Ideally, any industry, university lab, manufacturing plant, medical facility or nuclear power plant should have a Radiation Safety Officer and established safety plan for disposing of radioactive waste. Failure to do so has disastrous effects on plants, animals and humans who are unknowingly exposed. Take, for instance, the city of Goias, Brazil – where robbers stole a radioactive machine from an abandoned hospital and unwittingly poisoned 250 people who were unknowingly exposed – four of whom died.
It’s imperative that nuclear and radioactive materials are disposed of properly. If you are at all unsure of what you should do with radioactive materials – including gloves, sleeves, paper or glassware exposed to radiation – contact your Radiation Safety Officer ASAP for specific instructions.
The bottom line is that while it may seem like radioactive products and materials are “disposed of” they aren’t; radioactive isotopes have half-lives and many continue to emit radiation for hundreds to thousands and thousands of years. So, until the scientific innovators find a more successful solution, these toxic items are removed and stored far away (hopefully) from where they can seep into ground water, surrounding soil layers and the environment.
Most common methods of disposing of radioactive waste
After contaminated materials and/or radioactive substances have been disposed as per your company’s safety plan, it is disposed of in one of multiple ways.
On-site disposal and treatment
Initially, your company safety plan will incorporate things like specially marked boxes to house contaminated paper, glassware, sleeves, gloves, etc. Sharps containers are provided for knives, syringes, blades, broken glass and so on. Finally, special sinks or flushing stations are used for liquid waste.
In many cases, radioactive waste is temporarily treated onsite to mitigate its effects until it is more permanently disposed of. On-site treatments typically consist of processes such as vitrification, ion exchange or synroc. Again, on-site treatment isn’t the end of the line, but it prepares radioactive materials to be transported and minimizes the risk of short-term damage.
Common in the medical arena – including labs and hospitals – low-level waste is incinerated at extremely high temperatures. This renders it neutral or to such low-risk levels that the incinerated waste can be disposed of in landfills just like everyday trash.
This is by far the most common method of storing nuclear and radioactive waste. Unfortunately, there are very few approved nuclear disposal sites around the world – a reason that there are nearly 30,000 undisposed-of tons of ceramic uranium dioxide pellets, stored in metal rods, at nuclear power plants around the world.
Geologic disposal directly translates to digging big pits, lining them with barriers that prevent radioactive seepage and burying radioactive waste deep into the ground. Before being buried, most of this mid- to higher-level waste is solidified in concrete or bitumen to further diminish its potency.
The idea behind transmutation is that potent radioactive isotopes are transformed into less-potent versions, making them somewhat safer to store and decreasing their half-life. For example, chemical reactions where protons hit a particle and change it. The most common examples of this happening now are transmuting chlorine into argon.
Theoretical disposal options
Then there are some proposed suggestions for disposing of radioactive waste that aren’t put into practice yet. These include:
- Reprocessing: Often, radioactive waste is an amalgam that includes non-radioactive components. Reprocessing these to remove usable components (fissionable) from non-useable components that are then disposed of. Overall, this decreases the mass of the waste.
- Disposal in space: Some experts feel we should build specialized rockets that would be loaded with our radioactive waste and then shot up into outer space. This option is heavily contested, with opponents citing the exorbitant financial costs, the potential for pre-space explosions to create a nuclear cloud for which there is no containment method and long-term ethical considerations.
There is no doubt that the U.S. and the world at large lacks enough disposal sites and methods to handle the current level of radioactive waste. This is of major concern to everyone across the nuclear and radiation industries.
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