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This page offers free United States federal guidance documents and publications about radioactive materials.
|Radioactive Waste Disposal:|
An Environmental Perspective
If you require a hard copy of the brochure, please email RadWasteGuide.
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.
This booklet describes the different categories of waste, discusses disposal practices for each type. and describes the way they are regulated.
The fuel for most nuclear reactors consists of pellets of ceramic uranium dioxide that are sealed in hundreds of metal rods. These rods are bundled together to form what is known as a "fuel assembly." Depending upon the type and size of the reactor, a fuel assembly can weigh up to 1,500 pounds. As the nuclear reactor operates, uranium atoms fission (split apart) and release energy. When most of the usable uranium has fissioned, the "spent" fuel assembly is removed from the reactor.
Until a disposal or long-term storage facility is operational, most spent fuel is stored in water pools at the reactor site where it was produced. The water removes leftover heat generated by the spent fuel and serves as a radiation shield to protect workers at the site.
|The operation of nuclear reactors over the last twenty years has substantially added to the amount of radioactive waste in this country. As shown in Figure 1, by the year 2020, the total amount of spent fuel is expected to increase significantly.|
HLW is the liquid waste that results when spent fuel is reprocessed to recover unfissioned uranium and plutonium. During this process, the fuel is dissolved by strong chemicals, and this results in liquid HLW. Plans are to solidify these liquids into a form that is suitable for disposal. Solidification is still in the planning stages. While currently there are no commercial facilities in this country that reprocess spent fuel, spent fuel from defense program reactors has been routinely reprocessed for use in producing nuclear weapons or for reuse in new fuel.
Figure 1Projected Accumulated Radioactivity of Commercial
Spent Fuel Discharges for the DOE/EIA
No-New-Orders and Lower Reference Cases
Note: Reference for figure is the Integrated Data
|Compared to the total inventory of HLW, the volume of commercial HLW from the reprocessing of commercial spent fuel is almost insignificant, less than one percent. Defense-related HLW comprises greater than ninety-nine percent of the volume of HLW. Figure 2 shows the historical and projected volume of defense-related HLW through the year 2020. The effect of the end of the "Cold War" on these projections is uncertain.|
Figure 2Historical and Projected Inventories of Defense
High-Level Radioactive Waste
Reference: DOE/RW-0006, Rev.7
The federal government (the EPA, the DOE, and the NRC) has overall responsibility for the safe disposal of HLW and spent fuel. The EPA is responsible for developing environmental standards that apply to both DOE-operated and NRC-licensed facilities. Currently, the NRC is responsible for licensing such facilities and ensuring their compliance with the EPA standards. DOE is responsible for developing the deep geologic repository which has been authorized by Congress for disposing of spent fuel and high level waste. Both the NRC and the Department of Transportation are responsible for regulating the transportation of these wastes to storage and disposal sites.
The DOE is also developing plans for the siting and development of a potential Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) facility. The MRS facility could be used to receive and store spent fuel from commercial power reactors for subsequent shipment to a repository when such a facility becomes operational.
In October 1992, two laws were enacted, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) Land Withdrawal Act and the Energy Policy Act, that affected EPA's development of standards for the management and disposal of spent nuclear fuel, HLW and TRU wastes. As explained more fully in the next section on TRU waste, EPA's Administrator issued the revised disposal standards as mandated by the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act in December 1993. These standards apply to all HLW, spent fuel, and TRU waste disposal except for disposal at the Yucca Mountain site. The Energy Policy Act directs the EPA to issue environmental standards, which protect public health and safety and are specific to the Yucca Mountain site. The Act also requires that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) conduct a study to provide findings and recommendations related to the form and content of environmental radiation protection standards for Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The EPA's standards for Yucca Mountain must be developed based upon the findings and recommendations of the NAS and must be issued within one year from the time ' the EPA receives the NAS recommendations. NRC, as the licensing authority for this site, must incorporate the EPA's environmental standards in their overall licensing regulations for HLW disposal (10 CFR 60).
More information on Yucca Mountain is available on EPA's Yucca Mountain HomePage.
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