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Radioactive wastes are wastes that contain radioactive material. Radioactive wastes are usually by-products of nuclear power generation and other applications of nuclear fission or nuclear technology, such as research and medicine. Radioactive waste is hazardous to most forms of life and the environment, and is regulated by government agencies in order to protect human health and the environment. Radioactivity diminishes over time, so waste is typically isolated and stored for a period of time until it no longer poses a hazard. The period of time waste must be stored depends on the type of waste. Low-level waste with low levels of radioactivity per mass or volume (such as some common medical or industrial radioactive wastes) may need to be stored for only hours, days, or months, while high-level wastes (such as spent nuclear fuel or by-products of nuclear reprocessing) must be stored for thousands of years. Current major approaches to managing radioactive waste have been segregation and storage for short-lived wastes, nearsurface disposal for low and some intermediate level wastes, and deep burial or transmutation for the long-lived, high-level wastes. A summary of the amounts of radioactive wastes and management approaches for most developed countries are presented and reviewed periodically as part of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.
The nature and significance of radioactive waste
Radioactive waste typically comprises a number of radioisotopes: unstable configurations of elements that decay, emitting ionizing radiation which can be harmful to humans and the environment. Those isotopes emit different types and levels of radiation, which last for different periods of time.
Sources of waste
Radioactive waste comes from a number of sources. The majority of waste originates from the nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear weapons reprocessing. However, other sources include medical and industrial wastes, as well as naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) that can be concentrated as a result of the processing or consumption of coal, oil and gas, and some minerals, as discussed below.
Nuclear fuel cycle
Waste from the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle is usually alpha-emitting waste from the extraction of uranium. It often contains radium and its decay products. Uranium dioxide (UO2) concentrate from mining is not very radioactive - only a thousand or so times as radioactive as the granite used in buildings. It is refined from yellowcake (U3O8), and then converted to uranium gas (UF6). As a gas, it undergoes enrichment to increase the U-235 content from 0.7% to about 4.4% (LEU). It is then turned into a hard ceramic oxide (UO2) for assembly as reactor fuel elements. The main by-product of enrichment is depleted uranium (DU), principally the U-238 isotope, with a U-235 content of ~0.3%. It is stored, either as UF6 or as U3O8. Some is used in applications where it’s extremely high density makes it valuable, such as the keels of yachts, and anti-tank shells. It is also used with plutonium for making mixed oxide fuel (MOX) and to dilute, or downblend, highly enriched uranium from weapons stockpiles which is now being redirected to become reactor fuel.
The back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, mostly spent fuel rods, contains fission products that emit beta and gamma radiation, and actinides that emit alpha particles, such as uranium234, neptunium-237,plutonium-238 and americium-241, and even sometimes some neutron emitters such as californium (Cf). These isotopes are formed in nuclear reactors. It is important to distinguish the processing of uranium to make fuel from the reprocessing of used fuel. Used fuel contains the highly radioactive products of fission (see high level waste below). Many of these are neutron...