Using powerful synchrotron X-ray imaging, scientists at the University of Sheffield in Britain announced recently that they had discovered uranium at the country's only uranium ore production facility binds with the toxic chemical arsenic to create an insoluble substance that could prevent radioactivity from leaching into the surrounding environment.
The discovery has far-reaching implications, the university announced, as a system could be developed to prevent uranium from poisoning underground water supplies in proximity to mines, production facilities, nuclear accident sites or “historical nuclear weapons testing sites."
“It is believed to be the first example of arsenic controlling uranium migration in the environment,” the announcement said.
“Arsenic, more commonly associated with its use in grisly murders, has emerged as the unlikely hero in a study into the containment of uranium …” at the production site of South Terras Mine near St. Austell in Cornwall, according to the university.
The study was done by the British Department of Material Science and Engineering at the University of Sheffield. Specifically, the scientists found that uranium had combined with arsenic in the topsoil to form meta-zeunerite, an insoluble mineral. “The location of the South Terras mine, and the surrounding area, is well known for mining of arsenic-bearing minerals,” said lead author of the study Dr. Claire Corkhill. “Natural weathering of arsenic and uranium minerals in the spoil heaps and soils of South Terras has released both arsenic and uranium, which form the highly insoluble secondary mineral meta-zeunerite,” she said.
“Locking up the uranium in this mineral structure means that it cannot migrate in the environment.”
Dr. Corkhill's team used the Swiss Light Source and the National Synchrotron Light Source (USA) to validate the discovery. The microscopes can focus X-ray beams “on a spot just a millionth of a metre in diameter,” according to the school's publicity release.
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