Microbes being studied in the United Kingdom can chow down on toxic nuclear waste — and they don’t get heartburn after dinner.
“It doesn’t kill them,” Jonathan Lloyd, a geomicrobiologist at the University of Manchester who is studying the odd bacterial eating habits, said in a report from Science Hub. “If anything, it actually stimulates the microbes.”
This process has the potential to take care of one of the biggest criticisms regarding nuclear energy — radioactive waste. In England, there’s enough nuclear waste to fill Wembley Stadium four times, Science Hub reports.
Here in the U.S., there are 55 power plants in 28 states, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. They are a reliable, around-the-clock producer of low-carbon energy. In 2022, the nuclear generators provided about 18% of the country’s power, according to federal statistics. The majority of energy, about 60%, still comes from dirty energy sources like coal and gas.
So, a little help from our bacterial friends could light the way for a cleaner energy future. One reactor, for instance, can power hundreds of thousands of homes.
The U.K. study found that the microbes replaced oxygen in their diet with radioactive elements like uranium. This would help manage leaks at the toxic dump sites where nuclear waste is disposed.
The U.S. Energy Department has a fact sheet that also clears up some misconceptions about nuclear waste. For instance, there is no fluorescent green ooze leaking from drums in government cellars. The fuel used in modern reactors is stored as solid ceramic pellets.
“The fuel is a solid when it goes into the reactor and a solid when it comes out,” the fact sheet states.
The U.S. makes about 2,205 tons of nuclear waste a year, less than half the volume of an Olympic swimming pool, and enough to reduce air pollution by 441 million tons. The government stores the spent fuel at more than 70 sites in 35 states in what officials call a safe process.
But nightmares like Chornobyl (Ukrainian spelling) still haunt nuclear-wary critics. Plus, there are other criticisms, such as the fact that it uses elements like uranium, which are relatively scarce.
Still, safely storing, recycling, and — in the case of the Manchester microbes — eating the waste could help to bury at least some of these nuclear fears.
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