Radioactive waste microbiology: predicting microbial survival and activity in changing extreme environments

Gregory, Simon P.; Mackie, Jessica R.M.; Barnett, Megan J.. 2024 Radioactive waste microbiology: predicting microbial survival and activity in changing extreme environments. FEMS Microbiology Reviews, 48 (1), fuae001.

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The potential for microbial activity to occur within the engineered barrier system (EBS) of a geological disposal facility (GDF) for radioactive waste is acknowledged by waste management organizations as it could affect many aspects of the safety functions of a GDF. Microorganisms within an EBS will be exposed to changing temperature, pH, radiation, salinity, saturation, and availability of nutrient and energy sources, which can limit microbial survival and activity. Some of the limiting conditions are incorporated into GDF designs for safety reasons, including the high pH of cementitious repositories, the limited pore space of bentonite-based repositories, or the high salinity of GDFs in evaporitic geologies. Other environmental conditions such as elevated radiation, temperature, and desiccation, arise as a result of the presence of high heat generating waste (HHGW). Here, we present a comprehensive review of how environmental conditions in the EBS may limit microbial activity, covering HHGW and lower heat generating waste (LHGW) in a range of geological environments. We present data from the literature on the currently recognized limits to life for each of the environmental conditions described above, and nutrient availability to establish the potential for life in these environments. Using examples where each variable has been modelled for a particular GDF, we outline the times and locations when that variable can be expected to limit microbial activity. Finally, we show how this information for multiple variables can be used to improve our understanding of the potential for microbial activity to occur within the EBS of a GDF and, more broadly, to understand microbial life in changing environments exposed to multiple extreme conditions.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
ISSN: 1574-6976
Date made live: 13 Mar 2024 14:39 +0 (UTC)

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