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The ISME Journal
Vol. 9, 2015, Pages: 310–320

Microbial degradation of isosaccharinic acid at high pH

Naji M Bassil, Nicholas Bryan and Jonathan R Lloyd

Research Centre for Radwaste and Decommissioning and Williamson Research Centre for Molecular Environmental Science, School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK.


Intermediate-level radioactive waste (ILW), which dominates the radioactive waste inventory in the United Kingdom on a volumetric basis, is proposed to be disposed of via a multibarrier deep geological disposal facility (GDF). ILW is a heterogeneous wasteform that contains substantial amounts of cellulosic material encased in concrete. Upon resaturation of the facility with groundwater, alkali conditions will dominate and will lead to the chemical degradation of cellulose, producing a substantial amount of organic co-contaminants, particularly isosaccharinic acid (ISA). ISA can form soluble complexes with radionuclides, thereby mobilising them and posing a potential threat to the surrounding environment or ‘far field’. Alkaliphilic microorganisms sampled from a legacy lime working site, which is an analogue for an ILW-GDF, were able to degrade ISA and couple this degradation to the reduction of electron acceptors that will dominate as the GDF progresses from an aerobic ‘open phase’ through nitrate- and Fe(III)-reducing conditions post closure. Furthermore, pyrosequencing analyses showed that bacterial diversity declined as the reduction potential of the electron acceptor decreased and that more specialised organisms dominated under anaerobic conditions. These results imply that the microbial attenuation of ISA and comparable organic complexants, initially present or formed in situ, may play a role in reducing the mobility of radionuclides from an ILW-GDF, facilitating the reduction of undue pessimism in the long-term performance assessment of such facilities.


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