Radioactive Waste Management/Introduction

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Radioactive waste is a waste product containing radioactive decay material. It is usually the product of a nuclear process such as nuclear fission, though industries not directly connected to the nuclear power|nuclear power industry may also produce radioactive waste.

Radioactivity diminishes over time, so in principle the waste needs to be isolated for a period of time until it no longer poses a hazard. This can mean hours to years for some common medical or industrial radioactive wastes, or thousands of years for high-level radioactive waste. High-level wastes from nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons reprocessing.

The majority of radioactive waste is "low-level waste", meaning it has low levels of radioactivity per mass or volume.

The main approaches to managing radioactive waste to date have been segregation and storage for short-lived wastes, near-surface disposal for low and some intermediate level wastes, and deep burial or transmutation for the long-lived, high-level wastes.

A summary of the amounts of radioactive wastes and management approaches for most developed countries are presented and reviewed periodically as part of the IAEA Joint Convention on Safety of Spent Fuel Management and the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.[1]

Radioactive wastes are the leftovers from the use of nuclear materials for the production of electricity, diagnosis and treatment of disease, and other purposes.

The materials are either naturally occurring or man-made. Certain kinds of radioactive materials, and the wastes produced from using these materials, are subject to regulatory control by the federal government or the states.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for radioactive waste related to nuclear weapons production and certain research activities. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and some states regulate commercial radioactive waste that results from the production of electricity and other non-military uses of nuclear material.

Various other federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Health and Human Services, also have a role in the regulation of radioactive material.

The NRC regulates the management, storage and disposal of radioactive waste produced as a result of NRC-licensed activities. The agency has entered into agreements with 32 states, called Agreement States, to allow these states to regulate the management, storage and disposal of certain nuclear waste.

The commercial radioactive waste that is regulated by the NRC or the Agreement States and that is the subject of this brochure is of three basic types: high-level waste, mill tailings, and low-level waste.

High-level radioactive waste consists of “irradiated” or used nuclear reactor fuel (i.e., fuel that has been used in a reactor to produce electricity). The used reactor fuel is in a solid form consisting of small fuel pellets in long metal tubes.

Mill tailings wastes are the residues remaining after the processing of natural ore to extract uranium and thorium. Commercial radioactive wastes that are not high-level wastes or uranium and thorium milling wastes are classified as low-level radioactive waste. The low-level wastes can include radioactively contaminated protective clothing, tools, filters, rags, medical tubes, and many other items.

NRC licensees are encouraged to manage their activities so as to limit the amount of radioactive waste they produce. Techniques include avoiding the spread of radioactive contamination, surveying items to ensure that they are radioactive before placing them in a radioactive waste container, using care to avoid mixing contaminated waste with other trash, using radioactive materials whose radioactivity diminishes quickly and limiting radioactive material usage to the minimum necessary to establish the objective.

Licensees take steps to reduce the volume of radioactive waste after it has been produced. Common means are compaction and incineration. Approximately 59 NRC licensees are authorized to incinerate certain low-level wastes, although most incineration is performed by a small number of commercial incinerators.

The radioactivity of nuclear waste decreases with the passage of time, through a process called radioactive decay. (“Radioactivity” refers to the spontaneous disintegration of an unstable atomic nucleus, usually accompanied by the emission of ionizing radiation.) The amount of time necessary to decrease the radioactivity of radioactive material to one-half the original amount is called the radioactive half-life of the radioactive material. Radioactive waste with a short half-life is often stored temporarily before disposal in order to reduce potential radiation doses to workers who handle and transport the waste, as well as to reduce the radiation levels at disposal sites.

In addition, NRC authorizes some licensees to store short-half-lived material until the radioactivity is indistinguishable from ambient radiation levels, and then dispose of the material as non-radioactive waste.

Currently, there are no permanent disposal facilities in the United States for high-level nuclear waste; therefore commercial high-level waste (spent fuel) is in temporary storage, mainly at nuclear power plants.

Most uranium mill tailings are disposed of in place or near the mill, after constructing a barrier of a material such as clay on top of the pile to prevent radon from escaping into the atmosphere and covering the mill tailings pile with soil, rocks or other materials to prevent erosion.

For low-level waste, three commercial land disposal facilities are available, but they accept waste only from certain states or accept only limited types of low-level wastes. The remainder of the low-level waste is stored primarily at the site where it was produced, such as at hospitals, research facilities, clinics and nuclear power plants.

The nature and significance of radioactive waste[edit]

Radioactive waste typically comprises a number of radioisotopes: unstable configurations of elements that radioactive decay, emitting ionizing radiation which can be harmful to humans and the environment. Those isotopes emit different types and levels of radiation, which last for different periods of time.


The radioactivity of all nuclear waste diminishes with time. All radioisotopes contained in the waste have a half-life—the time it takes for any radionuclide to lose half of its radioactivity—and eventually all radioactive waste decays into non-radioactive elements. Certain radioactive elements (such as plutonium-239) in “spent” fuel will remain hazardous to humans and other creatures for hundreds of thousands of years. Other radioisotopes remain hazardous for millions of years. Thus, these wastes must be shielded for centuries and isolated from the living environment for millennia. Some elements, such as iodine-131, have a short half-life (around 8 days in this case) and thus they will cease to be a problem much more quickly than other, longer-lived, decay products, but their activity is much greater initially. The two tables show some of the major radioisotopes, their half-lives, and their radiation yield as a proportion of the yield of fission of uranium-235.

The faster a radioisotope decays, the more radioactive it will be. The energy and the type of the ionizing radiation emitted by a pure radioactive substance are important factors in deciding how dangerous it is. The chemical properties of the radioactive chemical element|element will determine how mobile the substance is and how likely it is to spread into the environment and contaminate humans. This is further complicated by the fact that many radioisotopes do not decay immediately to a stable state but rather to a radioactive decay product leading to decay chains.

Sources of waste[edit]

Radioactive waste comes from a number of sources. The majority of waste originates from the nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear weapons reprocessing. However, other sources include medical and industrial wastes, as well as naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) that can be concentrated as a result of the processing or consumption of coal, oil and gas, and some minerals, as discussed below.

Nuclear fuel cycle[edit]

Front end[edit]

Waste from the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle is usually alpha emitting waste from the extraction of uranium. It often contains radium and its decay products.

Uranium dioxide (UO2) concentrate from mining is not very radioactive - only a thousand or so times as radioactive as the granite used in buildings. It is refined from yellowcake (U3O8), then converted to uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6). As a gas, it undergoes enriched uranium|enrichment to increase the Uranium-235|U-235 content from 0.7% to about 4.4% (LEU). It is then turned into a hard ceramic oxide (UO2) for assembly as reactor fuel elements.

The main by-product of enrichment is depleted uranium (DU), principally the Uranium-238|U-238 isotope, with a U-235 content of ~0.3%. It is stored, either as UF6 or as U3O8. Some is used in applications where its extremely high density makes it valuable, such as the keels of yachts, and anti-tank KE-penetrator|shells. It is also used with plutonium for making mixed oxide fuel (MOX) and to dilute, or enriched uranium, highly enriched uranium from weapons stockpiles which is now being redirected to become reactor fuel.

Back end[edit]

The back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, mostly spent fuel rods, contains fission products that emit beta and gamma radiation, and actinides that emit alpha particl]s, such as uranium-234, neptunium-237, plutonium-238 and americium-241, and even sometimes some neutron emitters such as californium (Cf). These isotopes are formed in nuclear reactors.

It is important to distinguish the processing of uranium to make fuel from the nuclear reprocessing of used fuel. Used fuel contains the highly radioactive products of fission (see high level waste below). Many of these are neutron absorbers, called neutron poisons in this context. These eventually build up to a level where they absorb so many neutrons that the chain reaction stops, even with the control rods completely removed. At that point the fuel has to be replaced in the reactor with fresh fuel, even though there is still a substantial quantity of uranium-235 and plutonium present. In the United States, this used fuel is stored, while in countries such as Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Japan and India, the fuel is reprocessed to remove the fission products, and the fuel can then be re-used. This reprocessing involves handling highly radioactive materials, and the fission products removed from the fuel are a concentrated form of high-level waste as are the chemicals used in the process. While these countries reprocess the fuel carrying out single plutonium cycles, India is the only country known to be planning multiple plutonium recycling schemes.

Fuel composition and long term radioactivity[edit]

Activity of U-233 for three fuel types
Total activity for three fuel types

Long-lived radioactive waste from the back end of the fuel cycle is especially relevant when designing a complete waste management plan for spent nuclear fuel (SNF). When looking at long term radioactive decay, the actinides in the SNF have a significant influence due to their characteristically long half-lives. Depending on what a nuclear reactor is fueled with, the actinide composition in the SNF will be different.

An example of this effect is the use of nuclear fuels with thorium. Th-232 is a fertile material that can undergo a neutron capture reaction and two beta minus decays, resulting in the production of fissile U-233. The SNF of a cycle with thorium will contain U-233, an isotope with a half-life of 159,000 years. Its radioactive decay will strongly influence the long-term radioactive decay|activity curve of the SNF around 1 million years. A comparison of the activity associated to U-233 for three different SNF types can be seen in the figure on the top right.

The burnt fuels are thorium with reactor-grade plutonium (RGPu), thorium with weapons-grade plutonium (WGPu) and MOX fuel (MOX). For RGPu and WGPu, the initial amount of U-233 and its decay around 1 million years can be seen. This has an effect in the total activity curve of the three fuel types. The absence of U-233 and its daughter products in the MOX fuel results in a lower activity in region 3 of the figure on the bottom right, whereas for RGPu and WGPu the curve is maintained higher due to the presence of U-233 that has not fully decayed.

The use of different fuels in nuclear reactors results in different SNF composition, with varying activity curves.

Legacy waste[edit]

Due to historic activities typically related to radium industry, uranium mining, and military programs, there are numerous sites that contain or are contaminated with radioactivity. In the United States alone, the United States Department of Energy|Department of Energy states there are "millions of gallons of radioactive waste" as well as "thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel and material" and also "huge quantities of contaminated soil and water. Despite copious quantities of waste, the DOE has stated a goal of cleaning all presently contaminated sites successfully by 2025. The Fernald, Ohio, Ohio site for example had "31 million pounds of uranium product", "2.5 billion pounds of waste", "2.75 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and debris", and a "223 acre portion of the underlying Great Miami Aquifer had uranium levels above drinking standards.

The United States has at least 108 sites designated as areas that are contaminated and unusable, sometimes many thousands of acres. DOE wishes to clean or mitigate many or all by 2025, however the task can be difficult and it acknowledges that some may never be completely remediated. In just one of these 108 larger designations, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, there were for example at least "167 known contaminant release sites" in one of the three subdivisions of the. Some of the U.S. sites were smaller in nature, however, cleanup issues were simpler to address, and DOE has successfully completed cleanup, or at least closure, of several sites.


Radioactive medical waste tends to contain beta particle and gamma ray emitters. It can be divided into two main classes. In diagnostic nuclear medicine a number of short-lived gamma emitters such as technetium-99m are used. Many of these can be disposed of by leaving it to decay for a short time before disposal as normal waste. Other isotopes used in medicine, with half-lives in parentheses, include:

  • yttrium|Y-90, used for treating lymphoma (2.7 days)
  • radioiodine|I-131, used for thyroid function tests and for treating thyroid cancer (8.0 days)
  • strontium|Sr-89, used for treating bone cancer, intravenous injection (52 days)
  • iridium|Ir-192, used for brachytherapy (74 days)
  • cobalt|Co-60, used for brachytherapy and external radiotherapy (5.3 years)
  • Cs-137, used for brachytherapy, external radiotherapy (30 years)


Industry source waste can contain alpha decay, beta decay, neutron emission or gamma emitters. Gamma emitters are used in radiography while neutron emitting sources are used in a range of applications, such as oil well logging.

Naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM)[edit]

Processing of substances containing "natural" radioactivity is often known as NORM. A lot of this waste is alpha particle-emitting matter from the decay chains of uranium and thorium. The main source of radiation in the human body is potassium-40 (potassium-40|40). Most rocks, due to their components, have a certain, but low level, of radioactivity.


Coal contains a small amount of radioactive uranium, barium, thorium and potassium, but, in the case of pure coal, this is significantly less than the average concentration of those elements in the Earth's crust. The surrounding strata, if shale or mudstone, often contain slightly more than average and this may also be reflected in the ash content of 'dirty' coals. The more active ash minerals become concentrated in the fly ash precisely because they do not burn well. The radioactivity of fly ash is about the same as black shale and is less than phosphate rocks, but is more of a concern because a small amount of the fly ash ends up in the atmosphere where it can be inhaled.

  1. IAEA Joint Convention on Safety of Radioactive Waste