Press kit: Radioactive waste management

What is radioactive waste? How is it managed? What solutions currently exist to solve the waste issue? This press kit addresses these questions and provides easy reference FAQs on the management of radioactive waste.

What is radioactive waste? | Types of radioactive waste | Storage | Transport | Disposal | Deep geological disposal programmes | Related NEA reports and publications | Related links

What is radioactive waste?

Radioactive waste is "...any material that contains a concentration of radionuclides greater than those deemed safe by national authorities and for which no use is foreseen” (International Atomic Energy Agency).

Most civil radioactive waste is produced by nuclear power generation, but a wide variety of sectors including medicine, agriculture, research, industry and education use radioisotopes and produce radioactive waste. The volume of radioactive waste, in comparison with industrial toxic waste, is relatively small.

Regardless of the future of nuclear power, the need to control and manage radioactive waste will persist for many decades. The objective of any radioactive waste management programme must be that undue burdens on future generations are avoided.

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Types of radioactive waste

The amount, type and physical form of radioactive waste varies considerably. Some forms of radioactive waste need only be stored for a relatively short period of time while their radioactivity naturally decays to safe levels. Others remain radioactive for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Broadly speaking, there exist three types of radioactive waste: low-level waste (LLW), intermediate-level waste (ILW) and high-level waste (HLW). The distinction is made depending on the level of radioactivity and the length of time the waste remains hazardous.

LLW and ILW may be further subdivided into categories according to the half-lives of the radionuclides they contain (the half-life of a radioactive isotope is the time it takes for half of any given number of atoms to decay). "Short-lived" waste decaying in less than 30 years and "long-lived" waste taking more than 30 years to decay.

Low-level waste (LLW)

Definitions of what constitutes LLW and ILW vary from country to country, but typically LLW comprises such materials as shoe covers, lab coats, cleaning cloths, paper towels, etc., that have been used in an area where radioactive material is present. Low-level waste can normally be handled using rubber gloves and without particular shielding. This type of waste can be either short-lived or long-lived, however short-lived waste accounts for most of the volume of LLW. Much of the waste generated during the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant is managed as LLW or even “very low-level waste”.

About 90 percent of the volume of radioactive waste generated in the world each year is LLW, although it contains only about 1 percent of the total radioactivity.

Intermediate-level waste (ILW)

ILW usually requires special precautions during handling to limit radiation exposures. Some forms of ILW need long-term isolation because of the long-lived radionuclides that they contain. Typical examples of ILW are spent ion-exchange resins (used in the clean-up of radioactive liquids), incinerator ash and fuel cladding.

High-level waste (HLW)

High-level radioactive waste (HLW) refers to the highly radioactive waste requiring shielding and permanent isolation from people's environment. Typically this is the spent nuclear fuel produced by nuclear power plants. Most of these materials also need a longer period of cooling.

Although the relative amount of HLW is small with respect to the total volume of radioactive waste produced in nuclear power programmes, it contains up to 99 percent of the radioactivity. While the half-lives required for the radioactivity of HLW to decay completely may be up to a million years, it typically takes about 10 000 years for the radioactivity of such waste to decay to the level which would have been generated by the original ore from which the nuclear fuel was produced (should this ore never have been mined).

Radioactive waste in perspective

The current global waste production rate is 8 000 – 10 000 million tonnes per year (excluding overburden from mining and mineral extraction wastes), of which about 400 million tonnes per year is hazardous waste and about 0.4 million tonnes per year is radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and their fuel cycle support facilities (excluding mining and extraction wastes). Compared with industrial toxic and hazardous waste, the volume of radioactive waste from nuclear power generation is therefore relatively small.

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Storage of radioactive waste

Radioactive waste must be safely stored pending shipment, processing or disposal. "Short-term" storage is provided at many facilities before the waste is shipped off-site for treatment or disposal. In other cases, radioactive waste may be placed in "long-term" storage to allow the level of radioactivity in the waste to decay. If it is intended to retrieve the waste at a later date it is considered stored, rather than in final disposal. Waste storage is not an alternative to disposal; rather it is a step in the management strategy leading to final disposal.

When a disposal site is available, ILW and LLW can be sent there directly at regular intervals. If not, interim storage in a structure above ground is necessary. For HLW and spent nuclear fuel, it has always been recognised that interim storage to permit decay of radiation and heat generation is necessary.

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Transport of radioactive waste

Because of the low volume (compared with other industrial processes) of waste produced and the special processing and disposal methods required, it is often more economical to transport radioactive waste to central processing, storage or disposal facilities. All such transport must be carried out in accordance with the relevant national and international model regulations (the ADR for road transport, the ADN for inland waterways, the RID for rail transport, the IMO dangerous goods code for sea transport and the ICAO technical instructions for air transport)[1]. The transboundary movements of radioactive waste in Europe are also subject to European Union regulations.

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Disposal of radioactive waste

Disposal is the final step in radioactive waste management. Usually it is understood to mean putting waste away without any intention of retrieving it, without the need for long-term surveillance or monitoring.

Short-lived waste

Low-level and short-lived intermediate-level wastes are already being disposed to repositories in many countries. On a volumetric basis, some three quarters of all the radioactive waste created since the start of the nuclear industry has already been sent for disposal. In the case of some LLW from nuclear reactors, medical applications and research, the half-lives of the radioactive substances in the waste are short enough that effective disposal is achievable by deposition in supervised near-surface vaults, whilst decay takes place.

Long-lived waste

The current preferred option for eventual disposal of HLW is emplacement in repositories deep underground in well-chosen geological conditions. In general, the geological disposal concept involves treating the waste in order to achieve a suitable physical and chemical form, packaging it inside long-lived engineered barriers emplaced deep underground, and sealing these facilities with appropriate materials. In these underground surroundings, as opposed to the surface environment, conditions remain stable over the long periods needed to allow the radioactivity to decay to a sufficiently low level.

Geological disposal

“Geological disposal is technically feasible; it can be made safe for current and future generations; there are no credible alternatives to geological disposal; and, whatever further technical advances may be gained, the need for geological disposal of some classes of waste will persist. Geological disposal also represents an ethically correct approach (taking responsibility within the generation producing the waste) and it should be pursued now proportionately with each country’s situation.”

- Radioactive Waste Management Committee (RWMC) of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, 2008.

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Deep geological disposal programmes

Three deep geological disposal facilities – in Finland, France and Sweden – are scheduled to start operating between 2020 and 2025. These projects are currently the most advanced disposal programmes in the world.

In Finland, construction is underway on the ONKALO facility in the municipality of Eurajoki. This Underground Rock Characterisation Facility is being built for the final disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Posiva Oy started construction in 2004, and the facility is scheduled to begin accepting spent fuel between 2020 and 2025.

Located in the Meuse/ Haute-Marne region in the east of France, the Industrial Geological Storage Centre (Centre industriel de stockage géologique, or Cigéo) is scheduled to start operating in 2025. The facility will accept HLW and long-lived ILW. The beginning of construction is scheduled for the year 2017.

The final repository for Sweden’s spent nuclear fuel is set to be built in Forsmark in the municipality of Ӧsthammar. The site was selected in 2009 and applications have been submitted to build the final repository. The project is managed by Swedish nuclear fuel and waste management company SKB, and the facility is due to be completed between 2020 and 2025.

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Related NEA reports and publications

Radioactive Waste in Perspective (2010)
Large volumes of hazardous wastes are produced each year, however only a small proportion of them are radioactive. While disposal options for hazardous wastes are generally well established, some types of hazardous waste face issues similar to those for radioactive waste and also require long-term disposal arrangements. The objective of this NEA study is to put the management of radioactive waste into perspective, firstly by contrasting features of radioactive and hazardous wastes, together with their management policies and strategies, and secondly by examining the specific case of the wastes resulting from carbon capture and storage of fossil fuels. The study seeks to give policy makers and interested stakeholders a broad overview of the similarities and differences between radioactive and hazardous wastes and their management strategies.

Reversibility of Decisions and Retrievability of Radioactive Waste (2012)
The most widely adopted solution for the definitive management of high-level radioactive waste involves its emplacement in deep geological repositories whose safety should not depend on the active presence of man. In this context, national programmes are considering whether and how to incorporate the concepts of reversibility of decisions and retrievability of waste, including to what extent retrieval can or should be facilitated at the design stage of a repository, and if so over what timescales. This brochure delivers the key findings and observations of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) project on reversibility and retrievability conducted from 2007 to 2011 with the participation of 15 countries and 2 international organisations. It outlines the activities undertaken and points to further resources. While focused on deep geological disposal, the pragmatic and precise information provided may also be pertinent to sub-surface disposal and to decision-making processes more generally. This brochure, and related project documents, will be of interest to technical and policy professionals and civil society stakeholders concerned with radioactive waste disposal.

More than Just Concrete Realities: The Symbolic Dimension of Radioactive Waste Management (2010)
Key concepts of radioactive waste management, such as safety, risk, reversibility and retrievability, carry different meanings for the technical community and for non-technical stakeholders. Similarly, socio-economic concepts, including community, landscape and benefit packages, are interpreted differently by diverse societal groups. This report presents key issues and examples in order to build awareness of the importance of symbols and symbolism in communicating about perceptions and interpretations. It adds to the recognition that dialogue amongst stakeholders is shaped by dimensions of meaning that reach beyond dictionary definitions and are grounded in tradition and social conventions. A better understanding of these less obvious or conspicuous realities should help find additional ways of creating constructive relationships amongst stakeholders.

Partnering for Long-term Management of Radioactive Waste (2010)
Evolution and Current Practice in Thirteen Countries
National radioactive waste management programmes are in various phases of siting facilities and rely on distinct technical approaches for different categories of waste. In all cases, it is necessary for institutional actors and the potential or actual host community to build a meaningful, workable relationship. Partnership approaches are effective in achieving a balance between the requirements of fair representation and competent participation. With host community support, they also help ensure the desirable combination of a licensable site and management concept as well as a balance between compensation, local control and development opportunities. This report provides up-to-date information on experience with local partnership arrangements in 13 countries. The characteristics, advantages and aims of community partnerships are also described in addition to the concept's evolution over the past decade.

Radioactive Waste Repositories and Host Regions: Envisaging the Future Together (2010)
Synthesis of the FSC National Workshop and Community Visit, Bar-le-Duc, France, 7-9 April 2009
This 7th Forum on Stakeholder Confidence (FSC) workshop focused on the territorial implementation of France’s high-level and long-lived intermediate-level waste management programme. Sessions addressed the French historical and legislative context, public information, reversibility, environmental monitoring and the issue of memory. Amongst the participants were representatives of local and regional governments, civil society organisations, universities, waste management agencies, institutional authorities and delegates from 13 countries. This report provides a synthesis of the workshop deliberations.

Fostering a Durable Relationship between a Waste Management Facility and its Host Community (2007)
Adding Value through Design and Process
Any long-term radioactive waste management project is likely to last decades to centuries.  It requires a physical site and will impact in a great variety of ways on the surrounding community over that whole period.  The societal durability of an agreed solution is essential to success.  This report identifies a number of design elements (including functional, cultural and physical features) that favour a durable relationship between the facility and its host community by improving prospects for quality of life across generations.

Radioactive Waste Management Programmes in OECD/NEA Member Countries  (2006)
These fact sheets present the radioactive waste management programmes of 20 OECD/NEA member countries. They include information about the sources, types and quantities of waste as well as how and by whom they are managed. References for further information are also provided for each country.

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Related links

The International Atomic Energy Agency Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle & Waste Technology (NEFW)

European Commission  

The World Nuclear Transport Institute (WNTI) - Internet portal of links to radioactive waste management resources.

Belgium ONDRAF / NIRAS Belgian Agency for Radioactive Waste and Enriched Fissile Materials
Canada NWMO Nuclear Waste Management Organization
Czech Republic RAWRA Radioactive Waste Repository Authority
Finland Posiva Oy The Finnish expert organisation responsible for the preparations for, and subsequent implementation of, spent fuel disposal.
France Andra French radioactive waste management agency


BfS Federal Office for Radiation Protection
Hungary PURAM Public Limited Company for Radioactive Waste Management
Japan NUMO Nuclear Waste Management Organization
Netherlands COVRA Central Organisation for Radioactive Waste
Slovak Republic UJD Nuclear Regulatory Authority of the Slovak Republic
Slovenia ARAO Agency for Radwaste Management
Spain Enresa Spanish radioactive waste management company
Sweden SKB Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company
Switzerland Nagra National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste
United Kingdom NDA Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, responsible for implementing government policy on the long-term management of nuclear waste.

[1] ADR - European Agreement concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road; ADN - European Agreement concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Inland Waterways; RID - Regulations concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Rail; IMO - International Maritime Organisation; ICAO - International Civil Aviation Organization.

Last reviewed: 7 September 2012