Science

Nuclear Waste Repositories Safer With Bacteria

By Rodney Rafols , Oct 15, 2016 03:00 AM EDT
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Bacteria are microorganisms that can both be beneficial or harmful to man. On the whole, they are necessary for the ecosystem even though they are small. Bacteria have been studied to help in cleaning up various types of waste. A type of bacteria could even be used to make nuclear waste repositories safe.

Researchers at EPFL say that there are naturally occurring bacteria that could consume hydrogen gas in nuclear waste repositories. These bacteria could then be a safe way to prevent radioactive leaks happening in such areas.

According to Phys Org, seven species of bacteria would be placed hundreds of meters underground at the site which would hold Switzerland's nuclear waste deposits. The researchers say that the design of the repository could be remade so that bacteria could thrive there. The bacteria would then eat hydrogen coming from the steel canisters. The canisters could corrode in time, which would pose a danger to the soil as well as surrounding areas.

The study has been conducted by Rizlan Bernier-Latmani. In his study, he noted that bacteria are everywhere and could be safely used in such places as nuclear repositories. Many of the bacteria have never been studied closely before, she adds.

The official EPFL site reports that Bernier-Latmani and her colleagues have studied bacteria in nuclear waste repositories five years ago. In that time, they have put bacteria to increasing amounts of hydrogen level. They monitored how bacteria respond to it, both on their population as well as individually. They also studied their potential to support biochemical pathways and what protein they would produce.

The study has shown that bacteria have responded by a change in their metabolism and population. This was after they have consumed much of the oxygen and iron in the test. They also thrived in hydrogen gas, especially for two of its species.

For safety, she proposed to add a fourth biological wall into the repositories. This wall would be made of porous material in which bacteria could thrive. From there, they could then feed on the hydrogen gas and sulfate coming from the rocks in the surrounding area.

However, while bacteria could feed on deadly hydrogen gas, it transforms this into methane, which could add to global warming. So far, she said that they are observing if bacteria could safely transform that methane. 

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