Radioactive Waste Management/Classifications of Radioactive Waste

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Radioactive wastes are by products of nuclear power and from other applications of nuclear technology. These include industry, research and medicine. This regulation is critical to protection of human health and the environment. Much of this article is based upon United States policy and procedures but it is important to be aware of the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which publishes the Radioactive Waste Safety Standards (RADWASS) programme is the IAEA's contribution [1]

Classifications of Radioactive Waste[edit]

Removal of very low-level waste

Although not significantly radioactive, uranium mill tailings are waste. They are byproduct material from the rough processing of uranium-bearing ore. They are sometimes referred to as 11(e)2 wastes, from the section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act that defines them. Uranium mill tailings typically also contain chemically hazardous heavy metals such as lead and arsenic. Vast mounds of uranium mill tailings are left at many old mining sites, especially in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah.

Low level waste (LLW) is generated from hospitals and industry, as well as the nuclear fuel cycle. It comprises paper, rags, tools, clothing, filters, etc., which contain small amounts of mostly short-lived radioactivity. Commonly, LLW is designated as such as a precautionary measure if it originated from any region of an 'Active Area', which frequently includes offices with only a remote possibility of being contaminated with radioactive materials. Such LLW typically exhibits no higher radioactivity than one would expect from the same material disposed of in a non-active area, such as a normal office block. Some high activity LLW requires shielding during handling and transport but most LLW is suitable for shallow land burial. To reduce its volume, it is often compacted or incinerated before disposal. Low level waste is divided into four classes, class A, B, C and GTCC, which means "Greater Than Class C".

Intermediate level waste (ILW) contains higher amounts of radioactivity and in some cases requires shielding. ILW includes resins, chemical sludge and metal reactor nuclear fuel cladding, as well as contaminated materials from reactor decommissioning. It may be solidified in concrete or bitumen for disposal. As a general rule, short-lived waste (mainly non-fuel materials from reactors) is buried in shallow repositories, while long-lived waste (from fuel and fuel-reprocessing) is deposited in geological repository. U.S. regulations do not define this category of waste; the term is used in Europe and elsewhere.

Spent Fuel Flasks are transported by railway in the United Kingdom. Each flask is constructed of 14 in thick solid steel and weighs in excess of 50 tons

High level waste (HLW) is produced by nuclear reactors. It contains fission products and transuranic elements generated in the reactor core. It is highly radioactive and often thermally hot. HLW accounts for over 95% of the total radioactivity produced in the process of nuclear electricity generation. The amount of HLW worldwide is currently increasing by about 12,000 metric tons every year, which is the equivalent to about 100 double-decker buses or a two-story structure with a footprint the size of a basketball court. A 1000-MWe nuclear power plant produces about 27 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel (unreprocessed) every year.

Transuranic waste (TRUW) as defined by U.S. regulations is, without regard to form or origin, waste that is contaminated with alpha-emitting transuranic radionuclides with half-lives greater than 20 years, and concentrations greater than 100 nCi/g (3.7 MBq/kg), excluding High Level Waste. Elements that have an atomic number greater than uranium are called transuranic ("beyond uranium"). Because of their long half-lives, TRUW is disposed more cautiously than either low level or intermediate level waste. In the US it arises mainly from weapons production, and consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris and other items contaminated with small amounts of radioactive elements (mainly plutonium).

Under US law, transuranic waste is further categorized into "contact-handled" (CH) and "remote-handled" (RH) on the basis of radiation dose measured at the surface of the waste container. CH TRUW has a surface dose rate not greater than 200 Röntgen equivalent man per hour (2 millisievert/hr), whereas RH TRUW has a surface dose rate of 200 Röntgen equivalent man per hour (2 mSv/h) or greater. CH TRUW does not have the very high radioactivity of high level waste, nor its high heat generation, but RH TRUW can be highly radioactive, with surface dose rates up to 1000000 Röntgen equivalent man per hour (10000 mSv/h). The US currently permanently disposes of TRUW generated from nuclear power plants and military facilities at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.