Thorough understanding of the aqueous complexation of U(VI) with ubiquitous inorganic ligands, such as hydroxide and carbonate, is crucial for predicting U(VI) mobility in natural and engineered systems, since retardation processes largely depend on the metal speciation. U(VI) hydrolysis  and complexation with carbonate in weakly alkaline media  have been extensively studied. This work, however, systematically elucidates the U(VI) speciation in (hyper)alkaline solutions, where OH- and CO32- can occur in approximately equimolar quantities and compete for the complexation with U(VI). Such (hyper)alkaline conditions can evolve within deep geological repositories for radioactive waste by corrosion of concrete. The effect of pH-dependent changes in speciation on U(VI) sorption affinity was investigated by batch sorption experiments with Ca-bentonite, which is considered as buffer and backfill material within such repositories. Spectroscopic measurements provide information on the underlying retention mechanisms on the molecular level.
Time-resolved laser-induced fluorescence spectroscopy (TRLFS) proofs the formation of (calcium) uranyl carbonate complexes in aqueous solution in the presence of carbonate. However, these complexes only form up to a certain pH. A sudden change of speciation to uranyl hydroxides was detected above pH 10 at low carbonate concentrations (0.5 mM) and above pH 11 at high carbonate concentrations (100 mM).
Batch sorption experiments reveal that this ligand replacement of carbonates by hydroxides goes in hand with an increase in U(VI) retention by Ca-bentonite. The study shows that an almost complete sorption of U(VI) can be obtained in (hyper)alkaline repository environments, even though carbonate is present in substantial amounts.
In order to clarify the mechanisms responsible for the very strong U(VI) retention, uranyl complexes on the bentonite surface were examined directly, using x-ray absorption spectroscopy (ROBL-beamline, ESRF, Grenoble). EXAFS spectra (extended X-ray absorption fine structure) did not show any indication of precipitates, implying that adsorption is the dominant retention process. In all samples with high U(VI) retention, the derived uranium coordination is identical irrespective of the amount of contained carbonate. According to atomic distances and coordination numbers for U-Oeq, U(VI) surface complexes shift from a 5-fold to a 4-fold coordination in the equatorial plane with increasing pH. Attachment might be facilitated by charge balancing cations (i.e. Ca2+) that mediate between the negatively charged clay surface and the anionic aqueous U(VI) hydroxide complexes.
 Drobot et al. (2016) Anal. Chem. 2016, 88, 3548−3555.
 Bernhard et al. (2001) Radiochimica Acta 74, 87-91.