Radioactive Waste Disposal Issues

The leftovers from what was supposed to be the cleanest form of energy are piling up rapidly.

| July/August 1984


How the government and nuclear industry are addressing radwaste storage and disposal.


For the last 30 years, the disposal of radioactive waste has been "a political but not a technological problem"—or so say engineers and scientists involved in the nuclear industry. But despite their confidence (and large injections of federal funds), no "radwaste" has actually been disposed of yet, and the most optimistic estimates being made today are that these materials will have to remain in temporary facilities for a minimum of another 20 years. As of 1982, this "political hang-up" involved 3 million cubic yards of low-level radioactive waste, 175 million tons of uranium mill tailings, 77.6 million gallons of high-level liquid wastes, 430,000 cubic yards of transuranic (heavier than uranium) waste, and 7,400 tons of spent nuclear reactor fuel rods. And each year approximately 2,200 tons of used-up fuel rods alone are being added to the tally.

Where are these materials today, and what methods are being proposed to deal with the rapidly accumulating piles? These questions could be vital to our well-being and the economic health of the nuclear industry. As you might suspect, the answers aren't simple, but at least the nuclear industry and the government are finally beginning to address the issues.

Nuclear Numbers  

There are many different types and origins of radwaste, but these materials can be divided into two general categories, high-level and low-level, according to their degrees of radioactivity. Low-level wastes are those that contain less than ten nanocuries of transuranic elements per gram (28.4 grams = 1 ounce).

And just what does that gibberish mean? Well, a nanocurie is one billionth of a curie, so we're talking about ten billionths of a curie per gram of material. (It looks like this: .0000000010.) That doesn't seem like much until you realize that a curie is a unit of radioactivity equal to 37 billion disintegrations per second—quite a large number of radioactive emissions.

Now, the health hazard of a particular curie (or fraction thereof) depends on the types and energies of radiation involved ... still, ten nanocuries is a fair amount of radiation. Accordingly—to provide one example—tentative federal standards allow 1.5 picocuries (that's 1. 5 trillionths of a curie) of radon gas per liter of air.

What, then, is high-level waste? Anything that has more than ten nanocuries of transuranic elements per gram, of course. And how high might high-level radiation levels go? Well, one ounce of pure plutonium-239 (if such a thing were to be found) would contain about 450 curies; typical nuclear fuel waste has a little over 13 curies per ounce. That's right, there are no decimal points in those two figures: In moving from typical low-level wastes to high-level wastes, we've jumped from fractions in billionths ... to multiples of ten or a hundred! Obviously enough, radwastes with such different levels of radiation require radically different precautions. And, indeed, the two classes of nuclear waste are dealt with in entirely different ways. Consequently, we're going to discuss their characteristics and handling separately.

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