Tuesday, April 19, 2011

280. Microbes That Eat Radioactive Materials

By Curtis Cost, newsvie.com, April 19, 2011 
The damaged reactors at Fukushima are pouring out radioactive material over Japan and around the world, but the solution may be tiny microbes that actually eat uranium and plutonium. These microbes are called extremophiles and they have been known about since 1956. They can withstand radiation 15 times what would kill humans and they actually seek out and eat uranium and plutonium transforming them into far less dangerous substances. These microbes actually live and thrive in environments that would kill almost anything else. They can grow on nuclear rods, in nuclear waste, in toxic waste, and in boiling water. Despite numerous studies that have been conducted on them, scientists aren’t sure how these creatures are able to survive exposure to intense radiation,. There are different theories about their origin. Some believe that they may have been brought to the Earth by an asteroid while others speculate that they were the first life forms on the planet when the Earth was forming. Extremophiles are considered to be a new category of life form known as: archea.
A variety of species of extremophiles have been discovered such as Kineococcus, Geobacter sulfurreducens and Geobacter metallireducens. These microbes not only eat radioactive material, but they actively seek them out like a predator seeking out its prey. The U.S. Department of Energy and other government and private entities have conducted experiments using these microbes to help clean up the billions of tons of nuclear waste sites around America. The tests have proven very successful. For example the Rifle Mill in Western Colorado was used to mine uranium and was closed in 1972. The ground water in the area was contaminated with extremely high levels of uranium. This was the result:
“Researchers funded by the U.S. Department of Energy have used the microbe to reduce uranium in the water at Rifle Mill by over 70 percent and further research this past summer reduced uranium in water at the site by 90 percent.”
Another study found that extremophiles also can transform plutonium in such a way that it is easier to remove from solution.
“In this study we investigated the effect of two model metal-reducing bacteria, Geobacter sulfurreducens and Shewanella oneidensis, on the redox speciation of Pu. Our results show that in all cases, the presence of bacterial cells enhanced removal of Pu from solution.”
Many other studies have been done with positive results. The U.S. Department of Energy speculates that the cost to clean up the nuclear waste sites around America to be at $260 billion, but they also note that these microbes could do the job at a fraction of the cost. Researchers have found that the growth of extremophiles can be encouraged with the use of vinegar among other things. Fortunately, extremophiles are harmless to humans. Some genetically modified versions are more problematic because of the many unknowns about what they will do once released into the environment. One of these genetic modifications have been labeled “Super Conan”.
The situation in Japan keeps getting worse and the best case scenarios would have Fukushima continuing to shoot radioactive material into the atmosphere for months, whereas the worse case scenarios predict that this could go on for years! Already the water in Tokyo has been declared unsafe to drink. Water samples in the U.S. have detected radiation levels in the water well above the federal government’s safety limits. It is also showing up in the milk supply which threatens all dairy products. The longer this situation drags on, the more people in Japan and around the world will be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. These microbes could be a part of the solution in resolving this problem. Roughly 50 years of research have shown that these microbes are effective in helping to clean up radioactive material. Robots could be used to carry these microbes into position. Of course there are logistics involved such as how much of these microbes are readily available, how fast they can be grown, how much is needed, how much they can accomplish in a given period of time and so forth, all of which can be addressed. The sad fact is this option is not even being considered; at least it is not being discussed in the mainstream media by government and industry officials. The question is why? The data is out there, so why is this option not being considered as part of an overall plan to deal with this crisis. These tiny microbes might very well be the solution that helps save Japan and much of the world from a radioactive nightmare.
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FRMurph1 said...

But microbes can't change the half-life of Pu and U. The radioactivity must remain in some form.

Kamran Nayeri said...

You are correct. What these microbes can do is to separate the radioactive material from water (or other solvents) for easier cleaning of contamination.