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article imageBacteria could be used to 'eat nuclear waste'

By Tim Sandle     Sep 12, 2014 in Science
Manchester - Researchers have unearthed microbes, found living underground, that could help tackle the problem of nuclear waste disposal. The bacteria can survive in the very harsh conditions found in radioactive waste disposal sites.
Nuclear power is increasingly being seen as the power source of the future (environmental concerns notwithstanding). One of the problems with nuclear power is with waste disposal. One means of disposing of nuclear waste is to take large volumes of material and bury it deep underground. Such waste is encased in concrete prior to disposal into underground vaults. What happens, over time, is that ground waters eventually reach the waste materials. This causes a reaction with the cement and the waters 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 of the products generated is isosaccharinic acid (ISA). This causes scientists concern because it can react with the unstable elements that are produced from nuclear power and which constitute the radioactive component of nuclear waste. Potentially, if ISA binds to these radionuclides then they will become soluble and could flow out of the underground vaults to surface environment.
This concern was the basis for the hunt for microorganisms that could help to detoxify the nuclear waste run-off. By studying soil samples from a highly alkaline industrial site in the Peak District in England, scientists have found a candidate microorganism called Ancylobacter aquaticus.
These organisms can use the ISA as a source of food and energy under conditions that mimic those expected in and around intermediate level nuclear waste disposal sites. Although further research is required, the organisms have the potential to help to eliminate the types of nuclear water that could enter rivers or streams (and potentially the human food chain).
The research was carried out at The University of Manchester, U.K. The findings have been published in the Journal of Microbial Ecology, in a paper titled “Microbial degradation of isosaccharinic acid at high pH”.
More about Bacteria, Nuclear, Nuclear power, Nuclear waste
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