How to Dispose of Radioactive Waste? The Safe Way!

How to Dispose of Radioactive Waste? The Safe Way!

Radioactive waste is considered one of the most difficult types of waste to manage and dispose of because of its highly toxic nature.

Exposure to nuclear waste increases the risk of serious health hazards like hair loss, diarrhea, damage to the central nervous system, and even death!

For these reasons, nuclear waste has to be well taken care of to contain the harm it can cause.

What Is Radioactive Waste?

Radioactive waste, also referred to as nuclear waste, is the byproduct of fuel processing plants, nuclear reactors, research facilities, and hospitals.  

Nuclear waste is also produced during the dismantling of nuclear facilities.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in the U.S. has categorized radioactive waste in the following categories:

  1. Nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors
  2. Uranium mill tailings produced during milling and mining of the uranium ore
  3. Waste from reprocessing of nuclear fuel
  4. Low-level nuclear waste
  5. Transuranic waste from the defense programs
  6. Radioactive materials that are produced in the accelerator or occur naturally

Based on the radioactivity level, nuclear waste is categorized into 3 categories:

  1. High-level radioactive waste
  2. Intermediate-level radioactive waste
  3. Low-level radioactive waste

The major portion of all the radioactive waste produced consists of lightly contaminated things like work clothing and tools.

It’s the high-level nuclear waste (spent nuclear fuel) that is the most dangerous of all.

Lightly contaminated items make up about 90% of all the nuclear waste produced, but they make up only 1% of the total radioactivity.

On the other hand, spent nuclear fuel makes only 3% of the total radioactive waste but is 95% of the total radioactivity, which makes its proper management, storage, and disposal extremely critical.

What Makes Disposal of Radioactive Waste Challenging?

Why is the disposal of radioactive waste taken so seriously? Why can’t it be treated like any other type of waste?

This is because radioactive waste is highly toxic and hazardous in nature, and it poses a danger to the person handling it and the environment if not disposed of properly.

You can only imagine what can go wrong if the radioactive waste isn’t disposed of properly.

Let’s have a look at the many reasons why disposal of radioactive waste is such a huge challenge.

Radioactive Waste Has a Long Half-Life

One of the biggest problems with radioactive waste is that it has a long half-life. It means the waste will remain radioactive, equally hazardous, and dangerous for thousands of years.

This means if for some reason, the integrity of the container containing radioactive waste gets compromised a few years after its disposal, it’ll pose a severe threat to the people and environment.

For this reason, you’ve got to ensure that the radioactive waste is disposed of properly and securely.


Radioactive waste can’t be dumped into the ocean or in the landfills like regular waste. It has to be first contained in suitable containers, and then the containers are disposed of.

This is where another challenge surfaces. We still don’t know of any suitable containers that can hold radioactive material that stays active for thousands of years.

The containers might be strong enough to contain the waste for a few decades, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that they’ll be able to do so for a thousand years or even more!

Some common suggestions as to where radioactive waste could be dumped include ejection into space, disposal in the ocean, disposal in the ice sheets, and above-ground storage.

Out of all these options, only the option of ocean disposal was actually implemented, but for obvious reasons, it’s no longer practiced.

Radioactive Waste Can Affect Animal and Plant Life

If radioactive waste ends up open in the environment, it can affect plant and animal life.

Although radioactive waste is always enclosed in huge steel and concrete containers, there’s always a lingering risk of leakage.

Exposure to radioactive waste can lead to cancerous growths and genetic problems that can continue for several generations down the road.

How to Dispose of Radioactive Waste?

Disposing of nuclear waste is a huge challenge. One has to ensure that they’re doing it properly because if there’s any sort of mistake, it’ll have serious consequences for everyone.

Below is how you should dispose of radioactive waste.

Solid Radioactive Waste

Solid radioactive waste is any solid item (vials and containers that had radioactive substances in them). These solid items can’t be simply disposed of just like that.

First, you’ve got to ensure that the solid vials or containers don’t have any liquid substance remaining in them.

Once you’re certain, remove the radioactive label from each item and put them in a waste container. The waste container should have a 4 mil polyethylene lining.

You’ve got to ensure that you don’t mix containers with different isotopes of radioactive material.

One specific waste disposal container should only contain solid waste that has been exposed to any one type of isotope.

After the container is full, close it shut, fill a Radioactive Waste Disposal Form with details about what the container contains, and make 2 copies of it.

One copy will be attached to the container and the other will be kept in the records.

If the waste contains sharp objects, like broken vials or tools like scalpels, blades, needles, syringes, etc., exposed to radioactive substances, you can’t put them in the waste disposal container as is.

They first need to be contained in a separate cardboard container, which can then be disposed of in the solid radioactive waste container with other solids.

Liquid Radioactive Waste

If the liquid waste doesn’t meet the criteria of radioactive waste by the EPA, the liquid can be discarded and disposed of through the sanitary sewage system.

However, if the liquid waste meets the EPA hazardous material criteria, it must be disposed of carefully.

You’ll need a large glass container that isn’t larger than 1 gallon. You can’t use a plastic or steel container to dispose of liquid radioactive waste.

Pour in all the liquid radioactive waste into the glass container. Don’t fill it till the top. You’ve got to leave some space for thermal expansion of the liquid.

Once it’s full, close the container shut and paste one copy of the Radioactive Waste Disposal Form and keep one copy in the records.

If the liquid waste is a high-activity but short-lived substance, you’ll have to hold the container till the material has decayed to a considerable level before you can dispose of the container.

Gaseous Radioactive Waste

The release of gaseous radioactive waste has to be approved by the Radiation Safety Committee.

It shouldn’t exceed the unrestricted limit that has been specified in Part 900 at the point of release into the atmosphere.

Biological Radioactive Waste

Biological radioactive waste is anything (living organism or a system) that has been incorporated with a radioactive substance. It could be a plant, animal, cell culture, plant or animal parts, or microorganism.

Biological radioactive waste can’t be disposed of just like that. It first has to be homogenized into liquid waste.

If the liquid waste falls in the EPA category of non-hazardous radioactive waste, you can’t dispose of this liquid through the sanitary sewage system.

If the liquid is hazardous and has a short half-life, store the labeled container in a freeze till the substance’s radioactive activity has dissipated.

If the biological waste is animal tissue that contains hydrogen-3 or carbon-14, you can dispose of this material as non-radioactive biological waste, but this can’t be used to feed animals or humans.

What Can Happen If Radioactive Waste Isn’t Disposed Of Properly?

Strict EPA guidelines are in place for the disposal of radioactive waste. This is to ensure the radioactive waste doesn’t pose any risk to humans, animals, or plants during the time it’s still active.

There can be serious consequences of improper disposal of radioactive waste. Some of them are listed below:

Accidental Exposure

The biggest problem with radioactive waste disposal is the fact that the containers containing nuclear waste aren’t always disposed of in safe areas where they can’t harm humans or nature.

If radioactive waste isn’t disposed of properly, it can lead to serious accidental exposure. The material can leak out into the atmosphere and contaminate the air, water, and soil.

Animals and plants exposed to radioactive material can undergo genetic mutations that can reflect in many generations down the line.

Drinking water can also get contaminated and affect anyone who consumes it.

Health Consequences

Effects of radioactive material on human health are the most serious consequence of improper disposal of radioactive waste.

If humans get exposed to radioactive waste, they can develop serious health conditions like genetic mutation and cancers, among many other life-threatening conditions.

Closing Word

The fear around radioactive waste is real, for all the right reasons. If you aren’t careful about properly disposing of radioactive waste, you are only putting the world and its people at risk.

Handling, storing, and disposing of radioactive waste is a massive challenge.

With the increasing demand for nuclear energy, the amount of nuclear waste produced will only increase, and you’ve got to ensure you do it right!

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