During the heyday of the Cold War, plants across the country processed uranium for use in nuclear weapons, and it is still used today in nuclear power plants, as well as much armor piercing ammunition. However, if uranium particles make their way underground, as they usually do, they can contaminate ground water for decades.
This is exactly what happened in Rifle, Colorado, where the local groundwater is still unsafe to drink. Getting rid of uranium particles is difficult and expensive, often requiring the use of powerful chemicals that are themselves dangerous. According to a team based out of Rutgers University though, there is hope to be found in biology.
It seems that a new strain of bacteria has been discovered there that “breathes” uranium, allowing the bacteria to process the metal for its life processes, which immobilizes the uranium, preventing it from contaminating the water brought to the surface. Scientists had noticed iron-breathing bacteria doing similar things with uranium in the past, but their findings were always inconclusive.
The team isn’t sure where the bacteria came from, or when it first evolved. Bacteria have short lifespans, but they do pass on genetic information, allowing subsequent generations to evolve based on the mutations within their parent generations. This is how bacteria become immune to antibiotics or heavy metal toxicity in water, so its likely that the bacteria evolved relatively recently to breathe uranium.
More tests and study is required, but the team hopes that this discovery will be valuable outside of Rifle, Colorado. If the bacteria work as expected, it might allow for the cleaning up of other contaminated sites. Although such sites are few in the United States, they do exist, and the threat of that contamination spread further always exists. Further, nuclear power can be found in other parts of the world, so uranium contamination is always a possibility. Furthermore, war torn regions, especially those which see significant use of depleted uranium rounds for anti-armor combat, could have use of such bacteria in the future.