Policy Issues

What to do with Nuclear Waste

In the nuclear science and technology industry, waste comes from different activities. It arises from the use of radioisotopes in medicine, in research, and in agriculture; it arises as a byproduct of the generation of electricity through nuclear fuels, from the use of sources in manufacturing processes and more.

In the U.S., radioactive waste is divided into three main types, classified according to their activity, their heat generation potential, and what they physically contain. These three main levels are low level waste (LLW), transuranic waste (TRU), and high level waste (HLW). LLW is derived from such activities as abc, efg, and xyz. TRU is derived from hij, klm, and uvw while HLW is derived from nop and qrs.

For each of type of waste, there is a specific disposal solution — above ground storage or shallow burial for low level waste and deep repository storage for transuranic and high level wastes.

In most other countries, nuclear waste is categorized as low level waste, intermediate level waste, and high level waste. The reason for this different classification system is that in the U.S., waste is classified based on where it comes from; in most other countries, waste is classified according to what the effects of the waste might be.

In both U.S. and non-U.S. classifications, low level waste represents about 90% of all radioactive waste.

Low level waste has been disposed of in near surface facilities for decades. In the U.S., there are three near-surface disposal sites in Washington, South Carolina; and Utah.

Deep repository disposal is technically available, but not used yet in most countries. A deep repository disposal facility for transuranic waste is in operation in New Mexico. Deep repository disposal for high level waste and spent nuclear power plant fuel was planned at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but licensing of the site remains in debate.

Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982

The Energy Policy Act of 2005

Nuclear Waste Fund

Yucca Mountain

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