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    The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
    • 2015-01-22 16:00:00
    • Article ID: 628707

    SLAC Scientists Search for New Ways to Deal with U.S. Uranium Ore Processing Legacy

    New Field Project Tests Link Between Organic Materials and Persistent Uranium Contamination

    • Credit: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

      A new field project, led by SLAC researchers and the DOE Office of Legacy Management, is using X-ray techniques to target long-lived groundwater contamination (large dark brown area) at former uranium ore processing sites in the floodplains of the upper Colorado River basin. The visible signs of ore processing, tailings piles and contaminated buildings, were cleaned up in the 1990s, and scientists expected that remaining uranium in the ground should have been flushed out into nearby rivers by now (yellow arrow). However, recent estimates predict that contamination will persist for a long period of time, in some cases longer than 100 years. The goal of this new study is to determine why uranium persists in groundwater; scientists will test the hypothesis that buried zones of organic material (dark brown horizontal stripes) store uranium and release it into the water. Samples are being collected in drilling operations and will be analyzed at SLAC’s X-ray facility SSRL.

    • Credit: top: DOE Office of Legacy Management, bottom: John Bargar/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

      Site of the former uranium mill in Rifle, Colorado, in the 1950s (top) and today (bottom). Although the remediated site looks clean, uranium levels in the groundwater remain above safe levels, continuing to pose risks to human health and the environment.

    • Credit: John Bargar/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

      The new project includes six former uranium ore processing sites in the upper Colorado River basin: Grand Junction, Gunnison, Naturita and Rifle in Colorado, Shiprock, New Mexico, and Riverton, Wyoming.

    • Credit: John Bargar/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

      The team drills into contaminated sediments at the Naturita site, Colorado, to collect samples from various depths. Zones rich in organic material, which are believed to be a major factor in trapping uranium contamination, are generally found 10 to 30 feet below the surface.

    Researchers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are trying to find out why uranium persists in groundwater at former uranium ore processing sites despite remediation of contaminated surface materials two decades ago. They think buried organic material may be at fault, storing toxic uranium at levels that continue to pose risks to human health and the environment, and hope their study will pave the way for better long-term site management and protection of the public and environment.

    The contaminated sites, on floodplains in the upper Colorado River basin, operated from the 1940s to the 1970s to produce “yellowcake,” a precursor of uranium fuel used in nuclear power plants and weapons. In the 1990s, site surfaces were cleaned up, and remaining uranium in the ground was expected to flush out over time due to natural groundwater flow across the sites.

    “Uranium dissolved in groundwater flows slowly into nearby rivers, where it becomes diluted below the uranium concentrations naturally present in river water,” says John Bargar, SLAC’s project lead and researcher at the lab’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), a DOE Office of Science User Facility. “However, studies have shown that the groundwater contamination is unexpectedly long-lived.”

    Buried Organic Material Stores Uranium

    But why is this pollution so persistent? To find out, Bargar’s research group recently joined forces with the DOE Office of Legacy Management, which is in charge of the contaminated sites. “Our collaboration is motivated by the need to better understand the geochemical and biological factors influencing uranium mobility and transport,” says William Dam, a hydrologist and site manager at the Office of Legacy Management. “We want to understand the way uranium gets from the ground into the groundwater, creating a plume of contamination in which uranium concentrations stay above regulatory safety requirements.”

    Previous field research by Bargar’s team and collaborators at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) at the site of a former uranium mill in Rifle, Colorado, has provided a possible explanation for the longevity of the uranium contamination. It revealed that up to 95 percent of the subsurface uranium is concentrated in zones of organic-rich sediment – the buried remains of plants and other organisms along former Colorado River stream banks – generally located 10 to 30 feet underground. These organic substances appear to store large amounts of uranium, restricting its mobility and releasing it very slowly into the surrounding water over many years. Current estimates predict that the contamination will not flush away for at least another 100 years at several sites.

    Collaboration Enables Region-wide Testing

    “Our model for Rifle predicts that organic-rich zones may generally influence uranium mobility throughout the upper Colorado River basin and therefore could also play an important role at other sites,” says Bargar. As highlighted in the latest Office of Legacy Management Quarterly Report, the new project will include five additional sites in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. The field work started from August to October last year at four sites, and more sample-collecting expeditions will follow this spring.

    For Bargar, the collaboration with the Office of Legacy Management is a key factor in the success of the project. “Access to those sites is regulated, and some of them are in very remote locations,” he says. “Our partners from the Office of Legacy Management, as well as LBNL, provide us with site access and logistical support. They also carry out the drilling operations required to take sediment and water samples.”

    X-ray Studies of Chemical and Biological Factors

    Samples from the field work are shipped to SSRL, where Bargar’s team will analyze them with a variety of X-ray techniques. Scheduled to begin in late January, these experiments will determine the chemical form of uranium in samples from various depths. Some forms of uranium dissolve better in water than others, and the study can reveal how the presence of particular chemical forms in organic-rich zones affects overall uranium mobility at the contaminated sites. The study will also investigate the types of organic carbon present in the ground to help understand how it influences uranium behavior.

    The researchers will combine the X-ray data with studies of how bacteria affect uranium chemistry. “We know that microbes strongly influence the chemical form of uranium and, hence, its mobility,” Bargar says. “By collecting information about microbial populations present in the sediments, we hope to gain information about how and when bacteria do that, and how bacteria couple subsurface carbon chemistry to uranium behavior.”

    A deeper understanding of the various factors controlling uranium mobility could potentially lead to better ways of cleaning up the nation’s legacy of contamination from uranium mining and processing, and may help researchers devise new remediation strategies for contaminated sites in the upper Colorado River basin and elsewhere.

    Bargar’s research is funded by the Subsurface Biogeochemistry Research activity of the DOE Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Climate and Environmental Science Division, which is interested in fundamental biological and geochemical processes controlling the behavior of uranium and important related subsurface constituents such as organic carbon. The field project involves additional team members from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Sustainable Systems Science Focus Area.

    SLAC is a multi-program laboratory exploring frontier questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. Located in Menlo Park, Calif., SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. For more information, please visit slac.stanford.edu.

    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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    Spotlighting Differences in Closely-Related Species

    Aspergillus fungi play roles in fields including bioenergy, health, and biotechnology. In Nature Genetics, a team led by scientists at the Technical University of Denmark, the DOE Joint Genome Institute, and the Joint Bioenergy Institute, present the first large analysis of an Aspergillus fungal subgroup, section Nigri.

    Researchers switch material from one state to another with a single flash of light

    Scientists from the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have demonstrated a surprisingly simple way of flipping a material from one state into another, and then back again, with single flashes of laser light.

    The Stories Behind the Science: How Does the Ocean's Saltiness Affect Tropical Storms?

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    Ames Laboratory has developed a method to measure magnetic properties of superconducting and magnetic materials that exhibit unusual quantum behavior at very low temperatures in high magnetic fields.

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    Argonne scientists have identified a new class of topological materials made by inserting transition metal atoms into the atomic lattice of a well-known two-dimensional material.

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    New simulations confirm efficiency of waste-removal process in plasma device

    PPPL scientists have found evidence suggesting that a process could remove the unwanted ash produced during fusion reactions and make the fusion processes more efficient within a type of fusion facility known as a field-reversed configuration device.

    How Animals Use Their Tails to Swish and Swat Away Insects

    A new study shows how animals use their tails to keep mosquitoes at bay by combining a swish that blows away most of the biting bugs and a swat that kills the ones that get through.


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    Physicist Takes Cues from Artificial Intelligence

    In the world of computing, there's a groundswell of excitement for what is perceived as the impending revolution in artificial intelligence. Like the industrial revolution in the 19th century and the digital revolution in the 20th, the AI revolution is expected to change the way we live and work. Now, Cristiano Fanelli aims to bring the AI revolution to nuclear physics.

    Engineering professor receives Department of Energy grant

    New Mexico State University Department of Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Ehsan Dehghan Niri has received a United States Department of Energy grant. This is a three-year award for $400,000 and is a collaboration with Arizona State University.

    Argonne and Capstone receive funding to advance thermal energy storage technology

    The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory and Capstone Turbine Corp. have received $380,000 in DOE Technology Commercialization Funding to refine Argonne's high-efficiency, fast charging/discharging latent heat thermal energy storage system (TESS) for use in building applications and process/manufacturing industries.

    AVS and AIP Publishing Expand Partnership to Launch AVS Quantum Science

    AIP Publishing and AVS: Science and Technology of Materials, Interfaces, and Processing (AVS) today announced an agreement to publish AVS Quantum Science, a new online interdisciplinary journal. The announcement coincides with the AVS 65th International Symposium & Exhibition in Long Beach, California, from October 21-26, 2018.

    Prototype Solar Energy, Battery Systems to Fuel Commercialization

    Designing, building and testing prototype systems that show how renewable energy can power devices, such as a weather and soil sensor station, can help bridge the gap between basic science research and commercialization.

    Argonne to Advance High Performance Computing in Manufacturing

    Argonne awarded funding to partner with Industry to advance the use of high performance computing in manufacturing.

    "Invisible Glass" Wins 2018 Create the Future Design Contest Grand Prize

    Scientists from the Center for Functional Nanomaterials developed a technique for making nonreflecting glass, silicon, and plastic surfaces.

    Missouri S&T researchers win multimillion dollar grant to build fast-charging stations for electric cars

    Researchers from Missouri S&T and three private companies will combine their expertise to create charging stations for electric vehicles that could charge a car in less than 10 minutes - matching the time it takes to fill up a conventional vehicle with gasoline."The big problem with electric vehicles is range, and it's not so much range as range anxiety.

    Making batteries store more energy, last longer

    A new solid polymer electrolyte may help make cell phone batteries store more energy and last longer.

    Three Brookhaven Lab Scientists Named Fellows of American Physical Society

    The American Physical Society (APS), the world's largest physics organization, has elected three scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory as 2018 APS fellows.


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    Cryocooler Cools an Accelerator Cavity

    Researchers demonstrated cryogen-free operation of a superconducting radio-frequency cavity that might ease barriers to its use in societal applications.

    Shining Light on the Separation of Rare Earth Metals

    New studies identify key molecular characteristics to potentially separate rare earth metals cleanly and efficiently with light.

    Placing Atoms for Optimum Catalysts

    Precise positioning of oxygens could help engineer faster, more efficient energy-relevant chemical transformations.

    How to Make Soot and Stardust

    Scientists unlock mystery that could help reduce emissions of fine particles from combustion engines and other sources.

    Breaking the Symmetry Between Fundamental Forces

    Scientists improve our understanding of the relationship between fundamental forces by re-creating the earliest moments of the universe.

    Water Plays Unexpected Role in Forming Minerals

    Water molecules line up tiny particles to attach and form minerals; understanding how this happens impacts energy extraction and storage along with waste disposal.

    Heavy Particles Get Caught Up in the Flow

    First direct measurement show how heavy particles containing a charm quark get caught up in the flow of early universe particle soup.

    Seeing Between the Atoms

    New detector enables electron microscope imaging at record-breaking resolution.

    Scaling Up Single-Crystal Graphene

    New method can make films of atomically thin carbon that are over a foot long.

    Discovered: Optimal Magnetic Fields Suppress Instabilities in Tokamak Plasmas

    U.S. and Korean scientists show how to find and use beneficial 3-D field perturbations to stabilize dangerous edge-localized modes in plasma.


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