United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment

Uranium Sequestration During Biostimulated Reduction and In Response to the Return of Oxic Conditions In Shallow Aquifers (NUREG/CR-7178)

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Publication Information

Manuscript Completed: February 2014
Date Published: December 2014

Prepared by:
C. C. Fuller1, K. J. Johnson1*, K. C. Akstin1,
D. M. Singer2, S. B. Yabusaki3, Y. Fang3,
M. Fuhrmann4

1 U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, CA
2 Kent State University, Kent OH
3 Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, WA
4 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Rockville, MD
* current address: MWH Global, Inc., Steamboat Springs, CO

Mark Fuhrmann, NRC Project Manager

NRC Job Code: N6651

Prepared for:
Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research
U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, DC 20555-0001

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A proposed approach for groundwater remediation of uranium contamination is to generate reducing conditions by stimulating the growth of microbial populations through injection of electron donor compounds into the subsurface. Sufficiently reducing conditions will result in reduction of soluble hexavalent uranium, U(VI), and precipitation of the less soluble +4 oxidation state uranium, U(IV). This process is termed biostimulated reduction. A key issue in the remediation of uranium (U) contamination in aquifers by biostimulated reduction is the long term stability of the sequestered uranium. Three flow-through column experiments using aquifer sediment were used to evaluate the remobilization of bioreduced U sequestered under conditions in which biostimulation extended well into sulfate reduction to enhance precipitation of reduced sulfur phases such as iron sulfides. One column received added ferrous iron, Fe(II), increasing production of iron sulfides, to test their effect on remobilization of the sequestered uranium, either by serving as a redox buffer by competing for dissolved oxygen, or by armoring the reduced uranium. During biostimulation of the ambient microbial population with acetate, dissolved uranium was lowered by a factor of 2.5 or more with continued removal for over 110 days of biostimulation, well after the onset of sulfate reduction at ~30 days. Sequestered uranium was essentially all U(IV) resulting from the formation of nano-particulate uraninite that coated sediment grains to a thickness of a few 10's of microns, sometimes in association with S and Fe. A multicomponent biogeochemical reactive transport model simulation of column effluents during biostimulation was generally able to describe the acetate oxidation, iron, sulfate, and uranium reduction for all three columns using parameters derived from simulations of field scale biostimulation experiments.

Columns were eluted with artificial groundwater at equilibrium with atmospheric oxygen to simulate the upper limit of dissolved oxygen in recharge water. Overall about 9% of total uranium removed from solution during biostimulation was remobilized. Release of U during oxic elution was a continuous process over 140 days with dissolved uranium concentrations about 0.2 and 0.8 µM for columns with and without ferrous iron addition, respectively. Uranium remaining on the sediment was in the reduced form. The prolonged period of biostimulation and concomitant sulfate reduction appears to limit the rate of U(IV) oxidative remobilization in contrast to a large release observed for columns in previous studies that did not undergo sulfate reduction. Although continued sulfate reduction may cause decreased permeability from precipitation of iron sulfide, the greater apparent stability of the sequestered U(IV) provided by the sustained biostimulation should be considered in design of field scale remediation efforts.

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