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Here is a short look at the crucial issue of nuclear waste and its processing.

What is it?

Nuclear waste is a loose term that refers to material that has become radioactive after use in a nuclear facility. This can include anything from clothing to equipment. There are three levels applied to this waste depending on its level of radioactivity: low, intermediate, and high.

What is low-level waste?

Low-level nuclear waste is generally clothing or smaller items that have only been slightly contaminated. Much nuclear waste falls in the low-level category, which is also the easiest to dispose of.

What is intermediate-level waste?

Intermediate-level nuclear waste usually refers to items that contain a higher level of radioactivity such as disposable parts of the cooling systems of nuclear power plants.

What is high-level waste?

High-level nuclear waste is material that is saturated by radioactivity. This consists for the most part of spent nuclear fuel that, although it is extremely radioactive, also contains a large amount of potential energy. This spent fuel is often reprocessed and reused again in a nuclear power plant.

How is nuclear waste taken care of?

Much low-level waste is simply left in a holding plant until the small amounts of radiation decay and disappear. This process usually takes only a couple of hours or at most a few days, after which the waste can then be disposed of like regular garbage.

Other types of longer-lasting nuclear waste are often stored in underground concrete bunkers or pools filled with water. Water is used to both provide shielding from the radioactive materials and to cool down the high temperatures generated by the radiation. Often these bunkers and pools are constructed near the location of the nuclear facility. After years have passed and the materials have lost their radioactivity, they are then reprocessed accordingly.

How dangerous is nuclear waste?

Most high-level nuclear waste is classified as extremely dangerous and large amounts of care is needed to process and store it correctly. It is not, however, any more dangerous than the majority of harmful chemicals and heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury. Even some of the most contaminated forms of spent nuclear fuel are predicted to lose most of their radioactivity in less than five hundred years.

Is nuclear waste a government-controlled substance?

Plants that take care of nuclear waste must be licensed by the nuclear regulatory branch of the Federal Government. Government inspectors conduct regular inspections and waste disposal licenses must be renewed periodically. Under federal law, these facilities maintain a high level of security and are closely monitored by the proper authorities.

How much nuclear waste is there?

Approximately twelve thousand tons of spent nuclear fuel is disposed of annually, a fourth of which undergoes a recycling and reusing process. This number is projected to increase as more nuclear power plants are opened. To date there is approximately 270 thousand tons of spent nuclear fuel being stored around the world.

Have there been any accidents involving the disposal of nuclear waste?

Two notable accidents have taken place in the last 30 years of nuclear history. In Brazil, in 1987, four people were killed when scavengers removed material that was still radioactive from a deserted hospital. In France, in 2008, radioactive liquid was accidentally dumped into a river.

What is the future of nuclear waste?

Official research teams in the United Kingdom, France, and Canada have come to the conclusion that the safest way to store high-level nuclear waste is to isolate it deep underground, preferably in geological repositories. Many insist that the long term effects of this storage solution are still not known.

How much does all of this cost?

Besides storage of the nuclear waste, any soil or water that has been contaminated must be treated. In addition to this, the cost is raised by the needed demolition of buildings, exhuming and reprocessing of waste that was faultily processed, and the decommissioning of ancient nuclear reactors. In total, in the United States alone, the project is projected to cost as much as 400 billion dollars for 75 years of nuclear waste disposal.

Which federal agencies are in charge of this?

The Department of Energy supervises the waste disposal facilities and the Environmental Protection Agency fixes government standards for proper nuclear waste storage. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission provides licenses to commercial nuclear reactors.

For more information, see: http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/03/27/nuclear-waste-idUSLR93723820090327