people living at the time, they were also ingesting other foods, so needless to say, for that reason and others, the nuclear test ban was more than necessary. Any man-made radiation from radionuclides is added on to other sources of beta, gamma or alpha and to that of medical X-rays,  all of which lead to more of an assault on our DNA.


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