Radioactive Waste and its Management

  Radioactive Waste

Radioactive (or nuclear) waste is a byproduct from nuclear reactors, fuel processing plants, and institutions such as hospitals and research facilities. It also results from the decommissioning of nuclear reactors and other nuclear facilities that are permanently shut down.

Two broad classifications

High-level Waste - High-level radioactive waste results primarily from the fuel used by reactors to produce electricity

Low Level Waste -  Low-level radioactive waste results from reactor operations and from medical, academic, industrial, and other commercial uses

Nuclear Waste

Nuclear waste is the material that nuclear fuel becomes after it is used in a reactor. It looks exactly like the fuel that was loaded into the reactor -- assemblies of metal rods enclosing stacked-up ceramic pellets. But since nuclear reactions have occurred, the contents are’t quite the same

Before producing power, the fuel was mostly Uranium (or Thorium), oxygen, and steel. Afterwards, many Uranium atoms have split into various isotopes of almost all of the transition metals on your periodic table of the elements

The waste, sometimes called spent fuel, is dangerously radioactive, and remains so for thousands of years. When it first comes out of the reactor, it is so toxic that if you stood within a few meters of it while it was unshielded, you would receive a lethal radioactive dose within a few seconds and would die of acute radiation sickness within a few days

In practice, the spent fuel is never unshielded. It is kept underwater (water is an excellent shield) for a few years until the radiation decays to levels that can be shielded by concrete in large storage casks.

Options include deep geologic storage and recycling. The sun would consume it nicely if we could get into space, but since rockets are so unreliable, we can’t afford to risk atmospheric dispersal on lift-off.

  Nuclear fuel and transformation

Nuclear reactors are typically loaded with Uranium Oxide fuel, UO2. Neutrons are introduced to the system, and many of them are absorbed by uranium atoms, causing them to become unstable and split, or fission, into two smaller atoms known as fission products

Sometimes, the uranium absorbs a neutron and does not fission, but rather transforms to a heavier isotope of uranium, such as U-239. U-239 beta-decays to Np-239, which in turn beta-decays to Pu-239. The heavier nuclide may then absorb another neutron to become an even heavier element. These heavier atoms are known as transuranics.

The radioactivity causes the spent nuclear fuel to continue emitting heat long after it has been removed from the reactor. A few of the radioactive isotopes in the mix of spent fuel are gaseous and need to be carefully contained so that they do not escape to the environment and cause radiation damage to living things

These heavier-than uranium, or "transuranic," elements do not produce nearly the amount of heat or penetrating radiation that fission products do, but they take much longer to decay.

Transuranic wastes, also called "TRU," therefore account for most of the radioactive hazard remaining in high-level waste after a thousand years

  Composition of nuclear waste

Spent nuclear fuel composition varies depending on

  • what was put into the reactor,
  • how long the reactor operated, and
  • how long the waste has been sitting out of the reactor

Most of the Uranium is still in the fuel when it leaves the reactor, even though its enrichment has fallen significantly. This Uranium can be used in advanced fast reactors as fuel and is a valuable energy source. The minor actinides, which include Neptunium, Americium, and Curium, are very long-lived nuclides that cause serious concern when it comes to storing them for more than 100,000 years. Fortunately, these are fissionable in fast reactors and can thus be used as fuel.

  High and Low- level Waste

High-level wastes

Radioactive isotopes will eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. However, while they are decaying, they emit radiation. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (that means that half the radioactivity of a given quantity of strontium-90, for example, will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.

High-level wastes are hazardous to humans and other life forms because of their high radiation levels that are capable of producing fatal doses during short periods of direct exposure

Reprocessing separates residual uranium and unfissioned plutonium from the fission products. The uranium and plutonium can be used again as fuel

Low-level wastes

Low-level wastes, which are generally defined as radioactive wastes other than high-level and wastes from uranium recovery operations, are commonly disposed of in near-surface facilities rather than in a geologic repository that is required for high-level wastes. There is no intent to recover the wastes once they are disposed of

Low-level waste includes items that have become contaminated with radioactive material or have become radioactive through exposure to neutron radiation. This waste typically consists of contaminated protective shoe covers and clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipments and tools, luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes, and laboratory animal carcasses and tissues. The radioactivity can range from just above background levels found in nature to much higher levels in certain cases such as parts from inside the reactor vessel in a nuclear power plant

  Used Nuclear Fuel

With time, the concentration of fission fragments and heavy elements formed will increase to the point where it is no longer practical to continue to use the fuel. So after 18-36 months the used fuel is removed from the reactor. The amount of energy that is produced from a fuel assembly varies with the type of reactor and the policy of the reactor operator.

When removed from a reactor, the fuel will be emitting both radiation, principally from the fission fragments, and heat. It is unloaded into a storage pond immediately adjacent to the reactor to allow the radiation levels to decrease. In the ponds the water shields the radiation and absorbs the heat, which is removed by circulating the water to external heat exchangers. Used fuel is held in such pools for several months and sometimes many years. It may be transferred to naturally-ventilated dry storage on site after about five years.

Depending on policies in particular countries, some used fuel may be transferred to central storage facilities. Ultimately, used fuel must either be reprocessed or prepared for permanent disposal. The longer it is stored, the easier it is to handle

There are two alternatives for used fuel:

  • reprocessing to recover and recycle the usable portion of it
  • long-term storage and final disposal without reprocessing

  Fuel Reprocessing

Used fuel still contains about 96% of its original uranium, of which the fissionable U-235 content has been reduced to less than 1%. About 3% of the used fuel comprises waste products and the remaining 1% is plutonium (Pu) produced while the fuel was in the reactor and not 'burned‘ 

Reprocessing separates uranium and plutonium from waste products (and from the fuel assembly cladding) by chopping up the fuel rods and dissolving them in acid to separate the various materials. It enables recycling of the uranium and plutonium into fresh fuel, and produces a significantly reduced amount of waste (compared with treating all used fuel as waste). Remaining 3% of high-level radioactive wastes can be stored in liquid form and subsequently solidified

Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel

Used nuclear fuel has long been reprocessed to extract fissile materials for recycling and to reduce the volume of high-level wastes. Recycling is largely based on the conversion of fertile U-238 to fissile plutonium

Reprocessing of used fuel has been done to recover unused uranium and plutonium in the used fuel elements and thereby close the fuel cycle, gaining some 25% to 30% more energy from the original uranium in the process and thus contributing to energy security. A secondary reason is to reduce the volume of material to be disposed of as high-level waste to about one-fifth. In addition, the level of radioactivity in the waste from reprocessing is much smaller and after about 100 years falls much more rapidly than in used fuel itself.

Uranium and Plutonium Recycling

The uranium recovered from reprocessing, which typically contains a slightly higher concentration of U-235 than occurs in nature, can be reused as fuel after conversion and enrichment.

The plutonium can be directly made into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, in which uranium and plutonium oxides are combined

About eight fuel assemblies reprocessed can yield one MOX fuel assembly, It avoids the need to purchase about 12 tonnes of natural uranium from a mine


  Nuclear Waste Disposal

Nuclear Waste

Wastes from the nuclear fuel cycle are categorised as high-, medium- or low-level wastes by the amount of radiation that they emit. These wastes come from a number of sources and include:


After reprocessing, the liquid high-level waste can be calcined (heated strongly) to produce a dry powder which is incorporated into borosilicate (Pyrex) glass to immobilise it. The glass is then poured into stainless steel canisters, each holding 400 kg of glass.

A year's waste from a 1000 MWe reactor is contained in five tonnes of such glass, or about 12 canisters 1.3 metres high and 0.4 metres in diameter. These can readily be transported and stored, with appropriate shielding

'depleted' uranium, from enrichment having less than the 0.7% uranium as that of found in nature. U-238, are used in applications where high density material is required, including radiation shielding and some is used in the production of MOX fuel.

Final Disposal

At the present time, there are no disposal facilities (as opposed to storage facilities) in operation in which used fuel, not destined for reprocessing, and the waste from reprocessing, can be placed. In either case the material is in a solid, stable waste form.

Although technical issues related to disposal are straightforward, there is currently no pressing technical need to establish such facilities, as the total volume of such wastes is relatively small. Further, the longer it is stored the easier it is to handle, due to the progressive decrease of radioactivity

There is also a reluctance to dispose of used fuel because it represents a significant energy resource which could be reprocessed at a later date to allow recycling of the uranium and plutonium

A number of countries are carrying out studies to determine the optimum approach to the disposal of used fuel and wastes from reprocessing. The general consensus favours its placement into deep geological repositories, about 500 metres down, initially recoverable before being permanently sealed