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Science / Medicine : Bacteria Could 'Eat' Nuclear Spills

April 08, 1991|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Naturally occurring bacteria, already seen as a promising tool for cleaning up oil spills and toxic chemicals, could also help provide a solution for radioactive uranium wastes, a new study said last week. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey have identified a strain of bacteria that not only "eats" iron but also has an appetite for uranium, a common environmental contaminant at many nuclear fuel facilities, uranium-mining operations and federal atomic weapons plants.

The study found that the iron-eating microbes gobble up dissolved uranium in water, obtaining energy and forming solid deposits of the uranium metal. By fixing the uranium in insoluble clumps, the bacteria could help prevent the spread of uranium contamination in rivers, lakes or ground water, the study suggested.

The study said the same method might also work with other radioactive metals, such as plutonium and technetium, both of which have been discharged into soil at federal nuclear weapons facilities.

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