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Radioactive Waste

Any occupational, scientific, defense-related or educational pursuit, involving the utilization or manufacture of radioactive material, produces radioactive waste as a by-product. High in toxicity, radioactive waste, emitting nuclear radiation, can remain potent for thousands of years. These attributes of waste generated by radioactivity make them particularly hazardous for human beings and ecosystems. They can cause life-threatening diseases in human beings and noxious pollution in the environment. Radioactive waste may exist in solid, liquid or gaseous state, with a distinct gradation in terms of radioactivity. High level radioactive waste is generated from nuclear plants, used for producing commercial electricity, or nuclear reactors for the manufacture of weapons. Low level radioactive waste includes objects contaminated with radioactivity in nuclear facilities, and wastes generated from research and medical facilities. The management of radioactive by-products and implementation of safe disposal mechanisms is a pressing concern for governments and regulatory authorities, across the world.

What is radioactive waste?

Waste may be defined as any material, substance or residue, that is no longer useful or desirable, and consequently eliminated after the completion of a process. Radioactive waste, would refer to any solid, liquid or gaseous discharge emitted as a by-product of processes involving the use of a radionuclide, such as Uranium or Plutonium. Radioactive elements have existed in nature through out time, generating background levels of radiation. Human beings have added to the reservoir of radioactivity and the volume of unwanted radioactive emissions through civilian and military activities, involving the nuclear fission of radioactive isotopes. The processes involving the use of radionuclide may include fission of uranium and plutonium in nuclear reactors and/or power plants, for the generation of commercial electricity, and also the production of nuclear weapons. Radioactive waste may also be generated as a by-product of research work in laboratories, and from industrial and medical facilities. The high levels of toxicity of radioactive materials make it imperative to consider contaminated test tubes, rags and virtually anything that comes in contact with these radioactive materials, as radioactive waste. Carcasses of animals treated with radioactive materials for research in laboratories are considered as radioactive waste also. Radioactive waste may also be produced as a result of human activities of extraction of uranium, or as a by-product of naturally occurring radioactive materials. Radioactive waste is a cause of serious concern as they emit nuclear radiation. The process of radioactivity imparts its characteristics to the by-products, so that the radioactive materials are recycled for further use in defense programs. Due to the hazardous nature of radioactive residues, safe handling, transportation, and disposal of these substances are essential, so that human beings and the biosphere are not adversely impacted.

Types and sources of radioactive waste

The Very Low Level Waste (VLLW) usually forms the exempt category of radioactive offcourings, with no specific directives on disposal. Very low level radioactive waste is a by-product of manufacturing in the coal, petro-chemical, fertilizer and construction industries. Since they do not entail health risks to humans, or adversely affect the environmental well-being, they are usually disposed of with household refuse. The next grade of radioactive offcourings involves Low Level Waste (LLW), produced by medical, research and industrial facilities, along with nuclear fuel-cycle facilities. Usually LLW comprises of rags, paper, and plastics, radioactivated in these facilities. According to World Nuclear Association LLW consists of 90% of the volume of waste produced from processes involving radioactivity, whereas its contribution to the total radioactivity is 1%. Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) is higher in radioactivity than Low Level Waste. ILW requires shielding for handling and transportation of waste generated by radioactivity. Statistically, ILW constitutes 7% of the volume and 4% of radioactivity of the total waste generated by radioactive processes. The ILW comprises of liquid or semi-solid residues from industries and refineries and contaminated radioactive materials derived from the dismantling /deactivation of nuclear reactors. The High Level category of Waste (HLW) is produced in the process of reprocessing the spent fuel, used in nuclear reactors for electricity generation, defense programs, scientific research and industrial facilities. HLW comprises of products of nuclear fission and transuranic waste. Transuranic waste is generated by defense facilities for manufacture of nuclear weapons and mostly consists of Plutonium. They have a half-life of more than 20,000 years and are highly toxic. The residues of Uranium mining contains radioactive elements, such as Radium, Molybdenum, and Thorium. Known as uranium mill tailings, these by-products translate to health hazards for humans, animals, and plant ecosystems. Other sources include waste from testing of nuclear weapons and waste generated from Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material by human activities of ore-extraction.

Hazards of radioactive waste

Radioactive waste, emitting nuclear radiation, may have a deleterious impact on the environments of our planet Earth. Human beings are exposed to ionizing radiation from radioactive material naturally found on earth's surface, as also from the rays of sun and the stars. However, the magnitude of such background radiation is inconsequential. But radioactive waste emitted as effluents from nuclear reactors have substantially higher levels of radioactivity. The ingestion of toxicity from radioactive waste may occur by inhalation or though water and food. The degree of hazard depends on their permitted annual intake, availability, source and the rate of decay of the radioactive residues. The extent of physiological damage from radioactive waste depends on the dosage and duration of exposure to it. In acute exposure, implying exposure to large doses of radiation within a short duration, the effect may range from radiation burns, to radiation sickness, and deaths from radiation poisoning. They manifest themselves within hours to a couple of months. Chronic exposure, implying lower doses of radiation spread over a longer period of time, may lead to cancers and cataracts. The ionizing radiation damages the cells by breaking the bonds between molecules, altering the DNA, affecting the normal cycle of cell repair and renewal in human body. The effects of exposure to radioactive waste can either be somatic or genetic. Somatic effect implies the potential of the ionizing radiation to affect the exposed person. Genetic alterations affect the future generations and are passed down from parents to offspring. Radioactive waste may cause teratogenic mutations, adversely impacting the growth and development of the fetus. Radioactive waste may contaminate the air, water, pastures, and potentially be absorbed by animals or plant biospheres. The waste generated from activities involving nuclear fission could potentially make inroads into the human food chains, and contaminate them.

Effective management and safe disposal of radioactive waste

Effective radioactive waste management involves the processes encompassing the entire cycle of waste generation to safe disposal, while safeguarding human and environmental well being. It involves the range of operations, including reduction of the volume of waste, safe packaging, transportation and disposal, that is environmentally sound, and protective of human life. The location and safety of the sites chosen for the management of waste material generated by the processes of radioactivity, adequate funding, and technical knowledge, are significant for implementing environment friendly radioactive waste management techniques. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a United Nations agency established in 1957, is responsible for guiding its member countries towards safety standards, and principles and directives on radioactive waste management. IAEA aims at limiting/minimizing the radioactive emissions and effluents. The objectives for radioactive waste management include due protection to humans, plants, and animal habitats, and the control of trans-boundary contamination. The reduction of impact and liability on future generations is emphasized. IAEA and the member states agree upon establishing national frameworks for management of radioactive emissions, assigning tasks and responsibilities to the appropriate regulatory authorities, so that the chain of production, handling, storage, transportation, and disposal of waste generated from processes involving radioactivity are inter-connected. The properties of radioactive elements are taken into consideration, for an appropriate estimation of their management. The waste from radionuclide with shorter half-life is allowed to decay with time. As an alternative, they are diluted to reduce the hazards to their surroundings. Radioactive elements with longer half-lives are concentrated by osmosis, precipitation or evaporation, for storage or subsequent recycling/disposal. Low level radioactive waste and transuranic waste are buried in landfills. The high level radioactive waste is reduced in volume and shielded by natural and man-made barriers, such as leak-proof packaging and isolated disposal sites. They are stored in water bodies, or dry chambers, in facilities until they cool down, prior to safe disposal in isolated deep geological repositories, such as the earth's crust and the seabed/sub-seabed.

Conclusion

Radioactive waste, generated by military and civilian activities, poses a threat to humans, their habitat and all other forms of life on Earth. The effluents and residues produced from the processes of nuclear fission, utilized in the generation of commercial electricity, and defense programs, are categorized as radioactive waste. Emission of nuclear radiation makes them hazardous to humans and the entire biosphere. Exposure to nuclear radiation, in doses and duration, above the permissible limits, may lead to cancers, birth defects, cataracts, radiation poisoning and deaths. Radioactive iodine, strontium and cesium, found in radioactive waste may cause hypothyroidism, bone cancers and potentially damage the tissues of human body. It is imperative to isolate the waste generated by radioactivity from human habitats and ecosystems to prevent the highly toxic radioactive contamination. Quantity control on generation of radioactive residues, safe handling, transportation, storage and disposal are important. Stringent national regulations and international consensus on the methods thereby adopted are also significant. Geological disposal is by far the most accepted disposal method, internationally. Ethically sound and socially acceptable radioactive waste management strategies, with the primary focus on the health of human beings and environmental well-being, form the foundation to a harmonious co-existence between nuclear energy/power and the safety of our biosphere.

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