Radioactive Waste Management

(Updated June 2017)

  • Nuclear power is the only large-scale energy-producing technology which takes full responsibility for all its waste and fully costs this into the product.
  • The amount of waste generated by nuclear power is very small relative to other thermal electricity generation technologies.
  • Used nuclear fuel may be treated as a resource or simply as a waste.
  • Nuclear waste is neither particularly hazardous nor hard to manage relative to other toxic industrial wastes.
  • Safe methods for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste are technically proven; the international consensus is that geological disposal is the best option.

Like all industries, the generation of electricity produces waste. Whatever fuel is used, the waste produced in generating electricity must be managed in ways which safeguard human health and minimise the impact on the environment.

For radioactive waste, this means isolating or diluting it such that the rate or concentration of any radionuclides returned to the biosphere is harmless. To achieve this, practically all radioactive waste is contained and managed, with some clearly needing deep and permanent burial. From nuclear power generation, unlike all other forms of thermal electricity generation, all waste is regulated – none is allowed to cause harmful pollution.

All parts of the nuclear fuel cycle produce some radioactive waste and the cost of managing and disposing of this is part of the electricity cost (i.e. it is internalised and paid for by the electricity consumers). Nuclear power is characterised by the very large amount of energy produced from a very small amount of fuel, and the amount of waste produced during this process is also relatively small. However, much of the waste produced is radioactive and therefore must be carefully managed as hazardous material.

Radioactive waste is not unique to the nuclear fuel cycle. Radioactive materials are used extensively in medicine, agriculture, research, manufacturing, non-destructive testing, and minerals exploration. Unlike other hazardous industrial materials, however, the level of hazard of all radioactive waste – its radioactivity – diminishes with time. All toxic wastes need to be dealt with safely – not just radioactive waste – and in countries with nuclear power, radioactive wastes comprise a very small proportion of total industrial hazardous waste generated.

Types of radioactive waste

Radioactive waste includes any material that is either intrinsically radioactive, or has been contaminated by radioactivity, and that is deemed to have no further use. Government policy dictates whether certain materials – such as spent nuclear fuel and plutonium – are categorised as waste.

Every radionuclide has a half-life – the time taken for half of its atoms to decay, and thus for it to lose half of its radioactivity. Radionuclides with long half-lives tend to be alpha and beta emitters – making their handling easier – while those with short half-lives tend to emit the more penetrating gamma rays. Eventually all radioactive waste decays into non-radioactive elements. The more radioactive an isotope is, the faster it decays. Radioactive waste is typically classified as either low-level (LLW), intermediate-level (ILW), or high-level (HLW), dependent, primarily, on its level of radioactivity:

Low-level waste

Low-level waste (LLW) has a radioactive content not exceeding four giga-becquerels per tonne (GBq/t) of alpha activity or 12 GBq/t beta-gamma activity. LLW does not require shielding during handling and transport, and is suitable for disposal in near surface facilities.

LLW is generated from hospitals and industry, as well as the nuclear fuel cycle. It comprises paper, rags, tools, clothing, filters, etc., which contain small amounts of mostly short-lived radioactivity. To reduce its volume, LLW is often compacted or incinerated before disposal. LLW comprises some 90% of the volume but only 1% of the radioactivity of all radioactive waste.

Intermediate-level waste

Intermediate-level waste (ILW) is more radioactive than LLW, but the heat it generates (<2 kW/m3) is not sufficient to be taken into account in the design or selection of storage and disposal facilities. Due to its higher levels of radioactivity, ILW requires some shielding.

ILW typically comprises resins, chemical sludges, and metal fuel cladding, as well as contaminated materials from reactor decommissioning. Smaller items and any non-solids may be solidified in concrete or bitumen for disposal. It makes up some 7% of the volume and has 4% of the radioactivity of all radioactive waste.

High-level waste

High-level waste (HLW) is sufficiently radioactive for its decay heat (>2kW/m3) to increase its temperature, and the temperature of its surroundings, significantly. As a result, HLW requires cooling and shielding.

HLW arises from the 'burning' of uranium fuel in a nuclear reactor. HLW contains the fission products and transuranic elements generated in the reactor core. HLW accounts for just 3% of the volume, but 95% of the total radioactivity of produced waste. There are two distinct kinds of HLW:

  • Used fuel itself.
  • Separated waste from reprocessing the used fuel.

HLW has both long-lived and short-lived components, depending on the length of time it will take for the radioactivity of particular radionuclides to decrease to levels that are considered non-hazardous for people and the surrounding environment. If generally short-lived fission products can be separated from long-lived actinides, this distinction becomes important in management and disposal of HLW.

HLW is the focus of significant attention regarding nuclear power, and is managed accordingly.

Very low-level waste

Exempt waste & very low-level waste (VLLW) contains radioactive materials at a level which is not considered harmful to people or the surrounding environment. It consists mainly of demolished material (such as concrete, plaster, bricks, metal, valves, piping, etc.) produced during rehabilitation or dismantling operations on nuclear industrial sites. Other industries, such as food processing, chemical, steel, etc., also produce VLLW as a result of the concentration of natural radioactivity present in certain minerals used in their manufacturing processes (see also information page on Naturally-Occurring Radioactive Materials). The waste is therefore disposed of with domestic refuse, although countries such as France are currently developing facilities to store VLLW in specifically designed VLLW disposal facilities.

Radioactive waste in context

The volume of waste produced by the nuclear industry is very small compared with waste generated from other industrial activities. For example, in the UK – the world's oldest nuclear industry – the total amount of radioactive waste produced to date, and forecast to 2125, is about 4.9 million tonnes. After all wastes have been packaged, the final volume would occupy a space similar to that of a large, modern soccer stadium. This compares with an annual generation of 200 million tonnes of conventional waste, of which 4.3 million tonnes is classified as hazardous. About 94% of radioactive waste in the UK is classified as LLW, about 6% is ILW, and less than 0.03% is classified as HLW.1

A typical 1000 MWe light water reactor will generate (directly and indirectly) 200-350 m3 of LLW and ILW per year. It will also discharge about 27 tonnes of used fuel per year, which corresponds to a 75 m3 disposal volume following encapsulation. Where the used fuel is considered an asset and is reprocessed, just 3 m3 of vitrified (glass) HLW is produced, which is equivalent to a 28 m3 disposal volume following placement in engineered disposal canisters.2

In over 50 years of civil nuclear power experience, the management and disposal of civil nuclear wastes has not caused any serious health or environmental problems, nor posed any real risk to the general public. Alternatives for power generation are not without challenges, and their undesirable by-products are generally not well controlled.

To put the production and management of nuclear waste in context, it is important to consider the non-desirable by-products – most notably carbon dioxide emissions – of other large-scale commercial electricity generating technologies. In 2016, nuclear power plants supplied 2,417 TWh of electricity, 11% of the world’s total consumption. Fossil fuels supplied 67%, of which coal contributed the most (8,726 TWh), followed by gas (4,933 TWh), and oil (1,068 TWh). If the 11% of electricity supplied by nuclear power had been replaced by gas – by far the cleanest burning fossil fuel – an additional 2,388 million tonnes of CO2 would have been released into the atmosphere; the equivalent of putting an additional 250 million cars on the road.

CO2 emissions avoided through the use of nuclear power

 

Lifecycle emissions
(gCO2eq/kWh)3, a

Estimated emissions to produce 2417 TWh electricity
(million tonnes CO2)

Potential emissions avoided through use of nuclear power
(million tonnes CO2)

Potential emissions avoided through use of nuclear
(million cars equivalent)4, b

Nuclear power 12

29

NA NA
Gas (CCS) 490 1184 1155 c. 250
Coal 820 1981 1952 c. 400

Notes: Lifecycle emissions estimates from the IPCC. Estimate of average emissions per vehicle from the EPA

In addition to producing very significant emissions of carbon, hydrocarbon industries also create significant amounts of radioactive waste. The radioactive material produced as a waste product from the oil and gas industry, and generally, is referred to as 'technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials' (Tenorm). In oil and gas production, radium-226, radium-228, and lead-210 are deposited as scale in pipes and equipment in many parts of the world. Published data show radionuclide concentrations in scales up to 300,000 Bq/kg for Pb-210, 250,000 Bq/kg for Ra-226, and 100,000 Bq/kg for Ra-228. This level is 1000 times higher than the clearance level for recycled material (both steel and concrete) from the nuclear industry, where anything above 500 Bq/kg may not be cleared from regulatory control for recycling.5

The largest Tenorm waste stream is coal ash, with around 280 million tonnes arising globally each year, carrying uranium-238 and all its non-gaseous decay products, as well as thorium-232 and its progeny. This ash is usually just buried, or may be used as a constituent in building materials. As such, the same radionuclide, at the same concentration, may be sent to deep disposal if from the nuclear industry, or released for use in building materials if in the form of fly ash from the coal industry.6

How is waste managed?

The steps employed in radioactive waste management depend on the nature of the radioactive waste being managed. There are a series of basic steps that commonly take place:

Treatment involves operations intended to change waste streams’ characteristics to improve safety or economy. Treatment techniques may involve compaction to reduce volume, filtration or ion exchange to remove radionuclide content, or precipitation to induce changes in composition.

Conditioning is undertaken to change waste into a form that is suitable for safe handling, transportation, storage, and disposal. This step typically involves the immobilisation of waste in containers. Liquid LLW and ILW are typically solidified in cement, whilst HLW is calcined/dried then vitrified in a glass matrix. Immobilised waste will be placed in a container suitable for its characteristics. (For more information, see information paper on Storage and Disposal of Radioactive Wastes).

Storage of waste may take place at any stage during the management process. Storage involves maintaining the waste in a manner such that it is retrievable, whilst ensuring it is isolated from the external environment. Waste may be stored to make the next stage of management easier (for example, by allowing its natural radioactivity to decay). Storage facilities are commonly onsite at the power plant, but may be also be separate from the facility where it was produced.

Disposal of waste takes place when there is no further foreseeable use for it, and in the case of HLW, when radioactivity has decayed to relatively low levels after about 40-50 years.

Waste from the nuclear fuel cycle

Radioactive waste is produced at all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle – the process of producing electricity from nuclear materials. The fuel cycle involves the mining and milling of uranium ore, its processing and fabrication into nuclear fuel, its use in the reactor, the treatment of the used fuel taken from the reactor, and finally, disposal of the waste.

The fuel cycle is often referred to as having two constituent elements: the 'front end', which stretches from mining through to the use of uranium in the reactor, and the 'back end', which covers the removal of used fuel and its subsequent treatment and disposal.

Residual materials from the front end

Traditional uranium mining generates fine sandy tailings, which contain virtually all the naturally occurring radioactive elements found in uranium ore. These are collected in engineered tailings dams and finally covered with a layer of clay and rock to inhibit the leakage of radon gas, and to ensure long-term stability. In the short term, the tailings material is often covered with water. After a few months, the tailings material contains about 75% of the radioactivity of the original ore. Strictly speaking these are not classified as radioactive wastes.7

Uranium oxide concentrate from mining, essentially 'yellowcake' (U3O8), is not significantly radioactive – barely more so than the granite used in buildings. It is refined then converted to uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas. As a gas, it undergoes enrichment to increase the U-235 content from 0.7% to about 3.5%. It is then turned into a hard ceramic oxide (UO2) for assembly as reactor fuel elements.

The main by-product of enrichment is depleted uranium (DU), principally the U-238 isotope, which is stored either as UF6 or U3O8. About 1.6 million tonnes of DU is now stored. Some is used in applications where its extremely high density makes it valuable, such as for the keels of yachts and military projectiles. It is also used (with reprocessed plutonium) for making mixed oxide (MOX) fuel and to dilute highly-enriched uranium from dismantled weapons, which can then be used for reactor fuel (see pages on Uranium and Depleted Uranium and Military Warheads as a Source of Nuclear Fuel).

Residual materials from the back end

In terms of radioactivity, the major source arising from the use of nuclear reactors to generate electricity comes from the materials classified as HLW. Highly radioactive fission products and transuranic elements, are produced from uranium and plutonium during reactor operations, and are contained within the used fuel. Where countries have adopted a closed cycle and utilised reprocessing to recycle material from used fuel, the fission products and minor actinides are separated from uranium and plutonium and treated as HLW (see below). In countries where used fuel is not reprocessed, the used fuel itself is considered a waste and therefore classified as HLW.

LLW & ILW is produced as a result of operations, such as the cleaning of reactor cooling systems and fuel storage ponds, and the decontamination of equipment, filters, and metal components that have become radioactive as a result of their use in or near the reactor.

Used fuel gives rise to HLW which may be either the used fuel itself in fuel rods, or the separated waste arising from reprocessing. In either case, the amount is modest – a typical reactor generates about 27 m3 of used fuel per year, which may be reduced to 3 m3 of vitrified waste. Both can be effectively and economically isolated, and have been handled and stored safely since nuclear power began.

Residual materials from reprocessing used fuel

Any used fuel will still contain some of the original U-235 as well as various plutonium isotopes which have been formed inside the reactor core, and U-238. In total these account for some 96% of the original uranium and over half of the original energy content (ignoring U-238). Used nuclear fuel has long been reprocessed to extract fissile materials for recycling and to reduce the volume of HLW (see also information page on Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel). Several European countries, as well as Russia, China, and Japan have policies to reprocess used nuclear fuel.

Reprocessing allows for a significant amount of plutonium to be recovered from used fuel, which is then mixed with depleted uranium oxide in a MOX fabrication plant to make fresh fuel. European reactors currently use over 5 tonnes of plutonium a year in fresh MOX fuel. This process allows some 25-30% more energy to be extracted from the original uranium ore, and significantly reduces the volume of HLW (by about 85%). In addition, the remaining HLW is significantly less radioactive – decaying to the same level as the original ore within 9000 years (vs. 300,000 years). (For more information, see information papers on Mixed Oxide Fuel and Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel).

In addition, separated (and vitrified) HLW is not subject to international safeguards, whereas used fuel is subject to safeguards due to its uranium and plutonium content.

Commercial reprocessing plants currently operate in France, the UK, and Russia. Another is being commissioned in Japan, and China plans to construct one too. France undertakes reprocessing for utilities in other countries, and a lot of Japan’s fuel has been reprocessed there, with both wastes and recycled plutonium in MOX fuel being returned to Japan. (For more information, see information paper on Japanese Waste and MOX Shipments From Europe).

The main historic and current process is Purex, a hydrometallurgical process. The main prospective ones are electrometallurgical – often called pyroprocessing since it happens to be hot. With it, all actinide anions (notably uranium and plutonium) are recovered together. Whilst not yet operational, these technologies will result in wastes that only need 300 years to reach the same level of radioactivity as the originally mined ore.

THORP Fuel Storage

Storage pond for used fuel at the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) at the UK's Sellafield site (Sellafield Ltd)

Storage and disposal

LLW and short-lived ILW

Most LLW and short-lived ILW are typically sent to land-based disposal immediately following packaging. This means that for the majority (>90% by volume) of all of the waste types, a satisfactory disposal means has been developed and is being implemented around the world.

Near-surface disposal facilities are currently in operation in many countries, including:

  • UK – LLW Repository at Drigg in Cumbria operated by UK Nuclear Waste Management Ltd (a consortium led by Washington Group International with Studsvik UK, Serco, and Areva) on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.
  • Spain – El Cabril LLW and ILW disposal facility operated by ENRESA.
  • France – Centre de l'Aube and Morvilliers operated by ANDRA.
  • Sweden – SFR at Forsmark operated by SKB.
  • Finland – Olkiluoto and Loviisa, operated by TVO and Fortum.
  • Russia – Ozersk, Tomsk, Novouralsk, Sosnovy Bor, operated by NO RAO.
  • South Korea – Wolseong, operated by KORAD.
  • Japan – LLW Disposal Center at Rokkasho-Mura operated by Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited.
  • USA – five LLW disposal facilities: Texas Compact facility near the New Mexico border, operated by Waste Control Specialists; Barnwell, South Carolina; Clive, Utah; Oak Ridge, Tennessee – all operated by Energy Solutions; and Richland, Washington – operated by American Ecology Corporation.

Long-lived ILW and HLW

The long timescales over which some ILW and HLW – including used fuel when considered a waste – remains radioactive has led to universal acceptance of the concept of deep geological disposal. Many other long-term waste management options have been investigated, but deep disposal in a mined repository is now the preferred option in most countries. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) deep geological waste repository is in operation in the US for the disposal of transuranic waste – long-lived ILW from military sources, contaminated with plutonium.

To date there has been no practical need for final HLW repositories, as surface storage for 40-50 years allows heat and radioactivity to decay to levels which make handling and long-term storage easier. Interim storage of used fuel is mostly in ponds associated with individual reactors, or in a common pool at multi-reactor sites, or occasionally at a central site. At present there is about 300,000 tonnes of used fuel in storage. About 90% of this is in storage ponds, with an increasing proportion being in dry storage. Annual additions of used fuel are about 10,500 tonnes, and up to 2000 tonnes of this is intended for reprocessing.8

Decay in radioactivity of fission products – one tonne of spent PWR fuel

Storage ponds at reactors, and those at centralized facilities such as CLAB in Sweden, are 7-12 metres deep to allow for several metres of water over the used fuel (assembled in racks typically about 4 metres long and standing on end). The multiple racks are made of metal with neutron absorbers incorporated. The circulating water both shields and cools the fuel. These pools are robust constructions made of thick reinforced concrete with steel liners. Ponds at reactors are often designed to hold all the used fuel produced over the planned life of the reactor.

Some fuel that has cooled in ponds for at least five years is stored in dry casks or vaults with air circulation inside concrete shielding. One common system is for sealed steel casks or multi-purpose canisters (MPCs) each holding up to about 40 fuel assemblies with inert gas. Casks/MPCs may also be used for transporting and eventual disposal of the used fuel. For storage, each is enclosed in a ventilated storage module made of concrete and steel. These are commonly standing on the surface, about 6m high, and cooled by air convection, or they may be below grade, with just the tops showing. The modules are robust and provide full shielding. Each cask has up to 45 kW heat load.

A collection of casks or modules comprises an independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI), which in the USA is licensed separately from any associated power plant, and is for interim storage only. About one-quarter of US used fuel is in such installations.

As outlined above, used fuel may either by reprocessed or disposed of directly. Either way, there is a strong technical incentive to delay final disposal of HLW for about 40-50 years after removal, at which point the heat and radioactivity will have reduced by 99.9%.

If used reactor fuel is reprocessed, the resulting liquid HLW must be solidified. The HLW also generates a considerable amount of heat and requires cooling. It is vitrified into borosilicate (Pyrex) glass, sealed into heavy stainless steel cylinders about 1.3 metres high, and stored for eventual disposal deep underground. This material has no conceivable future use and is universally classified as waste. France has two commercial plants to vitrify HLW left over from reprocessing fuel, and there are also plants active in the UK and Belgium. The capacity of these western European plants is 2,500 canisters (1000 t) a year, and some have been operating for three decades. By mid-2009, the vitrification plant at Sellafield, UK, had produced its 5000th canister of vitrified HLW, representing 3000 m3 of liquor reduced to 750 m3 of glass. The plant currently fills about 400 canisters per year.9

The Australian Synroc (synthetic rock) system is a more sophisticated way to immobilise such waste, and this process may eventually come into commercial use for civil wastes. (For more information see information paper on Synroc).

If used reactor fuel is not reprocessed, it will still contain all the highly radioactive isotopes. Spent fuel that is not reprocessed is treated as HLW for direct disposal. It too generates a lot of heat and requires cooling. However, since it largely consists of uranium (with a little plutonium), it represents a potentially valuable resource, and there is an increasing reluctance to dispose of it irretrievably.

For final disposal, to ensure that no significant environmental releases occur over tens of thousands of years, 'multiple barrier' geological disposal is planned. This technique will immobilise the radioactive elements in HLW and long-lived ILW, and isolate them from the biosphere. The multiple barriers are:

  • Immobilisation of waste in an insoluble matrix such as borosilicate glass or synthetic rock (fuel pellets are already a very stable ceramic: UO2).
  • Contain waste sealed inside a corrosion-resistant container, such as stainless steel.
  • Isolate waste from people and the environment, so eventually locate it deep underground in a stable rock structure.
  • Delay any significant migration of radionuclides from the repository, so surround containers with an impermeable backfill such as bentonite clay if the repository is wet.

Vitrified-Product-Store.JPG

Loading silos with canisters containing vitrified HLW in the UK. Each disc on the floor covers a silo holding ten canisters.

Due to the long-term nature of these management plans, sustainable options must have one or more pre-defined milestones where a decision could be taken on which option to proceed with.

A current question is whether wastes should be emplaced so that they are readily retrievable from repositories. There are sound reasons for keeping such options open – in particular, it is possible that future generations might consider the buried waste to be a valuable resource. On the other hand, permanent closure might increase long-term security of the facility. After being buried for about 1,000 years most of the radioactivity will have decayed. The amount of radioactivity then remaining would be similar to that of the naturally-occurring uranium ore from which it originated, though it would be more concentrated. In mined repositories, which represent the main concept being pursued, retrievability can be straightforward, but any deep borehole disposal is permanent.

France's 2006 waste law says that HLW disposal must be 'reversible', which was clarified in a 2015 amendment to mean guaranteeing long-term flexibility in disposal policy, while 'retrievable' referred to short-term practicality. France, Switzerland, Canada, Japan, and the USA require retrievability.10 That policy is followed also in most other countries, though this presupposes that in the long-term, the repository would be sealed to satisfy safety requirements.

The measures or plans that various countries have in place to store, reprocess, and dispose of used fuel and waste are described in Appendix 2: National Policies and Funding and summarised in the Table below. Storage and disposal options are described more fully in the information page on Storage and Disposal of Radioactive Wastes.

Natural precedents for geological disposal

Nature has already proven that geological isolation is possible through several natural examples (or 'analogues'). The most significant case occurred almost 2 billion years ago at Oklo, in what is now Gabon in West Africa, where several spontaneous nuclear reactors operated within a rich vein of uranium ore. (At that time the concentration of U-235 in all natural uranium was about 3%.) These natural nuclear reactors continued for about 500,000 years before dying away. They produced all the radionuclides found in HLW, including over 5 tonnes of fission products and 1.5 tonnes of plutonium, all of which remained at the site and eventually decayed into non-radioactive elements.11

The study of such natural phenomena is important for any assessment of geologic repositories, and is the subject of several international research projects.

Country-specific policies

Country Policy Facilities and progress towards final repositories
Belgium Reprocessing
but moving to direct disposal
  • Central waste storage at Dessel
  • Underground laboratory established 1984 at Mol
  • Construction of repository to begin about 2035
Canada Direct disposal
  • Nuclear Waste Management Organisation (NWMO) set up 2002
  • Deep geological repository confirmed as policy, retrievable
  • Repository site search from 2007, planned for operation by 2035
China Reprocessing
  • Central used fuel storage at Lanzhou in central Gansu province
  • Repository site search from 1986, selection to be completed by 2020
  • Underground research laboratory 2015-20, disposal of HLW from 2050
Finland Direct disposal
  • Program start 1983, Posiva Oy set up 1995 to implement confirmed policy of deep geological disposal
  • Underground research laboratory Onkalo under construction since 2004
  • Repository being built from this, near Olkiluoto, to open in 2023
France Reprocessing
  • Underground rock laboratories in clay and granite
  • Parliamentary confirmation in 2006 of deep geological disposal, containers to be retrievable and policy 'reversible'
  • Construction and operating licence for Bure expected in 2018, construction to start 2020
Germany Reprocessing
but moving to direct disposal
  • Repository planning started 1973
  • Used fuel storage at Ahaus and Gorleben salt dome
  • Geological repository may be operational at Gorleben after 2025, decision due 2019
India Reprocessing
  • Research on deep geological disposal for HLW
Japan Reprocessing
  • Used fuel and HLW storage facility at Rokkasho since 1995
  • Underground laboratory at Mizunami in granite since 1996
  • Used fuel storage built at Mutsu, expected to open 2018
  • NUMO set up 2000, site selection for deep geological repository under way to 2025, operation from 2035, retrievable
Russia Reprocessing
  • NO RAO set up in 2012 to manage HLW and its disposal
  • Underground laboratory in granite or gneiss in Krasnoyarsk region from 2015, may evolve into repository by 2024
  • Pool storage for used VVER-1000 fuel at Zheleznogorsk since 1985
  • Dry storage for used RBMK and other fuel at Zheleznogorsk from 2012
  • Various interim storage facilities in operation
South Korea Direct disposal, wants to change
  • Waste program confirmed 1998, Korean Radioactive Waste Management Co. (KRWM) set up 2009
  • Mid-2013 KRWM rebranded as Korean Radioactive Waste Agency (KORAD)
  • Central interim storage facility pending construction
Spain Direct disposal
  • ENRESA established 1984, its plan accepted 1999
  • Central interim storage at Villar de Canas from 2016 (volunteered location)
  • Research on deep geological disposal
Sweden Direct disposal
  • Central used fuel storage facility – CLAB – in operation since 1985 at Oskarshamn
  • Underground research laboratory at Aspo for HLW repository
  • Östhammar site selected for repository (volunteered location), likely to open in 2028
Switzerland Reprocessing
  • Central interim storage for HLW and used fuel at ZZL Würenlingen since 2001
  • Smaller used fuel storage at Beznau
  • Underground research laboratory for HLW repository at Grimsel since 1983
United Kingdom Reprocessing
  • HLW from reprocessing is vitrified and stored at Sellafield
  • Repository location to be on the basis of community agreement
  • New NDA subsidiary to progress geological disposal
USA Direct disposal
  • Policy since 1977 to forbid reprocessing
  • DoE responsible for used fuel from 1998, accumulated $40 billion waste fund
  • Considerable research and development on repository in welded tuffs at Yucca Mountain, Nevada
  • The 2002 Congress decision that geological repository be at Yucca Mountain was countered politically in 2009
  • Central interim storage for used fuel now likely

Note: in most countries repositories, or at least storage facilities, for LLW and ILW are operating. See also individual Country Profiles.

Funding waste management

Nuclear power is the only large-scale energy-producing technology that takes full responsibility for all its waste and fully costs this into the product. Financial provisions are made for managing all kinds of civilian radioactive waste. The cost of managing and disposing of nuclear power plant waste typically represents about 5% of the total cost of the electricity generated.

Most nuclear utilities are required by governments to put aside a levy (e.g. 0.1 cents per kilowatt hour in the USA, 0.14 ¢/kWh in France) to provide for the management and disposal of their wastes (see also appendix on National Policies and Funding).

The actual arrangements for paying for waste management and decommissioning vary. The key objective is, however, always the same: to ensure that sufficient funds are available when they are needed. There are three main approaches:

  • Provisions on the balance sheet. Sums to cover the anticipated cost of waste management and decommissioning are included on the generating company's balance sheet as a liability. As waste management and decommissioning work proceeds, the company has to ensure that it has sufficient investments and cashflow to meet the required payments.
  • Internal fund. Payments are made over the life of the nuclear facility into a special fund that is held and administered within the company. The rules for the management of the fund vary, but many countries allow the fund to be re-invested in the assets of the company, subject to adequate securities and investment returns.
  • External fund. Payments are made into a fund that is held outside the company, often within government or administered by a group of independent trustees. Again, rules for the management of the fund vary. Some countries only allow the fund to be used for waste management and decommissioning purposes, whilst others allow companies to borrow a percentage of the fund to reinvest in their business.

According to GE Hitachi, by 2015 funds set aside for managing and disposal of used fuel totalled about $100 billion (most notably $51 billion of this in Europe, $40 billion in the USA and $6.5 billion in Canada).

Other radioactive waste

Non-nuclear power waste

In recent years, in both the radiological protection and radioactive waste management communities, there has been increased attention on how to effectively manage non‑nuclear radioactive wastes. All countries, including those that do not have nuclear power plants, have to manage radioactive waste generated by activities unrelated to the production of nuclear energy, including: national laboratory and university research activities; used and lost industrial gauges and radiography sources; and nuclear medicine activities at hospitals. Although much of this waste is not long-lived, the variety of the sources makes any general assessment of physical or radiological characteristics difficult. The relatively source‑specific nature of the waste poses questions and challenges for its management at a national level, both in regulatory and practical terms.

Wastes from decommissioning nuclear plants

In the case of nuclear reactors, about 99% of the radioactivity is associated with the fuel. Apart from any surface contamination of plant, the remaining radioactivity comes from 'activation products' such as steel components which have long been exposed to neutron irradiation. Their atoms are changed into different isotopes such as iron-55, cobalt-60, nickel-63 and carbon-14. The first two are highly radioactive, emitting gamma rays, but with correspondingly short half-lives so that after 50 years from final shutdown their hazard is much diminished. Some caesium-137 may also be found in decommissioning wastes.

Some scrap material from decommissioning may be recycled, but for uses outside the industry very low clearance levels are applied, so most is buried and some is recycled within the industry.

Legacy wastes

In addition to the routine wastes from current nuclear power generation there are other radioactive wastes referred to as 'legacy wastes'. These wastes exist in several countries which pioneered nuclear power and especially where power programs were developed out of military programs. These are sometimes voluminous and difficult to manage, and arose in the course of those countries getting to a position where nuclear technology is a commercial proposition for power generation. They represent a liability which is not covered by current funding arrangements. In the UK, some £73 billion (undiscounted) is estimated to be involved in addressing these wastes – principally from Magnox and some early AGR developments – and about 30% of the total is attributable to military programs. In the USA, Russia, and France the liabilities are also considerable.

Disposal of other radioactive waste

Some low-level liquid wastes from reprocessing plants are discharged to the sea. These include radionuclides which are distinctive, notably technetium-99 (sometimes used as a tracer in environmental studies), and this can be discerned many hundred kilometres away. However, such discharges are regulated and controlled, and the maximum radiation dose anyone receives from them is a small fraction of natural background radiation.

Nuclear power stations and reprocessing plants release small quantities of radioactive gases (e.g. krypton-85 and xenon-133) and trace amounts of iodine-131 to the atmosphere. However, krypton-85 and xenon-133 are chemically inert, all three gases have short half-lives, and the radioactivity in the emissions is diminished by delaying their release. The net effect is too small to warrant consideration in any life-cycle analysis. A little tritium is also produced but regulators do not consider its release to be significant.

Regulation

The nuclear and radioactive waste management industries work to well-established safety standards. International and regional organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the European Commission (EC), and the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) develop standards, guidelines, and recommendations under a framework of co-operation to assist countries in establishing and maintaining national standards. National policies, legislation, and regulations are all developed from these internationally agreed standards, guidelines, and recommendations. These standards aim to ensure the protection of the public and the environment, both now and into the future.

International agreements in the form of conventions have also been established such as the Joint Convention on Nuclear Safety, and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. The latter was adopted in 1997 by a diplomatic conference convened by the IAEA and came into force in June 2001 following the required number of ratifications.

Other international conventions and directives seek to provide for inter alia, the safe transportation of radioactive material, protection of the environment (including the marine environment) from radioactive waste, and the control of imports and exports of radioactive waste and transboundary movements.

International Atomic Energy Agencyc

The IAEA is the international organisation that advises on the safe and peaceful uses of nuclear technology. It is an agency of the United Nations, based in Vienna, Austria founded in 1957 and it currently has 134 member states from countries with and without nuclear energy programs. The IAEA develops safety standards, guidelines, and recommendations, and, inter alia, provides technical guidance to member states on radioactive waste principles. Member states use the standards and guidelines in developing their own legislation, regulatory documents, and guidelines. It also verifies through a safeguards inspection program compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (see also information page on Safeguards to Prevent Nuclear Proliferation).

The IAEA's Waste and Environmental Safety Section works to develop internationally agreed standards on the safety of radioactive waste. The Radioactive Waste Safety Standards (RADWASS) program provides guidance to member states to produce their own policies and regulations for the safe management of radioactive waste, including disposal7.

In addition, the IAEA helps member states by providing technical assistance with services, equipment, and training and by conducting radiological assessments.

The Nuclear Energy Agencyd

The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the OECD is based in Paris, France. It has a variety of waste management programs involving its 28 member states. The organisation aims to assist these states in developing safe waste disposal strategies and policies for spent nuclear fuel, HLW and waste from decommissioning nuclear facilities. It also works closely with the IAEA on nuclear safety standards and other technical activities.

The NEA has a project aimed at preserving records, knowledge and management (RK&M) of long-lived nuclear waste disposal for future generations.

European Commission

In July 2011, the European Commission adopted the Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel Management directive12. The directive requires that:

  • EU countries, all of which produce radioactive waste, have a national policy.
  • EU countries draw up and implement national programs for the management, including the disposal, of all spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste generated on their territory.
  • EU countries should have in place a comprehensive and robust framework and competent and independent regulatory body, as well as financing mechanisms to ensure that adequate funds are available.
  • Public information on radioactive waste and spent fuel and opportunities for public participation are available.
  • EU countries carry out self-assessments and invite international peer reviews of their national framework, competent authorities and/or national program at least every ten years (by August 2023).
  • The export of radioactive waste for disposal in countries outside the EU is allowed only under strict conditions.

National policies must include firm timetables for the construction of disposal facilities, descriptions of needed implementation activities, cost assessments, and financing schemes.

The agreement allows two or more member nations to develop joint disposal facilities and allows transport of used fuel and radioactive wastes within the EU. Exports outside the EU will only be possible to countries that already have a repository in operation that meets IAEA standards. For overseas reprocessing, ultimate wastes must be returned to the originating EU country. The directive acknowledges that no country currently operates such a repository and projects that a minimum of 40 years would be required to develop one. The shipment of used fuel and radioactive wastes to African, Pacific, and Caribbean countries, and to Antarctica, is explicitly banned. Plans are expected to use a step-by-step approach to geologic disposal based on the voluntary involvement of potential host communities. Two routes are acknowledged: one to dispose of used nuclear fuel as waste; the other to reprocess the fuel and recycle the uranium and plutonium while disposing of the remainder as waste.

The first report on the progress of implementation of the Council Directive was released on 15 May 2017. The review noted that all member states except one had submitted their national programs, as required by the directive, either in final or draft form. However, the review also noted that only a few member states had programs that fully addressed all types of radioactive waste. Where disposal plans were not finalised, the review noted this was mainly due to the need to make policy decisions or select suitable sites.13

International Commission on Radiological Protectione

The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) is an independent registered charity that issues recommendations for protection against all sources of radiation. The IAEA interprets these recommendations into international safety standards and guidelines for radiological protection. National regulators may also adopt the recommendations by the ICRP for their own radiation protection standards.

In March 2007, the ICRP approved its new fundamental Recommendations on Radiological Protection (ICRP Publication 103), replacing the commission’s previous recommendations from 1990. Amongst others, the new recommendations include for the first time an approach for developing a framework to demonstrate radiological protection of the environment.14


References

1. Radioactive Waste in the UK: A summary of the 2010 Inventory, NDA (2010). [Back]

2. The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2011). [Back]

3. Technology-specific Cost and Performance Parameters, IPCC (2014) [Back]

4. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle, United States Environmental Protection Agency (2014) [Back]

5. Technogically enhanced naturally occuring radioactive materials in the oil industry, 2009. [Back]

6. Management of Slightly Contaminated Materials: Status and Issues, IAEA (no date). [Back]

7. In Situ and Ex Situ Bioremediation of Radionuclides Contaminated at Nuclear and NORM Sites, US DOE (2014). [Back]

8. Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Reactors, International Panel on Fissile Materials (2011). [Back]

9. 5000th Container of High Level Waste Vitrified at Sellafield, Sellafield Ltd. (2009). [Back]

10. The 2006 Programme Act on the Sustainable Management of Radioactive Materials and Wastes, Assemblée nationale (2006). [Back]

11. The Workings of an Ancient Nuclear Reactor, Scientific American (2009). [Back]

12. Council Directive 2011/70/EURATOM, European Union (2011). [Back]

13. Progress of Implementation of Council Directive 2011/70/EURATOM, European Union (2017). [Back]

14. International Commission on Radiological Protection, ICRP (2007). [Back]

Notes

a. Lifecycle emissions data are IPCC's median estimates, and are inclusive of albedo effect. Gas data relate to combined cycle, and coal data relate to PC. In reality, average lifecycle emissions for both gas and coal are likely to be higher. [Back]

b. The EPA estimates that the average road vehicle emits the equivalent of 4.7 tonnes of CO2 per year. [Back]

c. See the home page of the IAEA's Division of Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety (www-ns.iaea.org/home/rtws.asp) for further information. [Back]

d. See the radioactive waste management section of the NEA's website (www.nea.fr/html/rwm) for further information. [Back]

e. See the International Commission on Radiological Protection's website (www.icrp.org) for further information. [Back]

General sources

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – Taking Forward Decommissioning, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, National Audit Office (2008).

The U.S. Geological Survey has published a fact sheet on Radioactive Elements in Coal and Fly Ash: Abundance, Forms, and Environmental Significance, FS-163-97 (1997).

The International Nuclear Society Council (INSC, www.ne.jp/asahi/mh/u) has published information relating to particular countries' waste policies and actions. See the Radioactive Waste paper from the report of its 1997-98 Action Plan and its Current Issues in Nuclear Energy – Radioactive Waste report (2002).

The management of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, Nuclear Energy Agency, NEA Issue Brief: An analysis of principal nuclear issues, No. 6 (1989)

Storage and Disposal of Spent Fuel and High Level Radioactive Waste, International Atomic Energy Agency

UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) website (www.unscear.org)

Assessment of Disposal Options for DOE-Managed High-Level Radioactive Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel, US DOE (2014)

Radioactive Waste in Perspective, OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, NEA No. 6350 (2010)


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