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Nuclear Waste
by Emily Filleman
Physical Geology
Fall 2009

Disposal of Nuclear Waste

What is nuclear waste and why is it important that it is disposed of properly?

     Nuclear waste is waste with any amount of radioactive material. This waste is no longer of any use and is typically found in nuclear power plants, hospitals, or laboratories. Exposure to radioactive materials may result in cancer, genetic mutations, or even death which is why it needs to be disposed of properly.

Photo courtesy of

What types of nuclear waste are there?

     Nuclear waste is normally divided into three main categories: low-level, intermediate-level or transuranic, and high-level.

·              Low-level waste is the most common type of nuclear waste. It consists of any items that have come into contact with radioactive materials or have possibly become radioactive. Low-level waste includes items such as protective clothing and cleaning equipment used in a nuclear power plant, old hospital tools and machinery including needles, and laboratory instruments.

       Photo courtesy of

·              Intermediate-level or Transuranic wastes consist mostly of waste used to make nuclear weapons or recycled nuclear fuel that was used to produce electricity. 

·              High-level waste is mainly nuclear waste that was used as fuel inside a nuclear reactor in a power plant.

How are these wastes stored? 

Photo courtesy of

·              Low-level wastes are less radioactive then intermediate-level and high-level wastes making them safer to move to different locations. They have shorter half lives (the amount of time it takes for the radiation levels to decrease) meaning they do not have to be stored as long either. The majority of low-level wastes are being stored above the ground in places they were used, including inside nuclear power plants, hospitals, and laboratories. They have also been buried slightly beneath the earth’s surface.

·              Intermediate-level or Transuranic, are usually stored at the nuclear power plant for a number of years inside large bins set in water. This is to allow the radiation levels to decrease so transportation is less dangerous. The majority of the waste is still stored on-site.

Cutaway view of drums containing transuranic waste. (Photo courtesy of Department of Energy/WIPP.)

·              High-level wastes are hazardous because they are highly radioactive and remain at a very high temperature for a long period of time. They have long half-lives, some possibly over 100,000 years. High-level wastes like intermediate-level wastes are normally stored on site.


What other methods of disposal have been considered?

     Throughout the years there have been numerous additional ideas as to how to properly dispose of nuclear waste. These methods are not currently used due to their potential hazards. The most popular is to bury the waste deep underground. Choosing a safe place for deep underground storage is not an easy task. People have to take into account the surrounding geological landscape. Earthquakes and water flowing through the area could cause the underground storage to become unsafe. A plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is currently in the works.

Picture of 
one of the immense tunnels which have been carved into Yucca Mountain to store 
nuclear waste

Photo showing storage tunnel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada courtesy of

     Another method is to bury the waste deep into the ocean floor which presents the danger of the waste leaking out of the container and into the ocean. Sending the waste into space creates the risk of a malfunction while the nuclear waste is transported out of the earth’s atmosphere, which may cause it to be released back on the earth’s surface. Encasing the waste inside huge glaciers or recycling it have been considered as well. 



Works Cited,Types_of_Radioactive_Waste