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The Geomicrobiology of Cementitious Radioactive Waste

Publication Date
Manchester eScholar
  • Biogeochemistry
  • Alkaline
  • Metal Reduction
  • Radwaste
  • Geodisposal
  • Radionuclides
  • Alkaliphile
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It is government policy that the UK’s intermediate level radioactive wastes (ILW) will be disposed of in a deep geological disposal facility (GDF), where cementitious materials will be ubiquitous. After ILW disposal, groundwater ingress through the engineered facility is expected, forming a hyperalkaline plume from the cementitious materials into the surrounding host rock. This will form a persistent, high pH, “chemically disturbed zone” over timescales of 105 - 106 years, that will evolve from pH >13 to pH 10 over time. In the deep subsurface, microbial processes, particularly metal reduction may immobilise redox active radioactive contaminants in the waste, yet these reactions remain poorly characterised under these extreme conditions. In this project, microbiologically-mediated Fe(III) reduction was explored under alkaline conditions in sediment from a lime workings site in Buxton, UK, as an analogue for an ILW impacted subsurface environment. In addition, the impact of these processes on radionuclide (U, Tc and Np) behaviour was considered. Microcosms were set up using sediments taken from the site, adjusted to pH 10, augmented with electron donor (organic acids with yeast extract) and Fe(III), U(VI), Tc(VII) or Np(V) as electron acceptors. Biogeochemical processes were monitored using geochemistry, microbial ecology and X-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) techniques.A cascade of microbial reduction processes occurred at pH 10 – 10.5 in all microbially active systems. In Fe(III) enriched systems, the dominant post-reduction mineral phase was magnetite and the rate and extent of Fe(III) reduction was increased in the presence of extracellular (AQDS, Aldrich humic acid) and endogenous (riboflavin) electron shuttles. In U(VI) supplemented sediment systems, partial U(VI) reduction occurred to a non-uraninite phase, which was susceptible to reoxidation by air (O2) and nitrate. By contrast, in Fe(III)-augmented microcosms, more complete U removal to solids was noted, with uraninite identified as the end product, which was also reoxidised by air (O2) and nitrate. In these experiments there was, however, evidence to suggest that uranium was associated with the reoxidised Fe(III) mineral. In Tc supplemented microcosm experiments, complete Tc(VII) reduction occurred in systems with and without added Fe(III). In the microcosms with no added Fe(III) however, only partial Tc removal from solution occurred, despite evidence for complete reduction, suggesting that soluble or colloidal Tc(IV) may be present. Moderate Tc reoxidation occurred with air (O2) in both systems with and without added Fe(III) however no Tc remobilisation occurred during reoxidation with added nitrate. XAS on Fe(III) enriched sediments that had been microbially reduced and then re-oxidised by air, indicated that Tc may be associated with the reoxidised Fe mineral phase in these experiments. In the Np experiments, significant Np(V) sorption to sediments with and without added Fe(III) occurred initially, followed by Np(V) bioreduction to Np(IV). In all experiments, microbial (16S rRNA gene) profiling suggested a role for novel Gram-positive bacteria in Fe(III) and radionuclide reduction. These results highlight the significance of microorganisms on radionuclide biogeochemistry at high pH and have implications for the safe disposal of intermediate level nuclear wastes.

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