Fundamentals of radioactive waste (RAW): science, sources, classification and management strategies

W. E. LEE, Imperial College London, UK and M. I. OJOVAN, University of Sheffield, UK

DOI: 10.1533/9780857097446.1.3

Abstract: Classification systems for the types of radioactive waste (RAW) are described along with sources of controlled wastes (including from power production, military programmes, medical uses and research reactors) and uncontrolled or accidental releases. Options for managing controlled wastes from pretreatment, treatment, conditioning and storage stages through to transportation to final disposal are considered. Immobilisation (wasteform), temporary storage and permanent disposal options including near surface, deep and very deep geological disposal are covered as well as strategies for uncontrolled releases.

Key words: radioactive waste (RAW) classification, temporary storage, geological disposal, immobilisation, uncontrolled releases.

1.1 Introduction

The big issue facing mankind at present is the need for population control. Our complete failure to address it, however, has meant that we are putting increasing pressure on our planet’s resources and negatively impacting on our environment. We are striving to fulfil our increasing need for power using a diverse portfolio of means including through nuclear fission. Nuclear fission has provided mankind with a significant proportion of our power for more than 50 years in a far more benign, low carbon and environmentally beneficial manner, and with a significantly lower loss of life in its generation than other sources such as coal, oil and gas. However, mankind has an innate fear of peaceful uses of nuclear energy because of the potential uses of nuclear weapons of devastating destructive ability such as those deployed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. Moreover, mankind fears nuclear accidents, because if they occur, such as those at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima, Japan in 2011, the time it takes to clean up is measured in decades if not centuries.

Sites of underground and above ground nuclear weapons testing and sites of accidental releases from research, manufacturing or storage facilities

have left a complex legacy of contaminated land. Stockpiles of nuclear materials from weapons, submarine reactors and medical isotopes have all been allowed to gather without a definitive disposal disposition. Many of the first generations of nuclear power plant (NPP) have now reached the end of their lives and are in the process of being decommissioned (which again takes many decades). A lack of foresight by those building and design­ing these reactors, and a lack of political will (and finances) to address the issue of clean-up and waste disposal has meant that programmes to do so have become massive, complex, expensive and high profile. Large-scale decommissioning programmes require a national scale of activity, led by government and overseen by national and international regulators and oversight bodies. They require a coordinated approach and a need to be open with the public and stakeholders affected by the programmes.

Over the last 20 years or so action has begun to be taken. National bodies have been set up to oversee, coordinate and implement decommissioning of NPP and other contaminated sites, to treat, separate and immobilise waste in stable waste forms and to temporarily store in suitable packages and buildings prior to eventual permanent disposal in a geological disposal facility (GDF), also termed a repository. Nonetheless, progress varies from country to country and, from the public’s viewpoint, is slow and expensive. In this chapter we introduce the main types of nuclear waste and how they are classified and the major issues in decommissioning and clean-up, includ­ing strategies for the management of controlled wastes such as spent fuel (SF) from the open fuel cycle and high level wastes (HLW) from the partly closed fuel cycle as well as strategies for uncontrolled releases.

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