Newfound Bacteria Gobble Up Hazardous, er, Nuclear Waste

PacMan eating pelletsBefore Halo, Need for Speed and even Super Mario, there was PacMan.  No, not the boxer from the Philippines who eats away Latino boxers with his gloves, though that comes pretty close.

PacMan is a voracious eater that is chased by ghosts – that is until he eats a power pellet.  The power pellet gives him extra powers that turns ghosts white in fear as he tries to eat them.

Scientists discovered bacteria that act like PacMan that, instead of eating power pellets, eat a residue in nuclear wastes.  Researchers in the UK found extremophile bacteria in an industrial site in the Peak District in England that do just that.

Nuclear waste is mixed with cement or asphalt before they are buried in an underground chamber.  Unfortunately, encasing the toxic and radioactive wastes in cement doesn’t totally solve the problem of disposal in the way that it worked on the mob’s enemies.  In fact, if the cemented waste gets into contact with water, you create a new problem.  Instead of sleeping with fishes, the nuclear wastes may actually come alive.

As water comes into contact with the cement, it becomes an alkali mixture.  This breaks down a part of the nuclear waste, particularly the cellulosic components, into organic acids – a major part of which is isosaccharinic acid (ISA).  ISA is particularly scary because it dissolves radioactive isotopes such as uranium and may cause it to leak.  Because of this phenomenon, the specter of nuclear contamination of our water supplies shadows us.

The bacteria found in Peak District were thriving in highly alkaline environments.  What’s more, they actually thrived on ISA.  It’s like swimming in lye, then drinking vinegar.

Extremophile bacteria, photo from University of Manchester
Extremophile bacteria, photo from University of Manchester

In the meantime, the researchers are still characterizing how these bacteria actually tick and how they will be able to control nuclear leaks by dissolving ISA.  Just the same, we can become less worried about the Homer Simpsons of the world, thanks to this discovery.

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