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Researchers crack 50-year-old nuclear waste problem, make storage safer

Date:March 16, 2016
Source:University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have adapted a technology  
developed for solar energy in order to selectively remove one of the trickiest and most-difficult-to-
remove elements in nuclear waste pools across the country, making the storage of nuclear waste  
safer and nontoxic -- and solving a decades-old problem.

The work, published in Science, not only opens the door to expand the use of one of the most  
efficient energy sources on the planet, but also adds a key step in completing the nuclear fuel cycle  
-- an advance, along with wind and solar, that could help power the world's energy needs cleanly for  
the future.

Americium doesn't have the same name recognition as a plutonium and uranium, but researchers  
have been trying to remove it from nuclear waste for decades. Several groups initially succeeded,  
only to be met with several subsequent problems down the line, rendering the solution unfeasible.  
Meyer and his team, including Chris Dares, who spearheaded the project, have found a way to  
remove the radioactive element without encountering downstream problems that have hindered  

The technology Meyer and Dares developed is closely related to the one used by Meyer at the UNC  
Energy Frontier Research Center of Solar Fuels to tear electrons from water molecules. In the  
americium project, Meyer and Dares adapted the technology to tear electrons from americium, which  
requires twice as much energy input as splitting water. By removing those three electrons,  
americium behaves like plutonium and uranium, which is then easy to remove with existing  

Dares describes that nuclear fuel is initially used as small solid pellets loaded into long, thin rods. To  
reprocess them, the used fuel is first dissolved in acid and the plutonium and uranium separated. In  
the process, americium will either be separated with plutonium and uranium or removed in a second  

Meyer and Dares worked closely with Idaho National Laboratory (INL), who provided research  
support and technical guidance on working with nuclear materials. Most of the experiments were  
carried out in the laboratories at Idaho, which provided a safe area to work with radioactive material.  
At present, INL and UNC-Chapel Hill are in discussion about extending the research and to possible  
scale up of the technology.

"With INL working with us, we have a strong foundation for scaling up this technology," said Dares.  
"With a scaled up solution, not only will we no longer have to think about the dangers of storing  
radioactive waste long-term, but we will have a viable solution to close the nuclear fuel cycle and  
contribute to solving the world's energy needs. That's exciting."

Story Source:
The above post is reprinted from materials provided by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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 MSR).

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