Analysis shows elements not acting in nature as previously modeled

June 16, 2015, Los Alamos National Laboratory
Workers on a cleanup site at DOE's Hanford Site in southeastern Washington State, one of several sites sampled for uranium and plutonium variations. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

Knowing how a chemical in soil reacts and transforms over time in response to neighboring elements, weather and heat is essential in determining whether that chemical is hazardous. This is especially important when that chemical is radioactive.

In a collaborative, international effort led by Los Alamos National Laboratory, researchers determined the speciation of uranium and pulled from soil, concrete and water reservoir sediment from six locations in the U.S., Ukraine and Russia. Speciation is the chemical form or compound in which an element can appear, for example as nitrogen can form species of nitrate, nitrite or ammonia, among others.

"These results demonstrate the complexities of actinides in the environment and suggest that our models will not always accurately predict their long term fate and transport," said Robert Roback, a Los Alamos Earth and Environmental Sciences Division deputy group leader and coauthor on the paper.

Novel results, environmental implications

Results clearly identified novel aspects of uranium and plutonium environmental chemistry beyond those previously reported and expected based on thermodynamics. In some samples, actinide-bearing materials that were within millimeters of each other for decades still exhibit significantly different speciation.

These results, the authors note, demonstrate complexities of actinides in the environment that are likely linked to the initial depositional form as well as to their subsequent mobilization and deposition. "These results do not necessarily imply increased environmental risk, however, because some forms are quite stable and have low solubility," Roback said. The results imply that to understand predict uranium and plutonium behavior in the environment, the analysis must consider site conditions, he said.

The researchers published their findings in a cover article, "Multiscale Speciation of U and Pu at Chernobyl, Hanford, Los Alamos, McGuire AFB, Mayak, and Rocky Flats" recently published by the American Chemical Society's journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The researchers identified four types of both equilibrium species (mostly stabilized) and unpredicted novel types of these actinides unassociated with the source, which helped elucidate if and how the various forms of the elements may have been transformed by chemical reactions in the environment.

Hazardous materials transformation

The chemical speciation of potentially hazardous subsurface contaminants is crucial to assessing environmental risk and remediation, because it determines the contaminants' transport and toxicology. Understanding the behavior of uranium and plutonium contamination is imperative since not knowing the behavior is a significant impediment to environmental restoration at legacy nuclear weapons' production and testing sites plus reactor accident locations.

Information obtained in the study will help researchers validate models that calculate safe residual levels, reducing the amount of hazardous material requiring removal and disposition.

The scientists retrieved samples from Chernobyl (nuclear power plant) and Hanford Site (plutonium reactors), Los Alamos (Manhattan Project-era waste), McGuire Air Force Base (nuclear warhead fire), Mayak (irradiated fuel processing waste) and Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site (weapons' fissile material fabrication).

Materials from some of these sites involved high temperatures, melting, fires and explosions. In some cases, uranium and plutonium were known or suspected to have been released in acidic solutions that reacted with soil or concrete components. The goal was to determine the range of behavior in contamination and releases caused by .

Using synchrotron microprobes, researchers scanned soil to locate actinide hotspots and associated elements before performing more detailed analysis. Measurements were performed on beamlines at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. Quantitative electron probe microanalysis of Chernobyl samples was carried out at the V.G. Khlopin Radium Institute.

Higher temperatures (such as in the Chernobyl explosion and fire) promoted reactions and materials mixing. Samples revealed that in some cases particles melded without significant mixing, whereas other actinide particles intermingled with other metals, air and water to give a more homogenous mixture.

In a soil sample collected from Hanford, two distinct plutonium populations occur. One population, consisting of 20-micron cubes with uniformly low plutonium concentrations, was thought to have formed during initial deposition of the plutonium carried in tributyl phosphate. Interestingly, a second population contains large plutonium concentrations as surface precipitates. The researchers suggest that this second population is evidence for plutonium mobilization and deposition onto the previously existing cubes found at Hanford.

Explore further: Probing what happens to plutonium in a nuclear explosion

More information: "Multiscale Speciation of U and Pu at Chernobyl, Hanford, Los Alamos, McGuire AFB, Mayak, and Rocky Flats." Environ. Sci. Technol., 2015, 49 (11), pp 6474–6484 DOI: 10.1021/es506145b

Related Stories

Probing what happens to plutonium in a nuclear explosion

June 10, 2015

For years, research on nuclear weapons has relied on old data, limited experiments and computer modeling. But this year, that pattern has changed. Scientists have run new experiments that simulate what happens to plutonium ...

Research provides new insights into actinide

August 10, 2012

( -- A team of DOE researchers from the Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley and Los Alamos national laboratories and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, studying the fundamental properties of the actinide elements, has ...

Scientists discover historic sample of bomb-grade plutonium

February 26, 2009

( -- Scientists in Washington state are reporting the surprise discovery of the oldest known sample of reactor-produced bomb-grade plutonium, a historic relic from the infancy of America’s nuclear weapons program. ...

Recommended for you

The pace at which the world's permafrost soils are warming

January 16, 2019

Global warming is causing increasing damage in the world's permafrost regions. As the new global comparative study conducted by the international permafrost network GTN-P shows, in all regions with permafrost soils the temperature ...

Sewers could help clean the atmosphere

January 16, 2019

Sewage treatment—an unglamorous backbone of urban living—could offer a cost-effective way to combat climate change by flushing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Jun 16, 2015
Not to worry, Russia plans 40 more missiles, so assuming 8 warheads per missile, that would be 320 new or refurbished warheads.

The Cold War is heating back up. Difference is now we're 12 trillion deeper in debt, and more countries have nukes now.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.