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Assignment of Energy resources on

UPTAKE OF URANIUM
AND THORIUM
DEPOSIT
BY-
SIDHE
SH KUMAR PANDEY

M.Sc. GEOPHYSICS

08EX4002
Uptake of uranium and thorium by native and cultivated plants a

Abstract
Large part of available literature on biogeochemistry of uranium and thorium refers to the studies performed
either in highly contaminated areas or in nutrient solutions that have been artificially ‘spiked’ with radionuclides.
Effects of background levels of natural radioactivity on soil-grown plants have not been studied to the same
extent. In this paper, we summarised results of greenhouse and field experiments performed by the author from
2000 to 2006. We examined some of the factors affecting transfer of U and Th from soil to plants, differences in
uptake of these radionuclides by different plants, relationships between U and Th in soil and in plants, and
temporal variations of U and Th in different plant species. Concentrations of radionuclides (critical point for
experimental studies on biogeochemistry of U and Th – rare trace elements in non-contaminated regions) and
essential plant nutrients and trace elements were determined by instrumental neutron activation analysis.

Keywords: Thorium; Uranium; Plant uptake; Relationships in soil–plant system; Diurnal variations; Neutron
activation analysis

Article Outline
1. Introduction
2. Materials and methods
3. Results and discussion
3.1. U and Th in soil and in plants
3.1.1. Distribution of U and Th in different plant parts
3.1.2. Relationships between U and Th in soils and in different plant parts and transport of these radionuclides
from soil to plants
3.1.3. Temporal variations of U and Th in plants
4. Conclusions
References

1. Introduction
Transfer of artificial radionuclides along terrestrial food chains has been studied extensively since second part of
the last century, with understandable emphasis on 137Cs since 1986. Naturally occurring radionuclides have not
been studied to the same extent. In the course of last years, however, the interest in assessment of the impacts
of these radioactive elements on arable soils, soil microbiota, edible plants and humans has been increasing
constantly. Many investigations have been carried out in different countries, especially in those where
concentrations of naturally occurring radionuclides in soils are particularly high ([Vera Tomé et al., 2002], [Chen
et al., 2005] and [Termizi Ramli et al., 2005]).

The most common terrestrial radioisotopes are 238U, 232Th, and 40K. In this paper, we will discuss the
biogeochemical behaviour of two of them: uranium and thorium. Uranium and thorium are major energy sources,
which drive the evolution of Earth and planets. Both these radionuclides are components of the biosphere, and
thus occur naturally in all soils and plants, though their concentrations in plants may be rather low.

There are numerous reports in literature on biogeochemistry of U and Th ([Sheppard and Evenden,
1988], [Mazor, 1992], [Mortvedt, 1994], [Voigt et al., 2000], [Vera Tomé et al., 2002], [Vera Tomé et al.,
2003], [Thiry et al., 2005], [Tsuruta, 2006] and [Galindo et al., 2007]). Unfortunately, large part of available
publications refers to the studies performed either in highly contaminated areas or in nutrient solutions that have
been artificially ‘spiked’ with radionuclides. Meanwhile, it would be more important to assess effects of
background levels of natural radioactivity on soil, plants and humans.

The study of U and Th transfer from soil to edible vegetation through root uptake is very important, especially
considering accumulation of these radionuclides in the food chains. An understanding of the mobility of U and Th
in soils and their transfer to different plants requires a detailed knowledge of U and Th interactions with soil
composed of abiotic and biotic components. Despite numerous studies on U and Th contents in vegetation, there
is little information yet related to the rate of their uptake and storage by different plant species. Previous
experimental results demonstrated that distribution of U and Th in soil is highly variable. For example, activity
concentrations of 238U in soil can vary by around three orders of magnitude depending on various factors (Ewers
et al., 2003). Therefore, an assessment of the radionuclide distributions in the soil–plant system may be rather
complicated.

The aim of this work is to discuss some of the factors affecting uptake of uranium and thorium by plants,
including relationships between these radionuclides in soil and in plants and temporal changes of uranium and
thorium concentrations in different plant species.

2. Materials and methods
The field and greenhouse experiments were performed from 2000 to 2006 in St. Petersburg region (Russia). The
soil in the region is classified as Ferric Podzol (FAO-UNESCO, 1988) mainly with loam texture. Fifteen percent of
the soil is presented by grain size >0.7 mm, 40% of the soil has grain size between 0.2 and 0.7 mm, and most
part of the soil material (45%) has grain size less than 0.2 mm. Soil pH (0.01 M BaCl2) is 7.0–7.5. Mean
concentrations of main soil nutrients are the following: C (total) – 8%, Fe – 1.5%, Ca – 1.4%, Mg – 0.4%, K –
0.2%, P – 0.1%. Background U and Th soil concentrations in St. Petersburg region vary from 0.5 to
5.5 mg kg−1 (U), and from 5.6 to 10.7 mg kg−1 (Th). Two native plant species (couch-grass Elytrigia repens L. and
plantain Plantago major L.) and two cultivated plants (wheat Triticum aestivum L. and rye Secale cereale L.) were
used for these trials. The critical point for experimental studies on biogeochemistry of thorium and uranium (rare
trace elements in non-contaminated regions) is quality of analytical methods used for elemental analysis. The
application of analytical techniques with high sensitivity and accuracy of determination of different elements can
provide a way for successful study of environmental chemistry of radionuclides and their effects on the behaviour
of essential macro- and micro-nutrients in plants. In our research, we used instrumental neutron activation
analysis (INAA). INAA allows for simultaneous determination of a wide range of trace and macro-elements in
various environmental samples. It is also important that in this case plants and soils may be analysed in their
natural state, without special pre-treatment of the samples. Immediately after sampling, plants were carefully
washed by tap water to remove from the plant surface dust and soil particles. Then plant and soil samples were
air-dried at room temperature to constant weight. The samples were placed in superpure quartz ampoules and
irradiated for 18 h (soils) and 24 h (plants) in a thermal neutron flux of 1 × 1014 n cm−2 s−1 in FRM-II reactor of
Munich Technical University. The k0-method was used to calculate concentrations of elements (Lin and
Henkelmann, 2004). The accuracy of the element determination was 1–2%. A statistical treatment of
experimental data (programme Statistica for Windows 5.5) was used to estimate mean concentrations of
elements, relationships between elements and differences between groups of samples.

3. Results and discussion
3.1. U and Th in soil and in plants
Concentrations of Th and U in soil (one of the main factors affecting plant uptake of the radionuclides) differ
significantly depending on the soil type, parent rocks, climate, relief, vegetation season (if we say about
rhizosphere soil) and many other factors. Typical concentration range of Th in soils is 2–12 mg kg−1 with an
average value of 6 mg kg−1 (Kabata-Pendias and Pendias, 2000). The worldwide mean U concentration in non-
contaminated soils ranges from 0.4 to 6.0 mg kg−1(Shacklette and Boerngen, 1984).

Unfortunately, reported values on concentrations of U and Th in various plant species differ significantly. We may
assume that natural difference in the ability of plants to uptake radionuclides is not the only reason for such a
situation. Certain contribution may also be provided by differences in the methodologies of plant sampling and
preparation of the plant material for elemental analysis as well as quite expectable differences in accuracy and
sensitivity of various analytical techniques used for determination of very low Th and U concentrations in the
plants.

Here we will consider some of main factors affecting U and Th uptake and transport in plants.
3.1.1. Distribution of U and Th in different plant parts

It has been reported in numerous publications that concentrations of U and Th in roots are much higher than in
leaves and in seeds ([Shtangeeva and Ayrault, 2004] and [Chang et al., 2005]). Typical distribution of U and Th
in roots and leaves of wheat is illustrated in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. Mean concentrations and standard deviations of U and Th concentrations in roots and leaves of wheat.

In general, roots serve as a natural barrier preventing the transport of many trace metals, including radionuclides
to upper plant parts. Moreover, the rate of radionuclide translocations from roots to shoots is probably species-
dependant. It may be different for different species and even cultivars. For example,Shahandeh and Hossner
(2002) reported that U concentration in roots of different plants collected from the same site was 30–50 times
higher than U concentration in shoots. Among other plant species tested by the authors, sunflower and Indian
mustard had the highest root U concentrations, and wheat and ryegrass had the lowest U concentrations in roots.

However, it should also be noted that even careful washing of the plant roots would hardly allow removing of all
soil particles from the root surface. On the other hand, more strong treatment of plants, which was offered by
some authors (Schleppi et al., 2000), may result in dissolving of certain part of the plant tissues and hardly may
be recommended. It is important to remember that higher concentration of many elements in roots compared to
leaves is typical not only for soil-grown plants, but also for plants grown in nutrient solutions (Shtangeeva et al.,
2002).

3.1.2. Relationships between U and Th in soils and in different plant parts and transport of these
radionuclides from soil to plants

The basis premise of many radioecological assessments is the assumption that transfer of radionuclides from soil
to plants is a positive linear relationship for a given set of ecological/agricultural conditions (Beresford and Wright,
2005). Numerous publications have reported such a linear relationship between total radionuclide concentration
in the hydroponic solution and total amount of the radionuclide in the plant roots, even no matter what is the pH
of the growth medium ([Shtangeeva and Ayrault, 2004] and [Blanco Rodríguez et al., 2006]). Meanwhile, we may
expect that experiments using nutrient solutions as a growth medium give only approximate estimates of the
processes occurring in the complex soil solution under ordinary conditions and do not reflect real situation
existing in a field.

Plant radionuclide concentrations are not so often linearly related to soil radionuclide concentrations ([Diebold
and McGrath, 1985], [Sheppard and Evenden, 1988]and [Sheppard et al., 1989]). Non-linearity can complicate
the measurement of bioavailability, because each plant and soil combination may have a unique curvilinear
relationship. We may assume that it would be hardly possible to use experimental results of greenhouse tests
carried out with plants grown in various nutrient solutions to predict uptake and translocation of radionuclides by
plants grown in soil. Soil and liquid media are absolutely different systems and mechanisms of metal uptake by
plants growing in nutrient solutions and in soils may be rather different.

This is not surprisingly that uptake of elements by plants growing in hydroponics may differ compared with that in
soil. In liquid media, nutrients and trace metals, including U and Th are already present in bioavailable forms. In
soil, many factors will affect mobility of these elements and thus, their availability to plants. As was shown,
uranium uptake by soil-grown plants is not related to simple bioavailability parameters, and only complex models
considering several soil characteristics can help to predict uranium uptake (Vandenhove et al., 2007). In
particular, soil type can greatly influence the sorption and subsequent desorption of metals. There are certain
differences in bioavailability of radionuclides among soils, which may or may not be based on just quantitative
properties of the soils (Sheppard and Evenden, 1992). For example, Ramaswami et al. (2001) reported results of
experiments performed simultaneously in hydroponics and in two different soils (a sandy-loam soil and an
organic-rich soil). They found that efficiency of uranium extraction decreased sharply from hydroponics to sandy
and, especially, organic soil, indicating that soil organic matter sequestered uranium, rendering it largely
unavailable for plant uptake. These results, in particular, indicate that detailed description of site-specific soils
must be done to screen plants for radionuclide extraction capability.

In Fig. 2 and Fig. 3 are shown correlations between U (Fig. 2) and Th (Fig. 3) concentrations in roots of rye and
wheat and in soil where the plants were grown. Although these plants were grown and harvested simultaneously,
we can see that both U and Th were more easily transferred from soil to roots of rye as compared to transfer of
these radionuclides from soil to roots of wheat. Correlation between radionuclide concentrations in soil and in
roots of rye was statistically significant:r2 = 0.72 (P < 0.95) for U and r2 = 0.92 (P < 0.99) for Th, while no
correlation between concentrations of these metals in soil and in roots of wheat was found.
Fig. 2. Relationship between U in soil and in roots of rye and wheat.
Fig. 3. Relationship between Th in soil and in roots of rye and wheat.

The relationships between these two radionuclides – U and Th – in soil and in plants depend significantly on the
soil type. If we compare relationships between U and Th in loam soil (Fig. 4) with total carbon concentration 8.4%
and in plants grown in the soil we will see that correlation between these radionuclides in soil and in the plant
roots is statistically significant and positive: r2 = 0.80 (P < 0.99) in soil and r2 = 0.55 (P < 0.95) in roots. On the
other hand, there is no correlation between U and Th in sandy-loam soil with lower amount of total carbon (3.6%)
and between U and Th in roots of rye and wheat grown in the soil (Fig. 5). There is also no correlation between U
and Th in leaves of the plants grown in the both soils (Fig. 6).
Fig. 4. Relationship between U and Th in loam soil and in roots of the plants grown in the soil.
Fig. 5. Relationship between U and Th in sandy-loam soil and in roots of rye and wheat grown in the soil.

Fig. 6. Relationship between U and Th in the plant leaves.
U and Th have similar chemical properties. However, as we could see, behaviour of these metals in soil and in
plants (more exactly, in different plant parts) may be different, thus suggesting that there are probably additional
factors affecting chemistry of these radionuclides in the soil–plant system.

3.1.3. Temporal variations of U and Th in plants

It is well-known that element concentrations in the plant tissues can vary with time, for example, during
vegetation season ([Myung and Thornton, 1997] and [Otero and Macias, 2002]). We can also expect certain
variations in the plant element concentrations over shorter time (days or even hours). This assumption is based
on the circadian rhythms of the plant development ([Carter et al., 1991] and [Behrenfeld et al., 2004]). There are
publications reporting that uptake of potassium (essential plant nutrient) is regulated by light ([Kim et al.,
1992] and [Suh et al., 2000]) and the circadian clock (Kim et al., 1993). We may assume that concentrations of
other elements in plants may also be controlled by light and biological clock and these variations may be species-
specific.

Fig. 7 shows diurnal dynamics of Th and U concentrations in leaves of couch-grass sampled from the site
enriched with Th and U. During day the leaf U and Th concentrations changed significantly. These variations
were regular and similar for both these radionuclides. There was a clear maximum at 14:00, which was well

correlated with soil temperature (Fig. 8).

Fig. 7. Changes of U and Th concentrations in leaves of couch-grass grown in soil enriched with U and Th.
Fig. 8. Diurnal dynamics of soil temperature.

As is seen from Fig. 9a, diurnal variations of U in roots and leaves of couch-grass sampled from another site
(with U-rich soil) were also significant, with highest U concentration at 14:00, when soil temperature was the
highest. However, maximum of U concentration in roots and leaves of plantain sampled simultaneously from the
same site was registered 4 h later, at 18:00 (Fig. 9b). Thus, the short-term variations in U concentrations in
plantain could not be explained by the changes in soil temperature. Couch-grass and plantain belong to two
different classes: Monocotyledoneae (Monocots) and Dicotyledoneae (Dicots), respectively. Certain differences
between these plants in U and Th uptake would thus be expected.

Dynamics of U concentrations in leaves and roots of couch-grass (a) and plantain (b) sampled from the site with
U-rich soil.

It has been reported (McLung, 2001) that circadian rhythm of plant transpiration includes two distinct
components: an externally induced one, that is initiated by the “light on” signal, and an endogenous clock, whose
memorization of the period length is independent of the instant environmental signal. Different plants have
different sensitivities to temperature and photoperiod. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that diurnal dynamics
of radionuclide concentrations in plantain and couch-grass may be different.

At first glance it looks a bit strange that short-term variations in plant element concentrations are so strong.
However, as was reported (Walter and Schurr, 2005), in spite of certain inter-species differences, diurnal
changes in the plant growth rate are generally larger than the changes in mean growth rate of the plant from day-
to-day. This shows that processes controlling the plant growth variations within 24 h are stronger than processes
acting on a day-to-day scale. Thus, big variations in root and leaf element concentrations may result from the
significant short-term changes in the rates of the plant growth. These short-term variations in the plant element
concentrations should be considered in the interpretation of experimental data.

4. Conclusions
The mobility of U and Th in soil and their bioavailability to several plant species, both crops and native grasses
was studied in greenhouse pot experiments and field trials. This allowed for estimating an ability of different
plants to accumulate U and Th. Plants grown in radionuclide-enriched soils demonstrated significant increase in
concentrations of Th and U in roots, while concentrations of the radionuclides in upper plant parts were rather
low. Th was less available to plant uptake than U. Correlations between radionuclide concentrations in roots of
plants and in soil where the plants are grown may be different and depend on the species of the plant. The
relationships between U and Th in soil and in plants depend significantly on the soil type. The study of temporal
variations of U and Th in plants showed that short-term dynamics of radionuclide plant concentrations are rather
significant, regular and species-specific.