What is Radioactive Waste? | PacTec, Inc.

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What is radioactive waste? There are all types of hazardous waste, but one that is subject to some of the most stringent federal and state regulations is radioactive waste. Radioactive waste is toxic waste that is hazardous to humans, wildlife, and the environment. It can contaminate soil, water, food crops, clothing, tools, and other objects unless properly contained and transported. The following sections discuss radioactive waste materials – what they are, where they come from, and how to contain and transport them in compliance with government laws and regulations.

The definition of radioactive waste is a liquid, solid or gaseous waste containing or contaminated with radionuclides in concentrations that are more than the concentrations established as exempt by government authorities. Radioactivity is the emission of ionizing particles released by the disintegration of atomic nuclei. This type of waste is generated in various industries through normal operations, flowing from facilities and environmental activities.

Sources of Radioactive Waste

There are more sources of radioactive waste generation than most people realize.

  • Nuclear weapons production
  • Defense operations
  • Nuclear power generation
  • Hospitals and medical research laboratories
  • Universities
  • Mining
  • Ore millings
  • Construction activities
  • Industrial operations
  • Environmental services
  • Oil and gas production

Note that nuclear fuel requires specialized high-level storage. It is so dangerous that the U.S. still does not have a permanent storage site for it. PacTec does not provide radioactive waste management options for nuclear fuel or spent nuclear fuel.

Examples of Radioactive Waste

Some radioactive waste examples beyond nuclear fuel include the following.

  • Chemical sludges
  • Nuclear reactor parts
  • Contaminated materials from nuclear reactors
  • Equipment and tools
  • Protective clothing
  • Rags
  • Paper and plastic bags
  • Packaging materials
  • Laboratory equipment
  • Medical equipment
  • Contaminated soil, gravel, and rubble
  • Demolition debris
  • Waste from processing primary coolant water at a nuclear power plant, like spent ion-exchange resins and filter sludge

Regulation of Radioactive Waste

There are multiple regulatory agencies defining and overseeing radioactive waste management. Following are the primary agencies and their responsibilities.

  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – The NRC is responsible for:
    • Licensing facilities
    • Ensuring facilities are in compliance with EPA standards
    • Working with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to regulate the transportation of waste to storage and disposal sites
  • Department of Energy (DOE) – The DOE is responsible for:
    • Providing a repository for high-level waste (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant or WIPP)
    • Operating a facility that stores transuranic radioactive waste
    • Providing disposal options for the NRC-regulated low-level waste that cannot be disposed of near the surface
  • Department of Transportation (DOT) – The DOT is responsible for:
    • The Office of Hazardous Materials Safety writes rules for shipping hazardous materials by highway, air, rail, and sea
    • Working with the NRC to ensure safe materials shipping
    • Regulating transport of waste to storage and disposal sites
  • States – The individual states are responsible for:
    • Adhering to federal laws and regulations
    • Providing disposal capacity for commercial low-level waste per the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act
  • Environmental Protection Agency (PA) – The EPA is responsible for:
    • Writing regulations that support federal laws
    • Monitoring compliance with regulations

The myriad of laws, government agencies, and regulations make the containment, storage, transport, and disposal of radioactive waste challenging.

Another way to answer the question, “What is radioactive waste?” is by type and class.

  • High-level radioactive waste (HLW): This is uranium fuel used in a nuclear power reactor that is spent, meaning it no longer produces electricity. It is very radioactive, very hazardous, and requires special handling. It also produces significant amounts of heat through radioactive decay. This type of waste is stored in specially designed concrete and steel pools of water or stainless-steel canisters stored on dry ground.
  • Intermediate-level radioactive waste (ILW) This type of liquid and solid radioactive waste contains long-lived radionuclides that require isolation and containment for more than several hundred years. It’s generated from sources like radiation therapy, cladding, end pieces of nuclear plant fuel assemblies, resins, sedimentation, and sludge from purification during reprocessing. Also included are items that became contaminated during maintenance or operational activities. Intermediate radioactive waste materials cannot be stored near the surface at a disposal site.
  • Low-level radioactive waste (LLW): Low-level radioactive wastes are liquid and solid materials that have been contaminated with short-lived radionuclides in radioactive material or through exposure to neutron radiation. There might also be long-lived radionuclides in very low concentrations present. The NCR classifies low-level waste based on two tables with the half-life of 100 years being the dividing line between short-lived and long-lived radionuclides.

This waste may be stored on-site by licensed companies or until there is enough material to ship to a low-level waste disposal site. It can be disposed of in a near-surface facility.

  • Very low-level waste (VLLW) – This waste does not need high-level containment or isolation and can be disposed of near the surface or on the surface with a ground cover in engineered surface landfill facilities.
  • Very short-lived waste (VSLW) – The waste in this category will decay within a few years because it contains radionuclides with short half-lives. It commonly comes from medical and research activities.
  • Exempt waste (EW) – This waste is exempt from regulatory control of radioactive waste.

PacTec manufactures a variety of containers that meet regulatory requirements for containing, storing, and transporting different types of low-level radioactive waste to and from various locations.

Another classification system is universal waste which has nine classifications. Chemical waste, for example, is in Class 3, and radioactive waste is Class 7. Also, note the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) which regulates the hazardous waste portion of any waste. Waste material is first identified as hazardous, and then it is determined if it has radioactive material. When hazardous materials have radioactive material, it is called mixed waste. This is the identification process the EPA goes through for the definition of solid waste and solid and hazardous waste exclusions.

Mixed waste has a dual regulatory framework. The hazardous component is regulated by the EPA under RCRA. The radioactive material is regulated by the DOE (regulates DOE facilities) and the NRC (regulates commercial and non-DOE facilities). The DOE has a Mixed Waste Rule that offers waste generators of low-level mixed waste (LLMW) and naturally occurring and/or accelerator-produced radioactive material (NARM) exemption from RCRA storage and treatment requirements. The waste still must be stored in the appropriate container.

Types of Low-Level Radioactive Waste

What is radioactive waste? Radioactive waste is defined by the half-lives of the radionuclides, the activity concentration of radionuclides, and the amount of heat generation.
Approximately 90 percent of all radioactive waste is low-level waste. There are four classes of low-level waste (LLW) radioactive waste. The waste classifications are found in the Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR 61.55(a)(2)(i) and 10 CFR 61.56(a) and (b).

  • Class A: Class A radioactive waste is liquid, solid, or gaseous waste with the least radioactivity with an average concentration of .1 curies/cubic foot. It has radionuclides decaying to background levels within several decades. The waste is separated from other waste classes where it is disposed of unless the waste materials meet additional stability requirements. Then you do not have to separate the waste. Much of the waste has structural stability, meaning it does not change its physical dimensions and form after disposal even when subjected to typical disposal site conditions.
  • Class B: This class of waste must meet more rigorous requirements intended to ensure stability after disposal. It must meet all of the requirements outlined in 10 CFR 61.56 which defines what stability means.
  • Class C: This class of waste must meet more stringent form and stability requirements than Class B waste. It has a more significant amount of short-lived radionuclides than Class A and Class B waste and is contaminated with some nucleotides that are long-lived.
  • Greater than Class C: This waste exceeds the concentration of radionuclides of Class C. This waste is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. It is regulated by 10 CFR part 61, sections 61.55(a)(2)(iv) and 61.58.

What’s NOT Low-Level Radioactive Waste?

Most of the time, anyone looking for the answer to the question, “What is radioactive waste?” will find that low-level radioactive waste is defined by what it is “not.” It is:

  • Not High-level radioactive waste: Low-level waste is not spent nuclear fuel or the waste from spent nuclear fuel that is reprocessed.
  • Not mill tailings: Low-level waste is not uranium mill residues or tailings, which remain after uranium has been removed from mined ore.
  • Not transuranic: Low-level waste is not transuranic radioactive waste, a waste that contains manufactured elements heavier than uranium. It is created during activities related to nuclear power plant assembly and energy production, like nuclear fuel assembly and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing.

According to the NRC, most low-level waste is usually stored on-site until it has decayed to the point at which it can be disposed of as ordinary waste. Radioactive waste containers are specially designed to meet government regulations for interim storage, transportation, and disposal of waste. The types of waste containers used for low-level radioactive waste are:

  • Rigid containers – carbon steel drums, barrels, or boxes that may be placed in an overpack; wooden boxes; rigid corrugated fiberboard box with a polyurethane liner
  • Flexible packaging – packaging made of layered woven and non-woven polypropylene

Containers are used for molding the waste, interim storage, transport, and disposal. It is critical to follow the many regulations for the type of waste. In addition, you want to consider factors like ease of use and handling and minimizing costs. There is no reason to store low-level radioactive waste in a high-level container.

To ensure federal and state containment requirements are met, use secondary spill containment when possible. For example, when packing chemicals with low-level radiation into a primary radioactive waste container, a chemical spill containment system can ensure full capture of the liquid.

PacTec’s blog on Choosing the Best Containers for Radioactive Waste describes the types of flexible packaging sold that are designed to handle low-level radioactive waste and the type of materials commonly packaged in each.

Radioactive waste generated at a particular site often requires transport to an approved treatment, storage, or disposal facility. Strict adherence to DOT requirements is critical to human and environmental safety and avoiding expensive fines. There is always the risk of an accident during the transportation stage which could lead to radiological exposure.

The transport regulations include:

  • Type of packaging
  • Packaging certification
  • Packaging labeling

The PacTec blog on radioactive waste transport discusses the details.

All types of radioactive waste require special handling for many reasons.

  • Radioactive waste is dangerous to the health of humans because exposure can change cells, causing sickness and death
  • Radioactive waste can have an environmental impact that includes harming wildlife and plant life, contaminating the aquifer and surface water bodies, and contaminating soil by destroying its nutrients; humans may be exposed to the contaminated water and soil
  • Some facilities may need to store the radioactive waste for a long period of time before transporting the waste to a disposal site, creating additional risks to employees onsite if the container is not properly shielded and able to withstand potential damage
  • The EPA and DOT can impose high fines for failing to adhere to standards for containers, storage, transport, and disposal

The main assurance of safety during the transport of radioactive waste is the way it is packaged. The packaging is what ensures shielding from radiation and containment of the waste in different situations, including accidents.

It’s important to be able to properly identify, contain and transport radioactive waste. To avoid hefty fines, you’ll want to ensure you’re abiding by any federal or state laws and regulations that may apply. Luckily, PacTec offers various flexible containment options that can help you safely contain and transport your waste to the nearest disposal facility. You’ll minimize your risk of incurring expensive government fines while also potentially saving your business money on labor and product costs compared to traditional packaging.

Contact a PacTec Sales Representative in your region to discuss your particular needs and how we can meet them.