Nuclear Energy: The Future of Bioremediation

Currently, the world consumes over eighty million barrels of oil per day [1]. Of these eighty million, eighteen million are consumed by the U.S. [1] Furthermore, the U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates a fifty-four percent increase in global oil consumption by 2025 [2]. Clearly, the world needs to take a decisive stand on future energy reliance.

Unfortunately, current alternative energy options cannot support the global population; the most economically viable source, hydropower, accounts only for seven percent of the U.S.’s energy consumption, and this ratio is unlikely to grow in the future [2].

World Consumption of Fuels

World Energy Breakdown

In the meantime, billions of tons of fossil fuel emissions pollute our atmosphere, and already the effects of these emissions are felt through global warming, acid rain, smog, and an increase in respiratory diseases [2, 3].Moreover, fossil fuels have been showing signs of running out, and it will take centuries before the supply is replenished.

And then there is nuclear power. Extremely controversial, the use of nuclear energy still manages to account for twenty percent of the United States’ electricity [4]. Furthermore, it has stable long term costs and an effective output; in comparison to the billions of tons of greenhouse gas and thousands of pollutants from fossil fuel, the annual spent nuclear fuel for the world is 12,000 tons [5]. However, nuclear energy has three divisive issues: the role of nuclear energy in war and terrorism, the disastrous plant failures, and, the most pressing problem, waste disposal.  Though several waste disposal propositions have been made in the U.S., including the idea to seal it in Mt. Yucca, none permanently solve the problem.

However, the answer to this problem lies not in isolated mountains, but with microscopic bacteria. Geobacter bacteria are microbes that have the surprising, and previously mystifying, ability to generate electricity while cleaning up uranium and other toxic materials in groundwater [6]. Having discovered the mechanics behind the bacteria, researchers are working to develop lasting solutions to nuclear waste disposal [6].

Field tested in a uranium cleanup site in Rifle, Colorado, Geobacter sulfurreducens showed promising results [7]. After scientists injected acetate, the bacteria’s food, into the groundwater, the microbes multiplied and rendered the uranium insoluble [7]. Consequently, uranium was prevented from seeping further into the wells and environment.  However, even though its ability has been extensively documented, only recently have researchers at the Michigan State University discovered the secret behind the microorganism’s ability.

Similar to nanowires, the bacterium’s conductive pili, hair-like structures on its surface, release the electrons the microbe produces into materials such as uranium; this in turn reduces the metal, making it much less soluble, while creating electricity [6]. Gemma Reguera, a Michigan State University AgBioResearch scientist, describes this process as “nature’s version of electroplating with uranium” [6]. She also foresees a wide range of possibilities from this new discovery: modifying the bacteria’s functional groups to extend its range to radioactive isotopes of technetium, plutonium, and cobalt, and replicating the bacteria’s ability with devices composed of nanowires, which would aid the cleanup of sites such as Fukushima where the bacteria cannot survive [6]. Yuri Gorby, a microbiologist of the University of Southern California believes that the new field of “electromicrobiology” can encompass other microbes with conductive nanowires, such as photosynthetic  cyanobacteria and thermopilic methanogens [6]. Overall this recent breakthrough not only represents an important advancement in bioremediation, the use of biological organisms to reduce radiation, but the potential of a microbial fuel cell that generates electricity while cleaning up nuclear waste. Consequently, even though this technology is still in its infancy, this discovery prompts a reexamination of its impact on nuclear energy in the future.

With a method to immobilize the waste, the immediate issue will be solved. However, the ethical debate still remains: are the potential disasters worth it?

While nuclear energy produces much less waste than fossil fuels, the waste it does produce lasts for a long time. At the moment spent nuclear waste is designated to remote storage units underground. However, low level radioactive waste is dangerous for three hundred to five hundred years, while the high level radiation can last for ten thousand [2].  The uncertainty of the level of security in the next couple centuries, let alone the next ten millennia, makes nuclear energy much less viable.

Furthermore, other ethical and political obstacles remain. For one, nuclear energy has become even more thoroughly enmeshed in global politics than fossil fuels. In the case of nuclear energy, stringent countermeasures have been made. For example, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, covering all countries except India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, halts the development of nuclear weapons and only promotes peaceful nuclear use [8]. Unfortunately, the fact still remains that nuclear plants are excellent targets in a war; a single well-aimed missile could trigger a devastating nuclear meltdown.

This leads into the final issue of nuclear plant failures.

Once touted as the panacea to the growing energy crisis, nuclear energy’s glowing reputation turned to dust along with the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, to name a few. While the infamous Chernobyl accident could be attributed to poorly trained staff and faulty equipment, the power plant of Fukushima was of newer technology. However, soon after the disaster it surfaced that a report made two decades ago identified the risk of such an event causing a nuclear failure for that type of plant; however, Tokyo Electric did not take adequate countermeasures [9]. In fact, in general the history of nuclear energy is characterized by governments and businesses either downplaying dangerous radioactivity or concealing crucial facts; the lack of transparency and accountability on their parts is a major deterrent as well.

The major advantage in the advancement of bioremediation is that it will greatly help prevent the escape of radiation from plants and the cleaning of nuclear disaster sites such as Fukushima and Chernobyl [2]. Also, it will allow outdated nuclear plants to be more effectively dismantled without releasing dangerous levels of radiation into the environment [2].

Society has a moral obligation to preserve the environment for future generations; at the same time, we must rise to meet our increasing energy needs. Although advancements in bioremediation will greatly facilitate cleanup of disaster sites, it cannot account for the politics behind nuclear energy. If the world is to switch more of its energy to nuclear sources, governments and businesses involved in the industry must increase transparency and accountability. Until then the future use of bioremediation will have to become a way for society to clean up nuclear mistakes of the past, not further nuclear energy in the future.


  1. International Energy Agency. [Internet] “World Oil Demand.” International Energy Agency.  [cited Dec. 17 2011]
  2. Blatt H. America’s environmental report card: Are we making the grade? Cambridge: The MIT Press; 2005.
  3. World Health Organization. [Internet] “Air quality and health.” World Health Organization. [cited Dec. 18 2011]
  4. Cologgi DL. [Internet] “Nuclear explained: Use of nuclear power.” U.S. Energy Information
    Administration. U.S. Department of Energy [cited  Sept. 8 2011]
  5. Dudley W. The environment: Opposing viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press; 2001
  6. Sweetlove L. [Internet]”Electrified bacterial filaments remove uranium from
    groundwater.” Scientific American. Scientific American. [cited Sept.8 2011].
  7. Michigan State University. [Internet] “Microbes generate electricity while cleaning up nuclear waste.” ScienceDaily.[cited Sept. 8 2011].
  8. Allison G. Nuclear terrorism: The ultimate preventable catastrophe.. 1st ed. New York: Times Books; 2004
  9. Kitamura M, Shiraki M. [Internet] “Japan’s Reactor Risk Foretold 20 Years Ago in U.S. Agency Report. “ Bloomberg. [cited Dec. 18 2011].

Monica Kumaran is a student at The Harker School in California, a part of The Triple Helix High School Chapter Program. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.