Frequent Questions: Radioactive Waste
View frequently asked questions and answers related to radioactive waste by topic.
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Which radionuclides are found at Superfund sites?
A list of the most commonly found radionuclides at Superfund sites is located in the Common Radionuclides Found at Superfund Sites (pdf) (117.44 K, July 2002).
For more information about specific isotopes and radionuclides, visit Radionuclides.
What is the EPA's Radiation Site Cleanup Program?
The EPA's Radiation Site Cleanup Program uses the best available science to develop risk assessment tools and guidance for cleaning up sites that are contaminated with radioactive materials. The Cleanup Program also provides technical support and expertise to the EPA's Superfund program.
For more information about the program, visit Radiation Site Cleanup Program.
What is Superfund?
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program is responsible for cleaning up some of the United States’ most contaminated land. For more than thirty-five years, the Superfund program has protected communities across the United States by responding to environmental emergencies, remediating oil spills, and addressing toxic and hazardous waste contamination. The Superfund program also addresses radioactive contamination and will work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy to decommission and decontaminate certain sites.
For more information, visit Radiation at Superfund Sites.
Who regulates waste from nuclear power plants?
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has regulatory authority over storage and disposal of all commercially-generated nuclear wastes in the United States, as well as disposal of spent fuel and high-level wastes generated by the Department of Energy. The NRC implements its general radiation protection standards for disposal through 10 CFR Part 20. Read 10 CFR Part 20 - Standards for Protection Against Radiation. The NRC also regulates the low-level waste produced in the nuclear power cycle. More information is available on NRC's Low-Level Waste Disposal webpage.
Spent nuclear fuel is used fuel that can no longer create electricity, but is still quite hot, both radioactively and thermally. Currently, the United States does not have a central repository for wastes generated by nuclear power plants, and this waste is generally kept at the site at which it was created. Depending on the waste and on the facility, this waste is sometimes stored underwater, or it may be stored in dry casks or canisters. For a brief overview of the storage of spent fuel, visit NRC's What Is Nuclear Waste? webpage.
The Environmental Protection Agency set environmental standards for spent fuel disposal in 40 CFR Part 191 and 40 CFR Part 197. For more information, visit the Radiation Regulations and Laws webpage at EPA.gov. The U.S.NRC’s requirements that implement 40 CFR parts 191 and 197 are in 10 CFR parts 60 and 63, respectively.
For more information about spent nuclear fuel, visit the NRC's High-Level Waste webpage.
What is high-level radioactive waste?
High-level radioactive waste is the waste that comes from producing nuclear materials for defense purposes. Ultimately, this waste is stored as sludge, liquid, or pellets, and must be solidified before manufacturers or labs can dispose of it. Currently, the United States does not reprocess spent nuclear fuel, nor does it have a disposal facility for high-level radioactive waste. Most high-level radioactive waste is stored at the facility in which it was produced.
For more information on high-level radioactive waste, visit Radioactive Regulations and Laws at EPA.gov.
What other agencies regulate nuclear waste?
The EPA has the authority to regulate the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) which is a Department of Energy repository that permanently disposes of transuranic waste from defense programs. Authority for EPA’s response in radiological emergency situations is described in Emergency Support Function 10, which includes a multitude of radiological events where the EPA would step in to respond, including those that may involve nuclear waste. The EPA also sets air emission and drinking water standards, and has created the Protective Action Guidelines (PAGs) to protect human health and the environment.
For more information, visit the Department of Energy’s website.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) also has authority over nuclear power plants’ waste and spent nuclear fuel. Additionally, the NRC regulates radioactive sources and byproduct materials. For more information on their authority and Agreement States, visit the NRC website.
Occasionally, the Department of Defense also regulates nuclear waste when it is in the custody of or being transported for the Department of Defense.
The Department of Transportation regulates the quantities, radioactivity, and shipment processes for transporting radioactive materials. For more information, see Transportation of Radioactive Material(pdf) (371.05 K).
For more information about the various regulators of radioactivity, visit Radiation Resources Outside of EPA.
How is mixed waste regulated?
Mixed waste falls under two federal statutes: the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Atomic Energy Act (AEA). RCRA regulates the hazardous waste portion of the waste as any other hazardous waste, while the AEA regulates the RCRA-exempt radioactive portion. If waste is categorized as “mixed waste,” the handlers must comply with both AEA and RCRA statutes and regulations, which are usually compatible. In the cases where AEA and RCRA contradict each other, the provisions in Section 1006(a) of RCRA allow the AEA to take precedence over RCRA.
For more information about how the EPA categorizes hazardous waste and mixed radiological wastes, visit Defining Hazardous Waste.
What is the Orphan Sources Initiative?
The Orphan Sources Initiative was an early-2000’s program that sought to mitigate the many reports of “orphan” radioactive sources, or radioactive sources that are lost, stolen, or abandoned. The EPA’s Orphan Sources Initiative helped states recognize, retrieve, and safely store and dispose of these radioactive sources before they endangered workers and the public; the program is now in the hands of the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD).
While the EPA no longer currently runs the Orphan Sources Initiative, CRCPD hosts an open call every year to share the cost of disposing of such sources and collect abandoned radioactive sources to mitigate risk to human health and the environment. The Source Collection and Threat Reduction (SCATR) program is currently supported by the Department of Energy.
For more information about the SCATR Program, visit SCATR on CRCPD.org.
How can the public get information of the EPA's WIPP activities?
The EPA hosts a WIPP News webpage with events, webinars, and Federal Register announcements that pertain to EPA’s activities related to WIPP. Additionally, this page contains records of past actions and approvals. When public comment periods are open, that information will also be posted on that page.
The EPA encourages the public to Contact Us with questions regarding WIPP recertification or environmental regulations that affect the WIPP.
For more information, please visit the EPA's WIPP webpage.
What is the WIPP and how is the EPA involved?
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or the WIPP, is a Department of Energy (DOE) site where defense-related transuranic waste can be permanently disposed of in a single location. Located outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico, the WIPP accepts waste shipments from across the country and disposes of the waste in a mined salt repository approximately 2000 feet below the surface. The site’s bedded salt deposit was selected for its ability to permanently isolate radioactive waste from the surrounding environment.
In 1992, Congress gave the EPA the responsibility to oversee the DOE’s activity at the site. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Land Withdrawal Act (pdf) (159.32 K), signed into law in 1992, confirmed that EPA’s environmental safety standards apply to the WIPP, and gave EPA the authority to implement those standards at the facility. For more information on EPA’s regulatory authority over the WIPP’s activities, see EPA’s page Subpart B and Subpart C of 40 CFR Part 191.
Every five years, the EPA must determine whether it can recertify that the WIPP complies with the disposal criteria. The public is given an opportunity to review and comment on the recertification documents, all of which EPA considers before issuing a final recertification. For more information, visit Certification and Recertification of WIPP.
The EPA conducts inspections at the WIPP facility, as well as waste generator sites across the United States. The Agency proposes baseline approval of site-specific waste characterization programs in the Federal Register, and provides an opportunity for the public to submit comments. Following the close of a public comment period, the EPA notifies DOE, via letter, of waste characterization program approvals and dockets all pertinent documents as part of the public record. Following baseline approvals, the EPA conducts inspections to verify continuing compliance and approve programmatic changes.
For more information on EPA’s role at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, visit the EPA's WIPP webpage.
Does the EPA consider the environmental and health issues of transporting radioactive waste to the WIPP in New Mexico?
Transportation of radioactive waste falls under the purview of the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the State of New Mexico. Regulations issued by the DOT inform the guidelines set by states and tribes to designate the routes that radioactive waste takes when it goes to the WIPP facility. Final decisions are made by public health departments in each state, such as the Department of Health in Texas or the Public Service Commission in Indiana.
For more information about WIPP transportation issues, visit the Certification and Recertification of WIPP.
For more information on the compliance criteria, visit EPA's Role at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).
Where can I get more information about the WIPP?
You can get more information about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in a number of different places. The EPA maintains a WIPP News webpage containing updates about the WIPP, including more information about our oversight role, the dockets for the WIPP, and information about recertification of the WIPP. You can sign up to receive WIPP updates via email on the WIPP News webpage as well.
The EPA provides links to resources with contact information for the federal, state, and local agencies that have a role in the WIPP on the EPA's Role at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) webpage.
For more information on the Department of Energy’s role at the WIPP, visit the DOE's WIPP webpage. The Department of Energy also maintains a WIPP Information line at 1-800-336-9477 if there are unanswered questions following the review of both the EPA’s and the Department of Energy’s websites.
Where is the transuranic waste that will be disposed at the WIPP stored now?
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) collects waste from across the country. Most of the waste slated for WIPP disposal comes from the remediation of sites used to produce atomic weapons during World War II and through the Cold War. As these legacy sites are decommissioned, the waste currently stored at the sites is transported to the WIPP. The Department of Energy is responsible for long term stewardship, including monitoring, maintenance, and security at the site. For more information on Legacy sites and their waste, visit the DOE's Office of Legacy Management webpage.
For more information, visit the EPA's WIPP webpage.
What is Transuranic Radioactive Waste?
Transuranic radioactive waste is waste that contains manmade elements heavier than uranium on the periodic table. It is produced during nuclear fuel assembly, nuclear weapons research and production, and during the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Transuranic waste generally consists of protective clothing, tools, and equipment used in these processes.
Transuranic waste consists of materials containing alpha-emitting radionuclides, with half-lives greater than twenty years and atomic numbers greater than 92, in concentrations greater than 100 nanocuries per gram of waste. The WIPP Land Withdrawal Act specifically excludes high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel from the definition, as neither is allowed to be disposed of at the WIPP.
For more information about the specifics of transuranic waste, visit the DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Waste Characterization webpage.
For more information about EPA’s role at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, visit the WIPP webpage.
What is the EPA's role in the Yucca Mountain project?
The EPA’s role, as stated in the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (Public Law 102-486), Section 801(a), is to set public health and safety radiation protection standards for protection of the public from releases from radioactive materials stored or disposed of in the repository. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must determine whether the performance of the Yucca Mountain facility complies with the standards set by the EPA, in order to grant the operator of the facility a license (the Department of Energy). However, the Department of Energy is not currently pursuing a license.
For more information about the standards set by the EPA, 40 CFR Part 197.
What is the Yucca Mountain repository?
The Yucca Mountain repository is the proposed spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level radioactive waste (HLW) repository where both types of radioactive waste could be disposed. If constructed, it would use a tunnel complex approximately 1000 feet below the top of Yucca Mountain and about 1000 feet above the aquifer underlying the repository. The basic idea of geologic disposal is to place carefully packaged radioactive materials in tunnels deep underground. To achieve this, the Yucca Mountain repository would utilize a mixture of natural and engineered barriers to isolate the waste from the surrounding environment.
It is statutorily limited to containing 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste, unless a second repository opens during its operational lifetime.
When will the Yucca Mountain repository be operational?
The future of the Yucca Mountain repository is uncertain. The site was first researched, along with eight other sites, in response to Congressional direction in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Three sites of the original nine were selected for further study in 1986. In 1987, Congress decided to narrow the field solely to Yucca Mountain, and since then, the Department of Energy has focused its studies on the Yucca Mountain site. In the years following, various actions have halted the development and licensing of the site; at the current time, there is no licensing activity underway.
As developments in the Yucca Mountain project are released, this information may change; the EPA will continue to update the Frequent Questions: Radioactive Waste page with new information.
For more information about the Yucca Mountain Project, visit the Department of Energy’s webpage.
Which federal agencies have a role at Yucca Mountain?
Many federal agencies play a role in the Yucca Mountain project, and would continue to act in various roles if the site opens as a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste. However, the main agencies involved with radiological public health and environmental protection are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Department of Transportation. The Yucca Mountain repository would be a Department of Energy facility, however, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses the site and the waste packages used in transportation. The Environmental Protection Agency sets public health and environmental radiation protection standards by which the Department of Energy must abide. The Department of Transportation regulates the methods by which waste is transported to the facility.
For more information about the various agencies that have authority in the Yucca Mountain repository project, see the EPA Yucca Mountain Fact Sheet #4 on the 40 CFR Part 197 Resources webpage.
What authority does EPA have to set standards that protect public health and the environment at Yucca Mountain?
The Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to set site-specific standards for Yucca Mountain comes from the Energy Policy Act of 1992. However, two other laws have important roles leading up to that authority: the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, and the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (42 U.S.C. 10101) created the framework within which spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste is disposed; the law requires the Department of Energy to site, construct, and operate geologic repositories for both types of waste. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission must license the construction and operation of the facility, and implement the environmental protection standards set by the EPA.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Land Withdrawal Act (P.L. 102-597), which was enacted in 1992, exempted the Yucca Mountain facility from the 40 CFR part 191 generic disposal standards.
Finally, the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (42 U.S.C. 13201) specifically provided EPA the authority and direction to set site-specific standards for Yucca Mountain. The act stated that the EPA must “promulgate, by rule, public health and safety standards for the protection of the public from releases from radioactive materials stored or disposed of in the repository at the Yucca Mountain site.”
What are the characteristics of Yucca Mountain?
The Yucca Mountain Repository is a proposed Department of Energy (DOE) site that would be the United States’ first geologic repository for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The EPA has set environmental standards to protect public health and the environment from radioactive material in the repository; in order to become licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Yucca Mountain repository must meet these standards.
Yucca Mountain is a volcanic ridge located in Nye County, Nevada, approximately 90 miles south-southwest of the county seat, Tonopah, and 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The area has a desert climate. Yucca Mountain is made of layers of ashfalls from volcanic eruptions that happened more than 10 million years ago. Over that period of time, the ash from those volcanic eruptions turned into a rock type called “tuff,” an igneous rock which has varied characteristics depending on the situation in which it was formed. Due to regional geologic forces, the crest of Yucca Mountain was formed by the tuff layers’ movement. Below the tuff is carbonate rock formed from sediments laid down at the bottom of ancient seas that existed in the area.
For more information about EPA’s role at Yucca Mountain, please visit 40 CFR Part 197 Resources.
Where does the proposed Yucca Mountain waste come from, and where is it currently stored?
Currently, most of the waste for which the Yucca Mountain repository was designed is stored throughout the country at commercial nuclear power plants; there is a smaller amount of the waste at Department of Energy facilities. Nuclear power plants currently store spent nuclear fuel in specially designed, water-filled pools and above-ground dry storage facilities. However, some of these storage spaces are reaching capacity. These sites were designed for temporary storage, but have acted as extended period storage until a repository is established. The Department of Energy wastes are mainly the result of processing spent nuclear fuel in support of military programs.
As developments in the Yucca Mountain project are released, this information may change; the EPA will continue to update the Frequent Questions: Radioactive Waste page with new information.
For a list of all of the currently operating Nuclear Power Reactors, please visit the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) webpage, Operating Nuclear Power Reactors (by Location or Name).