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Nuclear Waste Eating Bacteria Discovered
Sep 12, 2014

Scientists discovered tiny single-cell organisms living underground could help dispose the hazardous nuclear waste. Although bacteria with waste-eating properties have been  discovered in relatively pristine soils before, this is the first time that microbes that can survive in the very harsh conditions expected in radioactive waste disposal sites have been found. The disposal of nuclear waste is very challenging, with very large volumes destined for burial deep underground. The largest volume of radioactive waste, termed intermediate level, will be encased in concrete prior to disposal into underground vaults. 

When ground waters eventually reach these waste materials, they will react with the cement and become highly alkaline. This change drives a series of chemical reactions, triggering the breakdown of the various cellulose based materials that are present in these complex wastes. One such product linked to these activities, Isosaccharinic Acid (ISA), causes much concern as it can react with a wide range of radionuclides–unstable and toxic elements that are formed during the production of nuclear power and make up the radioactive component of nuclear waste.

If the ISA binds to radionuclides, such as uranium, then the radionuclides will become far more soluble and more likely to flow out of the underground vaults to surface environments, where they could enter drinking water or the food chain. However, the researchers’ new findings indicate that microorganisms may prevent this becoming a problem. Working on soil samples from a highly alkaline industrial site in the Peak District in the UK, which is not radioactive but does suffer from severe contamination with highly alkaline lime kiln wastes, they discovered specialist extremophile bacteria that thrive under the alkaline conditions expected in cement-based radioactive waste.

The organisms are not only superbly adapted to live in the highly alkaline lime wastes, but they can use the ISA as a source of food and energy under conditions that mimic those expected in and around intermediate level radioactive waste disposal sites.


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