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Can J Microbiol. 1997 Dec;43(12):1133-46.

Occurrence and identification of microorganisms in compacted clay-based buffer material designed for use in a nuclear fuel waste disposal vault.

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Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Whiteshell Laboratories, Pinawa, MB, Canada.


A full-scale nuclear fuel waste disposal container experiment was carried out 240 m below ground in an underground granitic rock research laboratory in Canada. An electric heater was surrounded by buffer material composed of sand and bentonite clay and provided heat equivalent to what is anticipated in a Canadian nuclear fuel waste repository. During the experiment, the heat caused a mass transport of water and moisture content gradients developed in the buffer ranging from 13% closest to the heater to 23% at the rock wall of the deposition hole. Upon decommissioning after 2.5 years, microorganisms could be cultured from all samples having a moisture content above 15% but not from samples with a moisture content below 15%. Heterotrophic aerobic and anaerobic bacteria were found in numbers ranging from 10(1) to 10(6) cells/g dry weight buffer. Approximately 10(2), or less, sulphate-reducing bacteria and methanogens per gram of dry weight buffer were also found. Identification of buffer population members was performed using Analytical Profile Index (API) strips for isolated bacteria and 16S rRNA gene sequencing for in situ samples. A total of 79 isolates from five buffer layers were identified with API strips as representing the beta, gamma and delta groups of Proteobacteria and Gram-positive bacteria. Sixty-seven 16S rRNA clones that were obtained from three buffer layers were classified into 21 clone groups representing alpha and gamma groups of Proteobacteria, Gram-positive bacteria, and a yeast. Approximately 20% of the population comprised Gram-positive bacteria. Members of the genera Amycolatopsis, Bacillus, and Nocardia predominated. Among Gram-negative bacteria, the genera Acinetobacter and Pseudomonas predominated. Analysis of lipid biomarker signatures and in situ leucine uptake demonstrated that the buffer population was viable. The results suggest that a nuclear fuel waste buffer will be populated by active microorganisms only if the moisture content is above a value where free water is available for active life.

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