Radioactive Waste

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  • Hazardous radioactive wastes are generated at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle.
  • No country has established a repository for high level nuclear waste from nuclear power.
  • Some waste streams have military potential − depleted uranium is used in munitions, and spent nuclear fuel from reactors contains weapons-useable plutonium.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (2010), radioactive waste is any material that contains a concentration of radioactive particles greater than those deemed safe by national authorities, and for which no use is foreseen.

Radioactive wastes can be solid, liquid or gaseous and are produced at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle:

  • Underground and open pit uranium mines generate large volumes of long lived, low level waste which is kept on site.
  • In situ leach uranium mines pollute groundwater with radioactive particles, heavy metals and acid.
  • Enrichment plants generate large volumes of depleted uranium waste.
  • Reactors produce high level radioactive waste in the form of spent nuclear fuel.
  • Reactors and other nuclear fuel cycle facilities discharge radioactive emissions to air and water.
  • Reprocessing plants generate a high level radioactive waste stream.

Waste categories are determined by the concentration and type of radioactive particles and heat generation. In terms of management options, industry and governments generally consider that shallow repositories are the preferred method of disposal for low level and short lived intermediate level waste, and deep repositories are the preferred method of disposal for long lived intermediate level and high level waste.

Low level waste and short lived intermediate level waste:

Includes a wide range of materials that may be lightly contaminated, such as paper, glassware, tools and clothing. Typically requires isolation for a period of several hundred years. Most of this waste is either disposed of in shallow repositories and is stored pending disposal in a repository. Some low level waste is disposed of in landfill or emitted to air or water.

Long lived intermediate level waste:

Includes reactor components, chemical residues, sealed radioactive sources from medicine and industry and used metal fuel cladding. Requires special handling and shielding of radioactivity, but not cooling. Destined for disposal in deep geological repositories but no such repositories exist (except a military repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the US)

High level waste:

Includes spent nuclear fuel intended for disposal and the waste stream from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. Contains high concentrations of radioactivity and requires cooling and special shielding, handling and storage. Contains both short lived and long lived radionuclides (some with half lives of many thousands of years). Most countries with high level waste envisage disposal in a deep geological repository but no such repositories exist. Some countries reprocess spent nuclear fuel, but this still leaves a high level waste stream.