What is Radioactive Waste Management?

Daniel Liden

Almost every industry that has ever existed has produced waste that has needed to be managed in some way. Industries such as nuclear energy that produce radioactive waste are no exception. As it can be very hazardous and harmful, radioactive waste management is a major concern for producers of radioactive waste. The primary goals of radioactive waste management are to safeguard human life and to minimize the negative effects of radiation on the environment.

A sign indicating radioactivity.
A sign indicating radioactivity.

Nuclear energy is one of the only industries in existence that takes full responsibility for its own waste. Generally, radioactive waste management is built into the cost of using nuclear energy. This is because disposing of radioactive substances can be extremely expensive. Radioactivity occurs when unstable atoms decay and emit particles that can be harmful to humans and to the environment. Radioactive waste, then, must be disposed of in a way that prevents these particles, which can penetrate even some metals, from reaching humans or the environment.

Radiation exposure can cause burns, poisoning and other injuries that require emergency care.
Radiation exposure can cause burns, poisoning and other injuries that require emergency care.

One of the unique challenges of radioactive waste management is the time that radioactive waste can remain hazardous. Some radioactive substances decay and become harmless in minutes or seconds, while others can take many lifetimes. Scientists measure the time it takes for radioactive substances to decay by measuring their half lives. The half life of a radioactive substance is the time it takes for it to decay halfway, and therefore lose half of its radioactivity.

There are three main methods or radioactive waste management. Sometimes, radioactive waste is concentrated into as small an area as possible and isolated in an area where it can't harm anyone or anything. In some other cases, it is diluted to harmless levels and dispersed in the environment. While these first two methods are used for many kinds of hazardous wastes, the third is only used to dispose of radioactive wastes. Radioactive waste can be stored behind lead, which most radioactive particles can not penetrate, until the substance has decayed to the point that it is harmless.

Radioactive waste management is practiced on a daily basis by nuclear power plants. Waste is generally stored at the site of the nuclear reactor. It is stored safely underground behind layers of protective concrete, lead, or other protective substances. Eventually, this waste will be transported and buried deep underground, where it will naturally decay over the years until it is completely harmless. Radioactive waste management is taken very seriously, as radioactive wastes have potential to cause people and the environment significant harm.

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