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Anything that generates electricity produces waste.  The waste produced from generating electricity must be managed to protect the safety and health of humans and minimize the impact on the environment.  To dispose of radioactive waste you must isolate or dilute it so that the rate or concentration of any radionuclides returned does not harm the environment. Radioactive waste should be contained and properly stored.  Some low-level waste can be stored at a plant until it stops being radioactive and is deemed safe to be disposed.  Most waste is collected and transported safely to a disposal facility. 

Radioactive waste includes any material that is virtually radioactive, or has been contaminated by radioactivity and deemed to have no further use.  Government policy dictates whether certain materials (nuclear fuel and plutonium) are categorized as waste.  Every radionuclide has a half life which is the time taken for half of its atoms to decay and 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 more penetrating gamma rays.  Eventually, all radioactive waste decays into non-radioactive elements.  The more radioactive an isotope is the faster it decays.

There are numerous kinds of regulated waste.  Low-level waste includes radioactively contaminated protective clothing, tools, filters, rags and medical tubes.  To reduce its volume low-level waste is often compacted or incinerated before disposal and can be done in near surface facilities.  Intermediate-level waste is more radioactive than low-level waste and requires some shielding.  Intermediate-level waste compromises resins, chemical sludges, metal fuel cladding and contaminated materials reactor decommissioning.  Smaller items and any non-solids may be solidified in concrete or bitumen for disposal. 

High-level waste is very radioactive for its decay heat and requires cooling and shielding.  High-level waste comes from the burning of uranium fuel in a nuclear reactor.  There are two kids of high-level waste used fuel that has been designated as waste or separated waste from reprocessing of used fuel.   High-level waste has both long 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 environment.

Exempt waste and very low-level waste contains radioactive materials at a level which is not considered harmful to people or the environment.  It consists mainly of demolished material (concrete, plaster, metal, valves. etc.) produced during rehabilitation or dismantling operations on nuclear industrial sites.  Food processing, chemical and steel industries also produce very low-level waste as a result of the concentration of natural radioactivity present in certain minerals used in their manufacturing processes. 

Radioactive waste is produced at all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle.  The fuel cycle involves mining and milling of uranium ore, processing and fabrication into nuclear fuel, its use in the reactor, reprocessing if its conducted, treatment of the used fuel taken from the reactor and disposal of the waste.  Waste is produced during mining and milling and fuel fabrication and the majority comes from the actual brining of uranium to produce electricity.

Legacy waste is other radioactive waste that exists in several countries that pioneered nuclear power and where power programs were developed out of military programs.  This waste can sometimes be voluminous and difficult to manage and is found in countries where nuclear technology is a commercial proposition for power generation. 

All countries, even if they do not have nuclear power plants have to manage radioactive waste generated by national laboratory and university research activities, used and lost industrial gauges and radiography sources and nuclear medicine activities at hospitals.  Much of this waste is not long-lived the variety of sources makes any assessment of physical or radiological characteristics difficult. 

Because radioactive waste can be potentially hazardous, the use of certain radioactive materials must be closely regulated to protect the health and safety of the public and environment.  The responsibility for licensing and regulating the use and handling of these materials is done by four different organizations:

  • The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
  • State Governments

The US Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for setting air emission and drinking water standards for radioisotopes.  The FDA regulates the manufacture and use of specialized devices, otherwise known as linear accelerators, that are used to create radioisotopes for use in some nuclear medicine procedures where the States regulate the operation of these devices. 

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is the Federal agency responsible for protecting the health and safety of the public and environment by licensing and regulating the civilian uses of these radioactive materials:

  • Source Material (uranium and thorium)
  • Special nuclear material (enriched uranium and plutonium)
  • Byproduct material (material that is made radioactive in a reactor and the residue from the milling of the uranium and thorium)

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates the use of these radioactive materials through Title 10, Part 20, of the Code of Federal Regulations (“Standards for Protection Against Radiation”) which states the agency’s requirements for these aspects of radiation protection:

  • Dose limits for radiation workers and members of the public
  • Exposure limits for individual radionuclides
  • Monitoring and labeling radioactive materials
  • Posting signs in and around radiation areas
  • Reporting the theft or loss of radioactive material
  • Penalties for not complying with NRC regulations

Out of the 20,000 active source, byproduct and special nuclear materials licenses in place in the US, only about a quarter are administered by the NRC, while the rest are administered y 27 agreement states.  The NRC regulates authority over radioactive materials in States that do not have Agreements.  The NRC retains regulatory authority over radioactive materials in certain portions of Agreement States that are subject to “exclusive Federal jurisdiction”.  These portions may include protected areas of nuclear reactors, most American Indian reservations and certain areas of military bases. 

The NRC and the States coordinate the regulation of radioactive materials through the National Materials Program.  The NRC retains a leadership and oversight role in the program through the Integrated Materials Performance Evaluation Process (IMPEP) which ensures uniform nationwide regulation by reviewing the regulatory perform of the NRC and the States using a common set of performance criteria. 

The NRC also cooperates with State regulatory programs by providing technical support and maintaining databases of regulatory information.  The NRC’s regional offices have designated staff, Regional State Agreement Officers, who serve as the primary point of contact with Agreement States.  The Regional State Liaison Officers serve as the contacts for non-Agreement States and for all States involving realtors or other Federal jurisdiction.  The Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs (FSME) are located at NRC headquarters and provides backup to the regions.  Each FSME staff member serves as an Agreement State Project Officer with responsibility for specific States. 

The Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors (CRCPD) is a professional organization that includes the directors and staff of regulatory programs from both Agreement and non-Agreement States.  The CRCPD provides a forum for the States to interact with the NRC and coordinate the regulation of radioactive materials that are not governed by the Atomic Energy Act.  The Organization of Agreement States (OAS) includes directors and staff of Agreement State programs and was established to facilitate communication between the NRC and the Agreement States when most States did not have agreements with the agency.  The CRCPD and the OAS participate in the National Materials Program and each organization hosts an annual meeting to consider specific issues related to the regulation of radioactive materials. 

Under certain conditions allowed by the Atomic Energy Act, the NRC enters into agreements with State governors. These agreements authorize individual states to regulate the use of specific radioactive material within perimeters.  This includes radioisotopes used in medicine and industry.  States that meet these conditions and agree to regulate materials using the same standards as the NRC are called Agreement States.  Agreement States regulate the sources of radiation that the NRC does not.  This includes all natural occurring radioactive materials (radium and radon) within their borders.  The States regulate radiation-producing machines, such as medical and industrial X-ray machines and particle accelerators, and radioisotopes (cobalt-57) that they produce.  Agreement States do not regulate nuclear power plants, large quantities of certain nuclear materials and storage of high-level radioactive waste.  Currently, 37 States have these agreements with the NRC. 

BE3 is here to help you with any of your radioactive waste management needs.  Contact us today at 716-362-6532 or fill out our form with any of your questions at

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