Durable bamboo might protect SRS soil

Bamboo is legendary for its ability to grow anywhere and resist efforts to kill it. Now some of the U.S. Energy Department's top scientists are experimenting with the invasive plant to determine whether it could help protect buried nuclear waste.

"The concept of using bamboo as a cover species is new," said Eric Nelson, a scientist in Savannah River National Laboratory's Environmental Analysis Section. "In the past, people have mainly looked at grasses and perennial covers."

Buried radioactive waste at Savannah River Site is usually topped with layers of soil and then planted with a vegetative cover to prevent erosion or unwanted intrusion from seeping water.

"The problem with grasses is that they require maintenance and fertilization to keep it healthy," Dr. Nelson said. "Bamboo is very adaptable to colonizing areas without much care at all. It's also very aggressive."

Although there are more than 1,000 species of bamboo, just two -- P. bissetii and P. rubromarginata -- were selected for testing in a one-acre plot in 1999. Then they were ignored and allowed to grow and spread, Dr. Nelson said.

The two species have root systems that remain in the top few inches of soil but also have the ability to withstand cold climates.

"These are very slender and probably only get to be 12 or 14 feet tall," he said. "They're not as big as the stocky plants you see at old home sites."

The testing of the plants will likely continue for several more years to gauge their suitability as a cover.

The research, he added, might find that the bamboo is a useful environmental remediation tool for other types of landfills and waste burial sites. "Our efforts are obviously toward the closure sites for the radioactive waste vaults," Dr. Nelson said. "But there is no reason they couldn't be used on other types of landfills as well."

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.