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Radioactive Waste

Why is it difficult to find a sustainable solution for managing radioactive waste?
People often talk about radioactive waste management as being a complex issue. But why is it complicated to find an effective, sustainable solution for radioactive waste?
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  1. What is radioactive waste?
  2. Why is it hazardous?
  3. Why can't different types of radioactive waste be processed in the same way?
  4. What are the different management solutions available?
What is radioactive waste?
Sources of radioactive waste in France
Hospitals 1% Industry 3% Defense industry 9% Research labs 27% Nuclear powerindustry 60%
Hospitals 1% Industry 3% Research labs 27% Nuclear power industry 60% Defense industry 9%
Radioactive waste encompasses all the radioactive products created artificially by humans that cannot be reused. This mainly includes spent nuclear fuel and all materials that have been irradiated during the operational life of a nuclear power plant, but also substances used in hospitals and various industries, as well as those produced by research laboratories and the defense industry.
Why is it hazardous?
Radioactive waste goes through a process known as radioactive decay.
3 2 1
Over time, radioactive atoms break down into several smaller atoms which are also radioactive and break down in turn. (1)
This chained series of transformations is known as radioactive cascades. (2)
The process keeps reoccurring until the radioactive elements decay to stable lead or thallium, for example. During each step of the decay chain, extremely harmful ionizing radiation is released. (3)
While radioactive decay is completely foreseeable, it cannot be controlled.
Why can't different types of radioactive waste be processed in the same way?
Different types of radioactive waste can present very different characteristics. To identify the most appropriate management solution for each type of radioactive waste, the inherent risk must be evaluated based on the waste’s:
Radiation hazard level
(and, for certain types, attraction to certain tissues or organs of the body,
a phenomenon known as organotropism)
What are the different management solutions available?
Very low level waste Low level waste Intermediate level waste High level waste
Very short-lived waste 1. The waste remains at the production site until the decay chain is completed 2. It is then disposed of at a landfill, like regular waste. Short-lived waste Recycled or stored at a dedicated surface site Stored in deep geological formations Long-lived waste Stored near the surface
The term used to describe the lifetime of radioactive waste is "half-life".
The "half-life" of a radioactive element is the time required, statistically speaking, for half of the original atoms to decay:
The half-life of radioactive waste varies significantly from one element to another:
Very short-lived waste < 100 days
Example: 6 hours for technetium-99
Short-lived waste < 31 years
Example: 28 years for strontium-90
Long-lived waste > 31 years
Example: 6,500 years for plutonium-240
The radiation hazard level, measured in becquerels per gram (Bq/g), varies significantly from one type of waste to another.
There are four categories of radioactive waste:
Very low level waste (less than 1,000 Bq/g)
Low level waste (several thousand Bq/g)
Intermediate level waste (several million kBq/g)
High level waste (several tens of billions of kBq/g)
The major issue in managing radioactive waste lies in the management of long-lived and high level-waste.
Although all countries have opted to store such waste in deep geological formations, in reality, such plans have never been implemented.
Despite numerous geological studies, some of which have been carried out for more than 40 years, countries have not been able to identify areas that are sufficiently stable geologically to store this waste with zero risk for tens of thousands of years.
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Radioactive waste forms the basis of artificial radioactivity. Unlike diffuse natural radioactivity, the radioactivity from nuclear waste is concentrated in areas such as production and storage sites. Some of the components will remain active for thousands of years. The solution for managing this waste is to store it in deep geological repositories. However, no site can yet guarantee absolute safety.