Modern society uses ionizing radiation, a form of energy abundant in nature, to provide hundreds of beneficial uses, ranging from smoke detectors and industrial gauges to nuclear medicine technologies and electricity generation. Many uses of radioactive materials result in the production of commercial low-level radioactive waste (LLW).
LLW is solid material. It includes such items as gloves and other protective clothing, glass and plastic laboratory supplies, machine parts and tools, nuclear power plant equipment, water purification filters and resins, and disposable medical items that have come in contact with radioactive materials. Commercial LLW does not include used fuel from nuclear power plants or waste from U.S. defense programs.
As its name indicates, LLW contains low levels of radioactivity. The radioactive material in low-level waste emits the same types of radiation that everyone receives from nature. The radioactivity in most low-level waste fades to natural background levels in months or years. Virtually all of it diminishes to natural levels in less than 500 years.
Regulations established by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ensure that LLW is isolated from people and the environment.
LLW is safely transported under strict regulations established by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the NRC.
Under the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985, each state is required to provide disposal facilities for LLW generated within its borders. Disposal may be provided by the state alone or in cooperation with other states.
Beneficial Activities Create Low-Level Waste
Many socially beneficial activities use radioactive materials, producing low-level radioactive waste as an unavoidable byproduct. These activities include:
diagnosis and treatment of disease
testing of new pharmaceuticals
nondestructive testing of airplanes and bridges
hardening of materials like hardwood flooring
breeding of new varieties of seed with higher crop yields
eradication of insect pests
The 104 operating nuclear power plants produce about one-fifth of U.S. electricity without producing greenhouse gases or emissions regulated by the Clean Air Act. As a byproduct of their operation, these plants produce LLW.
The LLW from nuclear power plants accounts for half the volume and most of the radioactivity in LLW produced in the United States.
The remaining LLW is produced by several thousand other industrial facilities and institutions that use radioactive materials. They include medical research laboratories, hospitals, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, government and industrial research and development facilities, universities, and manufacturing facilities.
The radioactivity in approximately 95 percent of all LLW fades to background levels within 100 years or less, the rest in less than 500 years.
Classification of LLW
NRC regulations separate low-level radioactive waste into three classes based on the concentration, half-life and types of radionuclides it contains. The NRC sets requirements for packaging and disposal of each class of waste.
Class A low-level waste contains radionuclides with the lowest concentrations and the shortest half-lives.
About 95 percent of all low-level waste is categorized as Class A. The radioactivity in this class of LLW fades to background levels within 100 years.
Classes B and C contain greater concentrations of radionuclides with longer half-lives, fading to background levels in less than 500 years. They must meet stricter disposal requirements than Class A waste.
Under federal law, low-level waste that exceeds the requirements for Class C waste is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Energy. This material accounts for less than 1 percent of all low-level waste.
Many government agencies are responsible for ensuring that the public and the environment are carefully protected.
The NRC licenses and regulates all U.S. nuclear power plants and regulates how they handle low-level waste.
Other facilities that manage or dispose of low-level waste are licensed and regulated by either the NRC or one of the 37 “agreement states” that have made arrangements with the NRC to regulate LLW. To qualify as an agreement state, it is necessary to set standards at least as stringent as the NRC’s and have the technical expertise to regulate effectively.
DOE has worked with the states to coordinate national planning of low-level waste management and to provide the states with technical assistance to develop new disposal sites. DOE maintains a national database on low-level waste disposal volumes and location.
The U.S. Geological Survey offers technical assistance with studies of hydrology and geology of proposed sites.
Under federal law, every state is ultimately responsible for providing disposal for the waste generated within its borders—by either in-state disposal, joining with other states to form a compact, or contracting with a state or compact that has a disposal facility.
The U.S. Department of Transportation and the NRC regulate the shipment of radioactive materials, including LLW.
The NRC established technical requirements for low-level waste disposal sites that include provisions on avoiding natural resources in the area, such as wildlife preserves. The site also must be sufficiently isolated from groundwater and surface water and must not be in an area affected by geological activity like volcanoes or earthquakes. All low-level waste disposal sites use a series of natural and engineered barriers to contain radiation.
Four disposal facilities accept low-level radioactive waste:
Barnwell, S.C. Barnwell is licensed by South Carolina to receive wastes in Classes A, B and C. The facility accepts waste from Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina.
Richland, Wash. The facility is licensed by the state of Washington to receive wastes in Classes A, B and C. It accepts waste from states that belong to the Northwest Compact (Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming) and the Rocky Mountain Compact (Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico).
Clive, Utah. Clive is licensed by the state of Utah to accept Class A waste only. The facility accepts waste from all regions of the United States.
Andrews County, Texas. Licensed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the facility opened in 2012. It accepts Classes A, B and C low-level radioactive waste from Texas and Vermont and from the federal government.