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Radioactive Waste Disposal: An Environmental Perspective

[EPA 402-K-94-001]

This booklet describes the different categories of waste, discusses disposal practices for each type. and describes the way they are regulated.

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Any activity that produces or uses radioactive materials generates radioactive waste. Mining, nuclear power generation, and various processes in industry, defense, medicine, and scientific research produce byproducts that include radioactive waste. Radioactive waste can be in gas, liquid or solid form, and its level of radioactivity can vary. The waste can remain radioactive for a few hours or several months or even hundreds of thousands of years. Because it can be so hazardous and can remain radioactive for so long, finding suitable disposal facilities for radioactive waste is difficult. Depending on the type of waste disposed, the disposal facility may need to contain radiation for a very long time. Proper disposal is essential to ensure protection of the health and safety of the public and quality of the environment including air, soil, and water supplies.

Radioactive waste disposal practices have changed substantially over the last twenty years. Evolving environmental protection considerations have provided the impetus to improve disposal technologies, and, in some cases, clean up facilities that are no longer in use. Designs for new disposal facilities and disposal methods must meet environmental protection and pollution prevention standards that are more strict than were foreseen at the beginning of the atomic age.

Disposal of radioactive waste is a complex issue, not only because of the nature of the waste, but also because of the complicated regulatory structure for dealing with radioactive waste. There are a variety of stakeholders affected, and there are a number of regulatory entities involved. Federal government agencies involved in radioactive waste management include: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Transportation. In addition, the states and affected Indian Tribes play a prominent role in protecting the public against the hazards of radioactive waste.

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Types Of Radioactive Waste

There are six general categories of radioactive waste:

  1. spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors
  2. high-level waste from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel
  3. transuranic waste mainly from defense programs
  4. uranium mill tailings from the mining and milling of uranium ore
  5. low-level waste
  6. naturally occurring and accelerator-produced radioactive materials.

Radioactive waste is categorized according to its origin and not necessarily according to its level of radioactivity. For example, some low-level waste has the same level of radioactivity as some high-level waste.

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