- Activities that produce or use radioactive material can generate radioactive waste.
- Radioactive waste is hazardous because it emits radioactive particles, which if not properly managed can be a risk to human health and the environment.
Radioactive waste is produced by industries such as mining, nuclear power generation, defense, medicine, and certain types of scientific research.
About Radioactive Waste
As defined in the United States, there are five general categories of radioactive waste:
- High-level waste: High-level waste includes used nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors and waste generated from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Although defense-related activities generate most of the United States’ liquid high-level waste, the majority of spent nuclear fuel is from commercial nuclear power plant reactors. Currently, most high-level waste is stored at the site where the waste was generated.
- Transuranic waste: Transuranic wastes refer to man-made radioactive elements that have an atomic number of 92 (uranium) or higher. Most of the transuranic waste in the United States is from nuclear weapons production facilities. This waste includes common items such as rags, tools, and laboratory equipment contaminated during the early age of nuclear weapons research and development. Transuranic waste is currently being stored at several federal facilities across the country. Transuranic waste created as part of a defense program will ultimately be disposed of at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, which began accepting waste in 1999.
- Uranium or thorium mill tailings: Mill tailings are radioactive wastes that remain after the mining and milling of uranium or thorium ore. Mill tailings are stored at the production-sites in specially designed ponds called impoundments.
- Low-level waste: Low-level waste is radioactively contaminated industrial or research waste that is not high-level waste or uranium or thorium mill tailings. Much of this waste looks like common items such as paper, rags, plastic bags, protective clothing, cardboard, and packaging material. These items are considered waste once they come into contact with radioactive materials. Low-level waste can be generated by any industry using radioactive material, including government, utility, manufacture, medical and research facilities. There are disposal facilities that specialize in the near-surface disposal of low-level waste.
- Technologically enhanced naturally-occurring radioactive material (TENORM): Some radiological material can exist naturally in the environment. In some cases, naturally-occurring radiological material (NORM) can become concentrated through human activity, such as mining or natural resource extraction. NORM that has been concentrated or relocated is known as Technologically Enhanced NORM, or TENORM. Many industries and processes can produce TENORM, including mining, oil and gas drilling and production and water treatment. TENORM wastes must be disposed or managed according to state regulations. Learn more about TENORM.
Like all radioactive material, radioactive wastes will naturally decay over time. Once the radioactive material has decayed sufficiently, the waste is no longer hazardous. However, the time it will take for the radioactive material to decay will range from a few hours to hundreds of thousands of years. Some radioactive elements, such as plutonium, are highly radioactive and remain so for thousands of years. Learn more about radioactive decay.
What You Can Do
- Be aware. It is highly unlikely that you would unknowingly encounter radioactive waste. However, if you are near a facility that manages radioactive waste, follow safety instructions.
- Stay away. Keeping distance between you and radioactive waste will help keep you from being exposed. Never touch, inhale or ingest radioactive waste. Radioactive materials and other contaminants from waste can be very dangerous inside the body.