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Some Like It Hot: Containing Nuclear Contamination with Microbes

How microbes help mitigate the flow of radioactive contaminants.
May 1, 2017
Microbes mitigate the flow of radioactive contaminants

Occasionally, radioactive nuclear waste that has been stored in basins or drums can leak out. As this contamination spreads through the environment, microbial populations in the soil can alter its chemistry, causing it to stick to the rocks and soil around it and significantly slowing its spread.

Microbes are one of the principal actors determining what happens to radioactive particles in the soil.

During the Manhattan Project and the Cold War decades that followed, the United States produced large amounts of nuclear waste at weapons-program sites such as Hanford in Washington state and Savannah River in South Carolina. Unfortunately, some of this waste has begun to leak out of its storage containers, threatening to contaminate the soil and rivers of surrounding communities.

Los Alamos scientist Chris Yeager and his collaborators have been studying waste at these sites for over ten years, focusing specifically on radioactive iodine and plutonium, and have identified some key aspects about what happens to the waste when it enters the ecosystem. Most notably, their data show that microorganisms in the soil and water can modify the waste, changing its ability to flow through the environment—a discovery that now stands to significantly change how the U.S. Department of Energy develops future models of radioactive contaminant mobility.