How is Nuclear Waste Categorized

Radiation is the output of a natural and spontaneous process. Radioactivity is the term describing how unstable atomic nuclei degrade. A moderate amount of radiation is part of everyday life. The exposure considered the average background or ambient radiation is quite low, about 300 millirems or 0.3 rems per year [2]. Through nuclear engineering, we create commercial and military radiological material in quantity for consumption in a controlled nuclear fission process. The development of manmade nuclear material has the collateral effect of increasing the overall amount of irradiated trash needing to be managed once the fuel is spent.

Nuclear waste is the general term for the by-products of processes associated with humanly constructed uses for radioactive materials. Some elements decay naturally over a short period of time, while others must be avoided for tens of thousands of years. Limited mitigation and storage options exist, targeted to specific types of post-consumption trash. Both the nuclear energy industry and the nuclear weapons complex create high-level waste, in the form of spent nuclear fuel [2]. The controlled nuclear reaction in a reactor vessel consumes the usable fuel in approximately one-quarter to one-third of the fuel rods each year. These rods are replaced with new ones, and the spent fuel rods are placed in temporary storage, pending availability of a permanent repository, such as the one in the U.S. required under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) [3]. Safety in storage is paramount.

I know that the American people share my deep belief that if a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all; and equally, that if hope exists in the mind of one nation, that hope should be shared by all.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower [4]

The most stringent management controls in the nuclear waste stream relate to high-level radioactive material, but a second general type of post-consumption waste exists. Low-level waste either contains very small quantities of radioactive material, or is created through contamination by proximity to or contact with radioactive material. The luminescent watch dials common in the first half of the 20th century are classified as low-level waste. The clothes, gloves, and cleaning materials worn or used by workers in the immediate vicinity of nuclear reactors, residues from treatment of reactor water, and laboratory materials employed in nuclear medicine are also considered low-level waste. Ordinary waste that is discarded with contaminated waste becomes contaminated thereby. Low-level waste varies in risk, depending on the radioactive nature of the particles.

In addition to the basic categories of high- and low-level waste, several other types of waste describe radioactive materials, based on their origin. These included transuranic waste, mill tailings, mixed waste, orphaned waste, and accelerator-produced radioactive or technologically enhanced naturally occurring material (APRM or TENORM). Defense-related research and weaponry results in transuranic waste, often referenced more generally as high-level waste. Mill tailings are uranium mining residuals. Mixed waste contains radiological and hazardous chemical waste. Orphaned waste is the term used for discarded, unlabeled drums found in scrap yards that are determined to be radioactive. Particle accelerators produce APRM or TENORM [5].

The total waste stream can only be estimated, since there exist both overt and covert sources of irradiated trash. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT, adopted June 12, 1968, entered into force March 5, 1970, and reviewed at conferences in 1995 and 2000) hoped "to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to foster the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving general and complete disarmament" [6]. The first goal has been moderately successful, with the number of nation-states known to possess nuclear weapons remaining low. However, other states desire mastery over nuclear technology, as do stateless actors who might be regarded as terrorists, insurgents, or participants in tribal, civil, or global war, depending on the ideology of the observer. North Korea and Iran are two nations openly and actively engaged in nuclear development despite international pressure to cease. And while the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitors and inspects nuclear facilities, it does not monitor military installations in the U.S. or other acknowledged nuclear states. Though the stockpile of weapons has been reduced, the third goal of complete disarmament may be unattainable.

We have some, if limited, information about the quantity and location of nuclear waste. For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reported in 2006 that over 50,000 metric tons are stored at more than 100 above-ground sites in 39 states with an additional 2000 metric tons produced each year [7]. In its 2004 report to Congress, the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (the agency responsible for the Yucca Mountain Project) mapped the temporary storage sites for the 50,000 metric tons from commercial reactors, and also noted requirements for 2500 metric tons from nuclear weapons production and 50 metric tons of extra plutonium no longer required in the post-Soviet era [8].

Military installations worldwide produce substantial quantities of nuclear waste, with little civilian control or public oversight. While security clearance within any given military complex allows a certain degree of knowledge, this does not authorize the release of information to the public. Even if a researcher or a member of the public were to somehow gain security clearance, it does not resolve the information asymmetry, as whatever understanding is developed cannot be brought into public discourse. Nor does one nation's clearance ensure access to other military complexes of allies or opponents. So it is not a simple thing to accurately and completely discern the type and quantity of irradiated materials. As one example of the complexity of the relationship between intelligence and decision making, consider the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Bush Administration became convinced that Saddam Hussein's government was operating a credible nuclear program, based in part on internal intelligence, despite contrary reports from IAEA inspectors who had not found evidence of recent activity [9]. It has also been demonstrated through examination of government-operated facilities such as Hanford in Washington state [10] or the Savannah River Site (where 11 of 16 tanks leaked) [11,12], that within military systems, environmental management of hazardous material is of lower priority than security controls; prevention of site contamination is peripheral to primary weapon development or research interests [13].

Since 2003, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has sought release from environmental rules, claiming that these regulations and the existing process for specific instance exception interfere with training and readiness. It has received an interim exemption from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and a broad exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act and from portions of the Endangered Species Act. Exemptions from the Clean Air Act and the Solid Waste Disposal Act that have been sought have not yet been approved by Congress, though DOD argues that existing federal regulation considers used munitions solid waste only after DOD removes them from where they land. While not specific to radiological waste, this exemplifies the potential amount of hidden contaminated waste that is dispersed [14].

In the post-Soviet era of small-scale warfare in theaters around the world, some complaints have focused on an emerging and controversial dispersal of minimally radioactive material in the form of depleted uranium (DU) ordnance [15]. Using uranium alloys or DU in bullets makes them heavier and thereby more powerful; since this spent ammunition is left in place at the end of the battle, area populations are concerned about possible long term negative effects [16,17]. The U.S. government, for one, remains unconvinced that DU constitutes a hazard to civilians, and limits its hazard assessment to military personnel injured with DU shrapnel [18].

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