Characterization of microbial activities and U reduction in a shallow aquifer contaminated by uranium mill tailings

Microb Ecol. 2003 Jul;46(1):83-91. doi: 10.1007/s00248-002-1060-x. Epub 2003 May 21.


A characterization of the Shiprock, NM, uranium mill tailing site focused on the geochemical and microbiological factors governing in-situ uranium-redox reactions. Groundwater and aqueous extracts of sediment samples contained a wide concentration range of sulfate, nitrate, and U(VI) with median values of 21.2 mM, 16.1 micro M, and 2.7 micro M, respectively. Iron(III) was not detected in groundwater, but a median value of 0.3 mM in sediment extracts was measured. Bacterial diversity down gradient from the disposal pile reflected the predominant geochemistry with relatively high numbers of sulfate- and nitrate-reducing microorganisms, and smaller numbers of acetogenic, methanogenic, nitrate-dependent Fe(II)-oxidizing, Fe(III)-reducing, and sulfide-oxidizing bacteria. In aquifer slurry incubations, nitrate reduction was always preferred and had a negative impact on sulfate-, Fe(III)-, and U-reduction rates. We also found that sulfate-reduction rates decreased sharply in the presence of clay, while Fe(III)-reduction increased with no clear impact on U reduction. In the absence of clay, iron and sulfate reduction correlated with concentrations of Fe(III) and sulfate, respectively. Rates of U(VI) loss did not correlate with the concentration of any electron acceptor. With the exception of Fe(III), electron donor amendment was largely unsuccessful in stimulating electron acceptor loss over a 2-week incubation period, suggesting that endogenous forms of organic matter were sufficient to support microbial activity. Our findings suggest that efforts to accelerate biological U reduction should initially focus on stimulating nitrate removal.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Biodegradation, Environmental
  • Chromatography
  • Fresh Water / chemistry*
  • Fresh Water / microbiology*
  • Geologic Sediments / chemistry*
  • Geologic Sediments / microbiology*
  • New Mexico
  • Nitrates / chemistry
  • Uranium / chemistry*
  • Uranium / metabolism
  • Water Pollutants, Radioactive / metabolism


  • Nitrates
  • Water Pollutants, Radioactive
  • Uranium