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A Guide to Storing and Disposing of Radioactive Waste

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Author: ACTenviro
Date: July 5, 2024

Through human brilliance and ingenuity, we harnessed the power of the atom.  The atomic age launched humankind into a new era of power.

However, it also left behind a serious and lingering challenge: radioactive waste.  This potent byproduct of nuclear reactions is incredibly dangerous. It requires careful handling and isolation of this kind of hazardous waste to safeguard human health and the environment.  

But what is radioactive waste? What makes them dangerous? How exactly do we store and dispose of this waste safely for thousands of years? 

This article gives you an insight into the science and complex logistics behind radioactive waste management. We'll explore the different storage methods used to keep this waste material contained.  This guide will shed light on this important aspect of our nuclear world.

What is Radioactive Waste?

Radioactive waste comes from leftover radioactive material that emits radiation due to the material's unstable atoms. These unstable atoms are constantly trying to reach a more stable state by giving off radiation. Each type of waste has unique properties and needs specific management and disposal methods to ensure safety.

Examples of Radioactive Materials

By definition, radioactive materials are unstable isotopes of elements that emit radiation as they decay towards a more stable state. These materials can either be naturally occurring or man-made. 

  • Naturally occurring radioactive materials: These materials have been around since Earth's formation. These materials are constantly emitting radiation at a predictable rate. Some common examples include: 
  • Uranium: Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element found in rocks, soil, and water. It decays very slowly into other elements. 
  • Thorium: Similar to uranium, thorium is another naturally radioactive element that decays into a series of elements such as including radium and radon. 
  • Potassium-40: This is a radioactive isotope of potassium that is found naturally in the environment and our bodies. Potassium-40 decays by emitting gamma radiation. And no, you won't turn into the Incredible Hulk. 
  • Radon: Radon is a radioactive gas that is formed by the decay of uranium in soil and rock. It can seep into buildings and become a health hazard.
  • Man-made radioactive materials: These materials are created through human activities such as nuclear power generation and medical procedures. Some examples include:

    • Spent nuclear fuel: This is the radioactive material that remains after nuclear fuel rods have been used in a nuclear reactor. Improper nuclear waste management can produce dangerous radioactive pollution.
  • Plutonium: Plutonium is a man-made radioactive element that is produced in nuclear reactors. It is used in atomic weapons and some types of nuclear fuel. Atomic waste must be handled with care.  
  • Cesium-137: This is a radioactive isotope of cesium that is a byproduct of nuclear fission. It was released in significant quantities during the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters. 
  • Iodine-131: This is a radioactive isotope of iodine that is used in medical imaging procedures. It can also be released during nuclear accidents. 

Not all radioactive materials are equally hazardous. The level of risk depends on the type of radiation emitted, which we will discuss in the next section. 

Characteristics of Radioactive Material

All radioactive materials share some basic characteristics:

  • Unstable Nuclei: At their core, radioactive materials have unstable atomic nuclei. These nuclei contain an imbalance of protons and neutrons.
  • Radioactive Decay: These materials undergo radioactive decay because of their nucleic instability. They release energy and particles in the form of radiation until their nuclei stabilize.
  • Radiation Emission: The type of radiation emitted depends on the specific decay process the material undergoes. There are three main types of radiation emitted by radioactive materials: alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays.
  • Half-Life: Each radioactive material has a characteristic half-life. This is the time it takes for half of the radioactive material to decay. Half-lives can vary greatly, from fractions of a second to billions of years.
  • Ionization Potential: Radiation emitted by radioactive materials can ionize atoms and molecules they come into contact with. This means they knock electrons off, creating charged particles that can disrupt chemical processes and damage living tissue. The degree of ionization depends on the type and energy of the radiation.

Types of Radioactive Waste

spent fuel placed on dry, metal concrete casts

Radioactive waste, generated at various stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, is classified into different categories based on radioactivity levels.  The classification system considers factors like the amount of radiation emitted, the type of radiation emitted, and the half-life of the radioactive isotopes involved. 

  • Very low-level waste (VLLW): As the name implies, this type of waste has very low levels of radioactivity and may not require special disposal procedures. VLLW can come from a variety of sources including decommissioning nuclear facilities, soil and debris from contaminated sites, and consumer products that contain small amounts of radioactive materials such as smoke detectors. VLLW may be disposed of in landfills that are specifically licensed to accept this type of waste.
  • Low-level waste (LLW): Accounting for about 90% of all radioactive waste generated are low-level wastes. Such radioactive waste typically comes from hospitals, research institutions, and nuclear power plants. LLW includes things such as contaminated clothing, paper, rags, tools, filters, and resins. The radioactivity level in LLW is relatively low, and most of the isotopes have short half-lives. They lose their radioactivity relatively quickly. LLW can often be disposed of in near-surface landfill facilities with specific design features.
  • Intermediate-level waste (ILW): ILWs are more radioactive than LLW and require more shielding during handling and storage. ILW can come from nuclear power plants, research facilities, and fuel reprocessing plants. Examples of ILW include reactor components, ion exchange resins used in nuclear power plants, and some sealed sources used in medicine and industry. ILW typically requires disposal in a deep geological repository.
  • High-level waste (HLW): HLW is the most radioactive type of waste. They generate a significant amount of heat due to decay. HLW comes primarily from used nuclear fuel rods. The radioactivity in HLW is so high that it requires special shielding and cooling for long periods before disposal. HLW radioactive waste disposal is typically planned for disposal in deep geological repositories.
  • Transuranic waste (TRU waste): This is radioactive waste that contains isotopes heavier than uranium on the periodic table. These isotopes, known as transuranics, tend to have long half-lives and can be a significant health hazard. TRU waste can come from nuclear reactors, fuel reprocessing facilities, and some national defense activities. This type of nuclear waste is usually buried in deep geological repositories.

Radioactive wastes should be handled by specialists such as ACTenviro. They can provide transportation and disposal of such wastes.  

Sources of Radioactive Waste

What is nuclear waste? Many think that radioactive waste solely comes from nuclear power plants and generators. But those are not the only sources. Here's a breakdown of the key categories:

  • Nuclear Power Generation: The fuel rods used in generating nuclear power are definitely a major source of radioactive waste. After these fuel rods have been used in a reactor to produce energy, they become radioactive waste due to fission (i.e. the splitting of atoms).
  • Nuclear Weapons Production and Reprocessing: The processes involved in creating nuclear weapons and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel for potential reuse generate radioactive waste. This waste can include materials like contaminated clothing, tools, and components from weapon development facilities.
  • Medical Uses: Radiation is not necessarily dangerous. In fact, in the field of medicine, radioactivity is used for diagnostic imaging and radiation therapy. Using radioactivity in a medical setting can generate radioactive waste such as vials and syringes of radioactive iodine or protective equipment used during diagnostic and treatment procedures.
  • Research and Industry: Research institutions and some industries utilize radioactive materials in their work. The waste generated from these activities can include contaminated lab equipment, glassware, and reactor components.
  • Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM): Certain industries like mining and oil and gas production can encounter naturally radioactive materials (NORM) during their operations. Extracting and processing these materials can concentrate the radioactivity, creating radioactive waste that requires special disposal.

Dangers of Improperly Managed Radioactive Waste

Radioactive waste that is stored, transported, or disposed of improperly poses serious dangers due to the radiation it emits. 

  • Exposure to Radiation: The main danger comes from exposure to ionizing radiation emitted by the waste. This radiation can damage living cells, potentially leading to:
    • Acute Radiation Sickness: High levels of exposure can cause nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and even death.
    • Increased Risk of Cancer: Long-term exposure to lower levels of radiation can increase the risk of developing various cancers.
    • Genetic Damage: Radiation can damage DNA, leading to genetic mutations that can be passed onto future generations.
  • Environmental Contamination: If radioactive waste is not properly contained, it can contaminate the environment and enter the food chain. This contamination poses a risk to wildlife and humans who consume contaminated food or water.

Storage of Radioactive Waste

When it comes to radioactive waste, both interim storage solutions and the safe transport of the waste are usually considered before the waste material is disposed of to its final resting place.

Interim Radioactive Waste Storage

Unlike other hazardous waste, radioactive waste cannot be stored in plastic drums, containers, or bins. Radioactive waste storage during the interim period involves using facilities that are specially engineered to ensure safety and protect the environment until permanent disposal solutions are available. These facilities are designed to manage the decay heat and radioactivity of the waste effectively.

In addition, hazardous waste specialists such as ACTenviro also offer decontamination services to further reduce the hazards of radioactive exposure. 

Used Nuclear Fuel

  • Pool Storage: Fresh out of the reactor, used fuel rods are incredibly radioactive and generate massive amounts of heat. Nuclear waste storage is usually in specially designed pools at the power plant itself. These pools are filled with water that serves three key purposes.
    • Shielding: The water acts as a barrier. It absorbs radiation emitted by the fuel rods. It also protects workers and the environment.
    • Cooling: The water helps dissipate heat generated by the decaying radioactive material. Pumps ensure that the water continues to flow so it does not boil.
    • Moderation: In some reactor designs, the water can also help control the rate of nuclear reactions within the pool by slowing down neutrons.
  • Dry Cask Storage: After several years in the pool, the radioactivity of the fuel rods declines enough so that they can be transferred to dry casks. These are large, heavily shielded containers made of concrete and steel. Dry casks have several advantages over pool storage:
    • Increased Capacity: They can hold more fuel rods than pools, maximizing storage space at a power plant site.
    • Lower Maintenance: Dry casks require less maintenance compared to water-filled pools.
    • Security: Their robust design provides better protection against potential accidents or intentional tampering.

Other Radioactive Waste

  • Low-Level Waste: For LLW, their interim storage methods vary based on specific characteristics.
    • Vaults: These are heavily shielded buildings or rooms used for short-term storage of low-level waste until it decays to safe levels for disposal.
    • Near-Surface Disposal Facilities: Certain types of low-level waste with very low radioactivity levels can be disposed of in specially designed landfills with specific engineering features to prevent environmental contamination.
  • Intermediate-Level Waste: Sorting ILW requires shielding and containment similar to dry casks for interim storage until a final disposal facility becomes available.

Transporting Radioactive Waste

Transporting radioactive waste from one facility to the other or the final disposal area requires meticulous planning and strict adherence to safety protocols to prevent radioactive pollution. Multiple layers of regulations, robust packaging, and well-defined procedures help minimize risks and ensure the safe movement of this material.

Packaging

  • Highly radioactive waste requires robust containers like casks made of thick steel and lead for shielding.
  • Less radioactive waste is placed inside specially designed boxes or containers with appropriate shielding materials.
  • All packaging undergoes rigorous testing to make sure it can withstand potential accidents during transportation.

Transportation Modes

  • Truck transport is often used for shorter distances or for waste that requires special handling considerations.
  • Trains are a common option for transporting large quantities of waste over longer distances.
  • Ship transport is used for international shipments or for transporting waste to disposal facilities located overseas.

Safety Measures

  • Routes for transport are carefully planned to minimize the public's exposure to radiation. For example, trucks carrying radioactive wastes typically avoid going through densely populated areas.
  • Vehicles carrying radioactive waste are marked with brightly colored signs that warn of the contents.
  • Escort personnel with proper training and radiation monitoring equipment may accompany the shipment.
  • Emergency response plans are in place to address any potential accidents during transport.

Regulations

  • Strict national and international regulations govern the transportation of radioactive material. These regulations cover packaging requirements, labeling, routing, emergency preparedness, and training for personnel involved in transportation. 

Disposal of Radioactive Waste

deep geological radioactive waste facility

The ultimate goal for radioactive waste is permanent disposal, isolating it from the environment for thousands or even millions of years.  There are two main disposal methods for different waste categories: near-surface disposal and deep geological disposal.

Click this link for an in-depth explanation of these radioactive waste disposal methods.

Near Surface Disposal

This method is suitable for low-level radioactive waste (LLW) that has low radioactivity levels and short half-lives. Here's a breakdown of near-surface disposal:

  • Facilities: Near-surface disposal facilities are located on land and can be at ground level, shallow trenches, or engineered structures built above or below ground.
  • Waste Types: LLW suitable for near-surface disposal could include contaminated clothing, tools, filters, and certain types of low-level waste from hospitals and research institutions.
  • Disposal Process: The waste is placed in the designated disposal area. The containers in which these wastes are placed may be surrounded by additional shielding materials. Trenches are then covered with layers of soil and other materials to isolate the waste and prevent migration.
  • Advantages: Near-surface disposal is a relatively simple and cost-effective method for LLW. The location makes monitoring and retrieval easy. 
  • Disadvantages: This method is not suitable for HLW due to the long-term isolation needs. There's also a potential for environmental impact if not properly managed.

Deep Surface Disposal

While near-surface disposal offers a viable and relatively affordable solution for low-level waste, deep geological disposal remains the preferred approach for permanent nuclear waste disposal as well as other ILW and HLW.

  • Facilities: Deep geological repositories are located deep underground, around hundreds to thousands of meters below the earth's surface. Selected sites are usually in stable geologic formations like granite or salt rock.
  • Waste Types: HLW and some ILW with long half-lives are candidates for deep geological disposal.
  • Disposal Process: The waste is encapsulated in dry casks designed to withstand corrosion and pressure for extended periods. These containers are then placed or buried in the deep geological repository. The natural properties of the rock formation, along with engineered barriers, provide multiple layers of isolation for the waste.
  • Advantages: Deep geological disposal offers the most secure and long-term isolation for HLW and ILW. The stable rock formations provide natural barriers against environmental factors.
  • Disadvantages: Developing a deep geological repository is a complex and expensive undertaking. Site selection and public acceptance can be challenging.

Alternate Disposal Ideas

Near-surface and deep-surface disposal methods are the most common. However, many countries are looking for alternative ways to dispose of radioactive waste. Most of these ideas are still concepts being studied. None have been implemented yet.

  • Sub-seabed disposal: This concept involves placing encapsulated waste containers in deep ocean sediments, beneath the seabed thousands of meters down. Proponents of sub-seabed disposal highlight the dense and stable nature of certain ocean sediments as a potential advantage. However, concerns exist about the impact on marine ecosystems and the potential for containment failure due to unforeseen geological processes.
  • Transmutation: This theoretical approach involves using nuclear reactions to convert long-lived radioactive isotopes in waste into shorter-lived or stable isotopes. While promising, transmutation technology is still under development. The complex engineering required to build and operate transmutation facilities and the availability of sufficient neutron sources to drive the transmutation reactions are just a few of the many challenges in applying this approach.
  • Partitioning and Transmutation: An extension of the transmutation concept, the waste is first separated into its various components using reprocessing techniques. The long-lived radioactive isotopes are then targeted for transmutation while the remaining shorter-lived or non-radioactive components can potentially be disposed of using other methods. Again, technical hurdles associated with both reprocessing and transmutation remain significant obstacles to this approach.
  • Space disposal: This idea involves launching encapsulated radioactive waste into outer space for permanent disposal. While technically feasible, the immense cost and potential for accidents during a launch raise serious concerns. In addition, international treaties may restrict the placement of radioactive materials in space.
  • Near-surface disposal with engineered enhancements: This concept involves improving existing near-surface disposal facilities with additional engineered barriers to enhance the containment and isolation of radioactive waste. These barriers could include special clay liners, advanced monitoring systems, and retrievability options for unforeseen circumstances.

For more information about these alternative methods, click this link

Regulations for Radioactive Waste Management

In the US, the enforcement of radioactive waste management regulations is a shared responsibility between two primary federal agencies:

1. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC): The NRC is an independent agency that regulates the civilian uses of nuclear materials and facilities. Their role includes:

  • Licensing facilities that handle radioactive waste including those involved in storage, treatment, and disposal
  • Setting and enforcing safety standards for the packaging, transportation, and disposal of radioactive waste
  • Inspecting facilities and conducting audits to ensure compliance with regulations
  • Taking enforcement actions in cases of non-compliance, which can range from issuing warnings to fines or even license revocation

For more information about the NRC's radioactive materials and waste regulations, click here: NRC Radioactive Materials & Waste Regulations

2. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA's focus is on protecting human health and the environment from environmental hazards. Their role in radioactive waste management includes:

  • Setting radiation protection standards for the disposal of radioactive waste from certain sources, such as nuclear power plants
  • Overseeing the disposal of low-level radioactive waste at commercially operated disposal facilities
  • Working with states to develop and implement programs for managing radioactive waste

For more information about the EPA's radiation regulations, click here: EPA Radiation Regulations and Laws

3. Additional Considerations

  • Some states have their own regulatory programs for radioactive waste management, particularly for low-level waste.
  • The Department of Energy (DOE) also plays a role in radioactive waste management, particularly regarding the management and disposal of waste generated by government activities, such as defense programs. However, the DOE does not have a regulatory role; it is subject to the regulations enforced by the NRC and EPA.
  • Regulatory bodies like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) play an important crucial role in ensuring the safe and secure handling of radioactive waste.

Conclusion

Understanding the complexities of radioactive waste storage and disposal equips those who use and handle radioactive materials to make informed, safety-focused decisions. Methods like deep geological disposal and advanced technologies such as mined repositories and deep boreholes offer robust containment. Utilizing materials like copper and reprocessing techniques can significantly decrease waste volume. With this knowledge, industries that rely on the power of the atom can contribute to a safer environment and ensure the responsible management of radioactive waste.

ACTenviro provides comprehensive solutions for all your hazardous waste cleanup, transportation, and disposal needs, including radioactive waste.

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