The Reporter
No 490, 19 May 2003
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As clear as mud – using bugs to beat pollution


Image of the Humber Estuary
©Hull Daily Mail Publications Ltd

Humber estuary mud could show us how to prevent the spread of radioactive pollution. Microbes within the mud ‘trap’ radioactive elements, Leeds researchers have discovered. They’re examining this natural process to see if it can provide a new means of handling nuclear waste.

Drs Kath Morris and Ian Burke from the school of environment are looking at technetium – a by-product of fuel reprocessing. The Humber estuary (pictured above) is free of the pollutant, so the researchers take samples of its normal, ‘clean’ mud, to compare with others where technetium has been added.

When microbes in estuary mud are cut off from air, they survive by using other elements to ‘breathe’ in place of oxygen. This happens naturally and is shown by the black colour often seen in shoreline mud just below the surface. The NERC-funded research at Leeds has found that when microbes in the mud are cut off from air, they trap technetium within the sediment.
“If technetium is trapped in sediment, there is less in the water, and so the pollutant doesn’t spread as far,” said Dr Morris. “This explains how technetium may behave once it’s released in liquid waste into the sea, but also opens up possible ways to treat and trap the pollutant.”

Since the 1950s, technitium has been released into the sea at Sellafield in small concentrations in liquid waste, but its behaviour once in the environment is still not fully understood. Other countries, particularly Norway, have expressed concern about increasing levels of technetium along their coastlines. The British government is considering a moratorium on discharges until appropriate technology can be developed to deal with the pollutant.

See the DEFRA press release on techetium discharge.


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