Boffins investigate ‘mutant’ spider web

February 6, 2012 | by | 0 Comments

Scientists are investigating a bizarre white cobweb found on nuclear waste – amid fears it could have been made by a ‘mutant’ spider.

Boffins investigate 'mutant' spider web

In freakish echo of the Spiderman comic strip, workers at a US nuclear waste facility discovered the growth on uranium last month.

The white ‘stringlike’ material – never seen before on nuclear waste – was found among thousands of spent fuel assemblies submerged in deep pools.

Experts from Savannah River National Laboratory collected a small sample of the mystery material to run tests.

A report filed by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board – a federal oversight panel – concluded: “The growth, which resembles a spider web, has yet to be characterized, but may be biological in nature.”

The report said the initial sample of the growth was too small to characterise, and that “further evaluation still needs to be completed”.

But the bizarre growth will stoke fears that nuclear fuel can cause Frankenstein-style mutations.

It echoes the plot of Spiderman, where Peter Parker becomes a superhero after being bitten by a mutant spider at a nuclear waste laboratory.

The webs were found at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, a 300 square mile nuclear clean-up facility owned by the US Department of Energy.

Experts say that any creature inside in the pools of water – which are intended to protect workers – would have been exposed to the nuclear fuel.

This raises the prospect of a creature having morphed into a new species of ‘extremophile’ after being exposed to uranium.

Organisms with a natural resistance to radiation are said to be ‘radioresistant,’ and do exist. Deinococcus radiodurans is one of the most naturally radioresistant organisms on Earth and has been genetically engineered so that that it can be used in the treatment of radioactive waste.

Osman Kemal Kadirolu, a former professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Istanbul, said: “As we know life evolves in most unusual places. Volcanoes at the mid-Atlantic are thriving with life where the water temperature is below 0C and pressure is more than 300 atm. Or in hot salt water pools around geysers.

“The water in the spent fuel pools are maintained at a certain pH and temperature. If micro organisms enter into the pool they may have a chance to live.

“The radiation field near a spent fuel assembly is very large and will definitely disturb the normal life cycle of the micro organisms.

“Though I am sure you would not get monsters like the ones that come out of Sea of Japan in cheap Japanese horror movies.”

The growth was found on fuel stored in a compound with 3ft-thick concrete walls and pools that from 17 to 30ft deep.

Racks of nuclear waster are submerged in the water – some containing highly enriched uranium – from foreign and domestic research reactors.

Will Callicott, a spokesman for Savannah River National Laboratory, said in an e-mail that officials hope to collect a larger sample for analysis.

He added: “Whatever it is, it doesn’t appear to be causing any damage.”

Nobody from U.S. Department of Energy or Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board was available for comment.

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