Deconstructing Nuclear Fission & Nuclear Waste

Bacteria could help clean groundwater contaminated by uranium ore  

Date:June 15, 2015
Source:Rutgers University

A strain of bacteria that "breathes" uranium may hold the key to cleaning up polluted groundwater at sites where uranium  
ore was processed to make nuclear weapons.
A team of Rutgers University scientists and collaborators discovered the bacteria in soil at an old uranium ore mill in Rifle,  
Colorado, almost 200 miles west of Denver. The site is one of nine such mills in Colorado used during the heyday of  
nuclear weapons production.
The research is part of a U.S. Department of Energy program to see if microorganisms can lock up uranium that leached  
into the soil years ago and now makes well water in the area unsafe to drink.
The team's discovery, published in the April 13, 2015 issue of PLOS ONE, is the first known instance where scientists have  
found a bacterium from a common class known as betaproteobacteria that breathes uranium. This bacterium can breathe  
either oxygen or uranium to drive the chemical reactions that provide life-giving energy.
"After the newly discovered bacteria interact with uranium compounds in water, the uranium becomes immobile," said Lee  
Kerkhof, a professor of marine and coastal sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. "It is no  
longer dissolved in the groundwater and therefore can't contaminate drinking water brought to the surface."
Kerkhof leads the Rutgers team that works with U.S. Department of Energy researchers.
Breathing uranium is rather rare in the microbial world. Most examples of bacteria which can respire uranium cannot  
breathe oxygen but often breathe compounds based on metals -- typically forms of solid iron. Scientists had previously  
witnessed decreasing concentrations of uranium in groundwater when iron-breathing bacteria were active, but they have  
yet to show that those iron-breathing bacteria were directly respiring the uranium.
While the chemical reaction that the bacteria perform on uranium is a common process known as "reduction," or the act of  
accepting electrons, Kerkhof said it's still a mystery how the reduced uranium produced by this microorganism ultimately  
behaves in the subsurface environment.
"It appears that they form uranium nanoparticles," he said, but the mineralogy is still not well known and will be the subject  
of ongoing research.
The Rutgers team was able to isolate the uranium-breathing bacterium in the lab by recognizing that uranium in samples  
from the Rifle site could be toxic to microorganisms as well as humans. The researchers looked for signs of bacterial  
activity when they gradually added small amounts of dissolved uranium at the right concentration back to the samples  
where uranium had become immobilized. Once they found the optimal uranium concentrations, they were able to isolate  
the novel strain.
Exactly how the strain evolved, Kerkhof said, "we are not sure." But, he explained, bacteria have the ability to pass genes to  
each other. So just like bacteria pick up resistance to things like antibiotics and heavy metal toxicity, this bacterium "picked  
up a genetic element that's now allowing it to detoxify uranium, to actually grow on uranium." His research team has  
completed sequencing its genome to support future research into the genetic elements that allow the bacterium to grow on  
What Kerkhof is optimistic about is the potential for these bacteria to mitigate the specific groundwater pollution problem in  
Rifle. Scientists at first expected the groundwater to flush into the Colorado River and carry the dissolved uranium with it,  
where it would get diluted to safer levels. But that hasn't happened. Other potential methods of remediation, such as digging  
up the contaminated soil or treating it with harsh chemicals, are thought to be too expensive or hazardous.
"Biology is a way to solve this contamination problem, especially in situations like this where the radionuclides are highly  
diluted but still present at levels deemed hazardous," said Kerkhof. If the approach is successful, it could be considered for  
other sites where uranium was processed for nuclear arsenals or power plant fuel. While the problem isn't widespread, he  
said there's potentially a lot of water to be concerned about. And the problem could spread beyond traditional places such  
as ore processing sites.
"There is depleted uranium in a lot of armor-piercing munitions," he said, "so places like the Middle East that are  
experiencing war could be exposed to high levels of uranium in the groundwater."
Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Rutgers University. The original item was written by Carl Blesch.  
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

Nicole M. Koribanics, Steven J. Tuorto, Nora Lopez-Chiaffarelli, Lora R. McGuinness, Max M. Häggblom, Kenneth H.  
Williams, Philip E. Long, Lee J. Kerkhof. Spatial Distribution of an Uranium-Respiring Betaproteobacterium at the Rifle, CO  
Field Research Site. PLOS ONE, 2015; 10 (4): e0123378 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0123378

Although the following commentaries are from SCIENCE magazine published by the American Association for the  
Advancement of Science with regard to spent nuclear waste and do not address the deconstruction of the nuclear chain  
reaction, this is an important consideration. The recent news that China is going to reuse their nuclear rods repeatedly,  
moving them to new reactors for many years to come is a remarkable move forward for humanity and the environment.
                                                                                                    Embrace Editors

Nuclear Waste
Thorium’s Potential

IN THEIR POLICY FORUM “NUCLEAR WASTE: Knowledge waste?” (13 August, p 762), E.A. Rosa et al. overlook a  
possible solution to nuclear waste: alternative fuel cycles, particularly the Thorium Fluoride, Molten-Salt Reactor (Thorium  

The use of Thorium as a fertile reactor input has the potential to greatly reduce high-level reactor wastes (1). (Thorium-232  
is bred by the reactor’s internal neutron flux to Uranium-233, which is then efficiently fissioned by another neutron. A small  
proton accelerator can also do the breeding. U233 is unnatural, because of a short half-life, but fissions more easily than  
the U235 used in typical reactors.) Adopting the MSR would further reduce waste by orders of magnitude (1,2) - there is not  
solid fuel or refueling waste, and all fissiles entering the salts are consumed. …




CANNARA RECOMMENDS THE ADOPTION OF the Thorium Molten-Salt Reactor. We urge caution. The nuclear industry  
has never fully realized safety and other promises, Grimes and Nuttall (1) explain that the fissile Uranium-233 produced by  
the slow neutron capture of Thorium-232 “is difficult to extract and handle, because it is produced together with other highly  
radioactive isotopes, and the performance of thorium fuels is not well understood. The proliferation resistance credentials of  
the thorium fuel cycle deserve greater scrutiny but appear promising.” These are precisely the kinds of uncertainties and  
risks that should be part of a wider public discourse about energy choices. …

Eugene A. Rose, Seth P. Tuler, Baruch Fischhoff, Thomas Webler, Sharon M. Friedman, Richard E. Sclove, Kristin  
Shrader-Frechette, Mary R. English, Roger E. Kasperson, Robert L. Goble, Thomas M. Leschine, William Freudenburg,  
Caron Chess, Charles Perrow, Kai Erickson, James F. Short


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