- Nuclear power is the only large-scale energy-producing technology which takes full responsibility for all its wastes and fully costs this into the product.
- The amount of radioactive wastes is very small relative to wastes produced by fossil fuel electricity generation.
- Used nuclear fuel may be treated as a resource or simply as a waste.
- Safe methods for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste are technically proven; the international consensus is that this should be deep geological disposal.
All parts of the nuclear fuel cycle produce some radioactive waste (radwaste) and the cost of managing and disposing of this is part of the electricity cost, i.e. it is internalised and paid for by the electricity consumers.
At each stage of the fuel cycle there are proven technologies to dispose of the radioactive wastes safely. For low- and intermediate-level wastes these are mostly being implemented. For high-level wastes some countries await the accumulation of enough of it to warrant building geological repositories; others, such as the USA, have encountered political delays.
The radioactivity of all nuclear waste decays with time. Each radionuclidea contained in the waste has a half-life – the time taken for half of its atoms to decay and thus for it to lose half of its radioactivity. Radionuclides with long half-lives tend to be alpha and beta emitters – making their handling easier – while those with short half-lives tend to emit the more penetrating gamma rays. Eventually all radioactive wastes decay into non-radioactive elements. The more radioactive an isotope is, the faster it decays.
The main objective in managing and disposing of radioactive (or other) waste is to protect people and the environment. This means isolating or diluting the waste so that the rate or concentration of any radionuclides returned to the biosphere is harmless. To achieve this, practically all wastes are contained and managed – some clearly need deep and permanent burial. From nuclear power generation, none is allowed to cause harmful pollution.
All toxic wastes need to be dealt with safely, not just radioactive wastes. In countries with nuclear power, radioactive wastes comprise less than 1% of total industrial toxic wastes (the balance of which remains hazardous indefinitely).
Types of radioactive wastes
Exempt waste & very low level waste
Exempt waste and very low level waste (VLLW) contains radioactive materials at a level which is not considered harmful to people or the surrounding environment. It consists mainly of demolished material (such as concrete, plaster, bricks, metal, valves, piping etc) produced during rehabilitation or dismantling operations on nuclear industrial sites. Other industries, such as food processing, chemical, steel etc also produce VLLW as a result of the concentration of natural radioactivity present in certain minerals used in their manufacturing processes (see also information page on Naturally-Occurring Radioactive Materials). The waste is therefore disposed of with domestic refuse, although countries such as France are currently developing facilities to store VLLW in specifically designed VLLW disposal facilities.
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. It does not require shielding during handling and transport and is suitable for shallow land burial. To reduce its volume, it is often compacted or incinerated before disposal. It comprises some 90% of the volume but only 1% of the radioactivity of all radioactive waste.
Intermediate-level waste (ILW) contains higher amounts of radioactivity and some requires shielding. It typically comprises resins, chemical sludges and metal fuel cladding, as well as contaminated materials from reactor decommissioning. Smaller items and any non-solids may be solidified in concrete or bitumen for disposal. It makes up some 7% of the volume and has 4% of the radioactivity of all radwaste.
High-level waste (HLW) arises from the 'burning' of uranium fuel in a nuclear reactor. HLW contains the fission products and transuranic elements generated in the reactor core. It is highly radioactive and hot, so requires cooling and shielding. It can be considered as the 'ash' from 'burning' uranium. HLW accounts for over 95% of the total radioactivity produced in the process of electricity generation. There are two distinct kinds of HLW:
Used fuel itself.
Separated waste from reprocessing the used fuel.
HLW has both long-lived and short-lived components, depending on the length of time it will take for the radioactivity of particular radionuclides to decrease to levels that are considered no longer hazardous for people and the surrounding environment. If generally short-lived fission products can be separated from long-lived actinides, this distinction becomes important in management and disposal of HLW.
Waste management for used fuel and HLW from nuclear power reactors
|Country||Policy||Facilities and progress towards final repositories|
but moving to direct disposal
|South Korea||Direct disposal|