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Nuclear waste

One of the major problems with nuclear power, especially fission reactors, is the disposal of the radioactive waste. This waste is one of the things that might stop the development of nuclear power because of political pressure about the possible damage to the environment.

Nuclear waste is usually divided into three types:
High level , intermediate level and low level
depending on the amount of radioactivity present in the material.

Low level waste

Low level waste (LLW) is things such as gloves, cast off clothing, over shoes etc.

This is packed into 200 litre steel containers about the size of a kitchen fridge - squashed to about a fifth of its original volume and then packed into 3 cubic metre boxes

Intermediate level waste

Intermediate level waste (ILW) is things such as fuel containers.

This is packed in 500 litre steel drums

In future ILW from the decommissioning of nuclear power stations will be stored in 12 cubic metre steel boxes and the spaces between items packed with concrete

It is thought that there is about 50 000 cubic metres of ILW stored in Britain at the moment

High-level waste

The most radioactive is the high level waste (HLW), and the government has decided to store it for 50 years before it is disposed of. HLW is the responsibility of UKAEA and BNFL and is mainly irradiated fuel taken from reactors. It is not only very radioactive it also very hot when it is taken from the reactor.

Fuel has been reprocessed to take out uranium and plutonium still leaves a very toxic waste behind. Some of the material contains isotopes with very long half lives so the waste will be radioactive for years after it is taken out of the reactor.

This is being converted into glass blocks for storage. High level waste is about 1000 times more radioactive than ILW, and about 100 cubic metres of HLW is produced every year.

In the United States waste from the defence programme was called military waste and was treated separately from civilian wastes.

One of the big problems is that there are only a few places in the world where waste can be reprocessed safely. This means that waste has to be transported round the globe by ship to countries that can do this. There has been enormous concern about this and many political protests about countries reprocessing other countries' nuclear waste material.


© Keith Gibbs 2020