What Is Radioactive Waste?

by | May 21, 2024 | Glossary and FAQs

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Radioactive (or nuclear) waste comes from nuclear reactors, fuel processing plants, hospitals, and research centres. Decommissioning and deconstructing nuclear reactors and other nuclear facilities also generate radioactive waste. There are two basic categories of waste: high-level and low-level. High-level waste consists mainly of spent fuel removed from reactors after electricity production. Low-level waste is generated by reactor operations and medical, academic, industrial, and other commercial applications for radioactive materials.

The NRC oversees the storage and disposal of all commercially generated radioactive waste in the United States. The NRC also oversees high-level wastes generated by the Department of Energy that must be stored for an extended period and are not employed in or as part of research and development operations. Regulations define minimum acceptable performance criteria for licensees managing trash while allowing technological freedom.

Radioactive Waste Classification

In the United States, radioactive waste is classified into the following general categories:

About Radioactive Waste

1. High-level waste: It includes used nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors and waste generated during the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel. Although defence-related activities generate most of the United States’ liquid high-level waste, commercial nuclear power plant reactors account for most of the spent nuclear fuel. Currently, most high-level waste is stored on the same site where it was generated.

2. Transuranic waste: They are artificial radioactive elements with an atomic number of 92 (uranium) or above. The majority of transuranic waste in the United States comes from nuclear weapons production sites. This waste comprises mundane items like rags, tools, and laboratory equipment that became contaminated during the early stages of nuclear weapons research and development. Transuranic waste is currently held at many federal locations throughout the country. Transuranic waste generated during a defence programme will eventually be discarded at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which has been receiving garbage since 1999.

3. Uranium or thorium mill tailings: These are radioactive wastes produced by the mining and milling of uranium or thorium ore. Mill tailings are stored at production sites in specially built ponds known as impoundments.

4. Low-level waste: It refers to radioactively polluted industrial or research waste that is not transuranic waste, high-level waste and uranium or thorium mill tailings. Much of this garbage is mundane objects like paper, rags, plastic bags, protective clothes, cardboard, and packaging materials. These products are considered garbage whenever they come into touch with radioactive elements. Low-level waste can be produced by any industry that uses radioactive materials, including the government, utilities, manufacturing, medical, and research sectors. There are disposal facilities dedicated to the near-surface disposal of low-level garbage.

Decay Period and Waste Disposal

Radioactive waste, like other radioactive materials, decays naturally over time. The waste is no longer dangerous once the radioactive material has decomposed enough. However, the time it takes for the radioactive material to decay will vary between a few hours and hundreds of millions of years. Some radioactive elements, like plutonium, are highly radioactive and will last for thousands of years.

Waste disposal occurs when there is no longer a foreseeable use for it. For highly radioactive waste (HLW), disposal occurs when its radioactivity has decayed to relatively low levels, typically after about 40-50 years.

For low-level waste (LLW) they are usually sent to land-based disposal sites immediately after being packaged. This indicates that for the majority (>90% by volume) of these waste types, suitable disposal methods have been established and are being utilized globally.

In conclusion, radioactive waste is produced by a nuclear power plant or laboratory. They include environmentally hazardous radioactive compounds and the vast majority of biological forms. The wastes degrade with time. As a result, they would be maintained in a secure area until their radioactivity was reduced and they no longer threatened the environment.

The radioactive isotopes and type of waste determine the time frame given above. These include radioactive elements such as radium, carbon, radon, uranium, and thorium. All soil, water, and rock contain traces of these elements. Artificial radiation includes the manufacture of radioactive isotopes and nuclear fuels, as well as nuclear fuel manufacturing, mining, and nuclear power plant explosions.

Also Read: Understanding Nuclear Waste: Management, Storage, And Disposal



  • Michael Thompson

    Michael Thompson is an esteemed expert in the renewable energy sector, with a profound experience spanning over 25 years. His expertise encompasses various sustainable energy solutions, including solar, wind, hydroelectric, and energy efficiency practices. Michael discusses the latest trends in renewable energy and provides practical advice on energy conservation.

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