Nuclear and radioactive waste
Nuclear and radioactive waste (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Categories of radioactive waste include spent nuclear fuel from nuclear energy facilities, high-level waste (HLW) from spent nuclear fuel reprocessing, radioactive waste by-products from nuclear weapons production at defense processing plants, tailings from uranium ore mining and milling, waste generated during the operation of atomic particle accelerators, and low-level waste (LLW), which includes items such as clothing, rags, equipment, tools, and medical instruments that have become contaminated with radioactivity. The radioactivity of a substance decreases naturally over time, according to the substance’s half-life (the time necessary for half of its atoms to decay). While some radioactive wastes may be safe to handle within a relatively short time, some of the more highly radioactive wastes remain unsafe to handle for many thousands of years.
Regulatory control of nuclear and radioactive waste in the United States is vested in a number of government agencies. At the federal level, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Energy (DOE) are the primary regulators of highly radioactive waste. Other federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Health and Human Services, can also play a role in the regulation of radioactive material. Individual states are responsible for the regulation, management, storage, and disposal of commercial LLW...
(The entire section is 317 words.)
Waste Disposal Challenges (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Only four LLW disposal facilities for commercial and federal, non-DOE radioactive waste are licensed to operate in the United States: one located in Clive, Utah, at what was originally a disposal site for uranium mill tailings; one in Richland, Washington, within the Hanford Nuclear Reservation; one in Barnwell, South Carolina; and one in west Texas, near the New Mexico border. The Utah site is licensed only for those wastes with comparatively short half-lives, whereas the Washington, South Carolina, and Texas facilities accept wastes that will remain radioactive for hundreds of years. Because so few of these disposal sites exist and progress in developing new facilities is slow, much of the country’s LLW is stored at the locations where it was produced pending the construction of more permanent facilities. The lack of disposal options has served as an incentive for utilities and other generators of LLW to minimize their waste.
While LLW disposal sites are scarce, HLW disposal sites are nonexistent in the United States. Congress designated Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the nation’s sole deep underground repository for spent nuclear fuel and HLW in 1987. Selection of the site proved highly controversial, with opponents maintaining that a number of factors make it unsuitable for the safe storage of nuclear waste. Among these are the area’s volcanic origins, its seismic activity, and the potential for groundwater to...
(The entire section is 429 words.)
Other Considerations (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
The delay in establishing a permanent national repository for the disposal of highly radioactive waste has prompted policy makers to search for alternative solutions to the problem of how to store nuclear waste safely. Commercial utilities and defense processing plants have been storing spent nuclear fuel on-site (either in cooling ponds or in aboveground canisters). However, because suitable on-site storage space for highly radioactive waste is running out, maintaining the status quo clearly is not an acceptable long-term alternative. One proposal for a more immediate solution involves the establishment of an interim storage facility for highly radioactive waste. This interim facility—also known as a monitored retrievable storage (MRS) facility—would store nuclear waste aboveground until a permanent repository is ready to accept highly radioactive waste. Environmentalists have expressed concern that any MRS facility could become a permanent aboveground storage facility, which clearly would not be as safe as a deep underground repository. Environmental justice advocates have also argued that Native American populations are likely to be unfairly affected by such facilities; in the past, tribes have been unsuccessfully approached to host MRS sites on their lands in exchange for federal grant money.
Opponents of centralized storage facilities have expressed concerns about the potential for an accident during the...
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Further Reading (Encyclopedia of Environmental Issues, Revised Edition)
Bayliss, Colin R., and Kevin K. Langley. Nuclear Decommissioning, Waste Management, and Environmental Site Remediation. Amsterdam: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003.
Gerrard, Michael. Whose Backyard, Whose Risk: Fear and Fairness in Toxic and Nuclear Waste Siting. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.
Holt, Mark. Nuclear Waste Disposal: Alternatives to Yucca Mountain. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2009.
Lattefer, Arnold P., ed. Nuclear Waste Research. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Nova Science, 2008.
McCutcheon, Chuck. Nuclear Reactions: The Politics of Opening a Radioactive Waste Disposal Site. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.
Macfarlane, Allison, and Rodney C. Ewing, eds. Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006.
Pusch, Roland. Geological Storage of Highly Radioactive Waste: Current Concepts and Plans for Radioactive Waste Disposal. New York: Springer, 2008.
Risoluti, Piero. Nuclear Waste: A Technological and Political Challenge. New York: Springer, 2004.
Rogers, Kenneth A., and Donna L. Rogers. “The Politics of Long-Term Highly Radioactive Waste Disposal.” Midsouth Political Science Review 2 (1998): 61-71.
Vandenbosch, Robert, and Susanne E. Vandenbosch. Nuclear Waste Stalemate: Political...
(The entire section is 198 words.)