Radioactive Rubbish Explained

By Bondor, Emma; Sheridan, Gavin | New Statesman (1996), September 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

Radioactive Rubbish Explained


Bondor, Emma, Sheridan, Gavin, New Statesman (1996)


What is nuclear waste?

Every day, we are surrounded by radiation, about 85 per cent of which comes from natural sources. There is radiation in the air we breathe, the ground we walk on, the buildings we live and work in, and in the sun's rays and medical sources such as X-rays. Radioactive wastes are produced from civil and military nuclear applications--nuclear power generation, nuclear weapons production and other uses of nuclear materials. The level of radioactivity and duration varies--some waste will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

Why is it dangerous?

Most radiation, natural or man-made, is relatively harmless. But radioactive waste gives off ionising radiation, which can damage DNA, potentially causing cancer or hereditary defects, and threatening humans, animals and plants.

Where does it come from?

We have to deal with both the waste created in the past and the new waste being produced. Today, more than 95 per cent comes from the nuclear power industry, including from the production of nuclear fuel, the reprocessing of spent fuel and research and development activities. Some nuclear waste comes from the national defence programme--that is, the production of nuclear weapons and operating nuclear submarines. Smaller amounts are produced by medical, industrial, educational and research bodies. The main producers of radioactive waste are BNFL, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, British Energy and the Ministry of Defence. BNFL's reprocessing of spent fuel at Sellafield produces much of the industry's current waste, and the future decommissioning of nuclear power stations and facilities at Sellafield will create even more.

What are the types of nuclear waste?

In the UK, to help decide how to deal with nuclear waste, it is categorised according to its level of radioactivity (low, intermediate or high) and its form (solid, liquid or gaseous).

Low-level waste (LLW) Low-level liquid waste arises from water used in cooling, cleaning and other operational processes in the nuclear power industry. Low-level gaseous waste arises from nuclear plant operations and ventilation systems. Solid low-level waste includes slightly contaminated material such as gloves, overalls or laboratory equipment, and constitutes the majority of all radioactive waste. This waste arises not only from the nuclear industry, but from many other users of radioactive substances, such as hospitals, research establishments and non nuclear industry.

Low-level waste is the least dangerous category; some of it may not actually be radioactive, but may have been contaminated by radioactive substances.

Intermediate-level waste (ILW) Intermediate-level waste is more radioactive material consisting mainly of metals, with smaller quantities of organic materials, inorganic sludges, cement, graphite, glass and ceramics. Intermediate-level waste mainly arises from the dismantling and reprocessing of spent fuel and from operating nuclear power plants. It is sufficiently radioactive to require shielding during its handling and transportation.

High-level waste (HLW) High-level waste is a highly radioactive liquid that arises from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. It is self-heating and requires cooling. High-level waste requires heavy shielding and remote handling.

How much waste is produced?

The volume of radioactive waste produced varies from year to year, but it is currently about 16,000 cubic metres annually. By volume, low-level wastes are produced in the greatest quantities each year, but they account for the smallest amount of radioactivity. Intermediate-level waste constitutes about 6 per cent of all radioactive waste by volume. High-level waste constitutes about 1 per cent by volume but accounts for the vast majority of the radioactivity of all wastes.

Who is responsible for nuclear waste?

The owners of radioactive waste--for example, BNFL and UKAEA--are responsible for dealing with future waste, as well as the stockpiles that already exist. …

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