Waste categories

Spent nuclear fuel and reprocessing plant waste represent the most dangerous of radioactive wastes but there are other types too. In the USA these first two types of waste are categorised as high-level waste8 while reminder of the waste from nuclear power plant operations is classified as low-level waste. There is also a category called transuranic waste which is waste containing traces of elements with atomic numbers greater than that of uranium (92). Low-level wastes are further subdivided into classes depending on the amount of radioactivity per unit volume they contain.

In the UK there are three categories of waste, high level, intermediate level and low level. High level includes spent fuel and reprocessing plant waste, intermediate level is mainly the metal cases from fuel rods and low-level waste constitutes the remainder. Normally both high- and intermediate-level waste require some form of screening to protect workers while low-level waste can be handled without a protective radioactive screen.

High-level wastes are expected to remain radioactive for thousands of years. It is these wastes which cause the greatest concern and for which some storage or disposal solution is most urgently required. But these wastes form a very small part of the nuclear waste generated by the industry. Most is low-level waste. Even so it too must be disposed of safely. Low-level waste can arise from many sources. Anything within a nuclear power plant that has even the smallest exposure to any radioactive material must be considered contaminated. One of the greatest sources of such waste is the fabric of a nuclear power plant itself.

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