The Biogeochemistry of Radioactively Contaminated Land

  • Clare Thorpe

Student thesis: Phd


A global legacy of radioactively contaminated land exists as a result of nuclear fuel cycle operations. Demonstration of the safe management of the UK nuclear legacy, including contaminated land, is important whilst the long term fate of legacy waste remains uncertain and the UK is moves towards new nuclear power. One aspect of nuclear contaminated land research focuses on the immobilisation of intermediate and long lived radionuclides that are mobile in groundwater and are migrating in the environment. At Sellafield nuclear facility, UK, strontium-90 and technetium-99 are found as co-contaminants in groundwater alongside the most abundant non radioactive contaminant, nitrate. Their differing radiochemical behaviour and the presence of nitrate presents a challenge for remediation strategies. Bioremediation has the potential for in-situ immobilization of 99Tc via reduction from mobile Tc(VII) to less mobile Tc(IV) concurrent with Fe(III) reduction. In this project bioreduction processes were investigated in sediment microcosms and model systems under variable pH and nitrate conditions and using microorganisms representative of the Sellafield site. Sediment bioreduction occurred via stimulation of the natural microbial community. Denitrification resulted a delay in the onset of metal reduction followed by a raised pH. At the mildly acidic pH of the natural sediments, a nitrate concentration of 100 mM caused bioreduction to stall. However, at pH 7, reduction of 100 mM nitrate resulted in a final pH > 9 and alkaline Fe(III) reduction. In bioreduced sediments, the microbial ecology was dominated by nitrate reducing microorganisms and Fe(III) reducing enrichment cultures were necessary to identify relevant alkaline Fe(III) reducing bacteria. Enrichment cultures isolated a novel alkali tolerant Fe(III) reducing Serratia sp. with a growth range of pH 4 to 9. Increased pH resulting from denitrification decreased the mobility of Sr2+ via increased sorption to mineral surfaces. X-ray absorption spectroscopy confirmed Sr2+ incorporation into carbonate mineral phases above pH 8.5. Model systems showed reductive removal of 99Tc from solution by an Fe(II) bearing mineral assemblage at both pH 7 and 9. In contrast Sr2+ remained in solution at pH 7 and precipitated as SrCO3 at pH > 8.5. This study for the first time demonstrates the effects of high nitrate on pH in Sellafield type sediments, alkaline Fe(III) reduction by a Serratia sp, the incorporation behaviour of Sr2+ during sediment bioreduction and the behaviour of Sr2+ and 99Tc in novel Fe(II) mineral bearing model systems. These findings improve the understanding of radionuclide migration at contaminated sites and inform possible engineered bioremediation scenarios.
Date of Award31 Dec 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorKatherine Morris (Supervisor) & Jonathan Lloyd (Supervisor)


  • Sellafield
  • Iron reduction
  • Nuclear
  • Strontium
  • Technetium

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