United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment

Radioactive Waste: Production, Storage, Disposal (NUREG/BR-0216, Revision 2)

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Date Published: May 2002

Office of Public Affairs
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington DC, 20555-0001

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Radioactive Waste: An Introduction

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 following sections of this pamphlet provide separate discussions on high-level and low-level radioactive waste and mill tailings.

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