The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is recognized as the world's leading organization dealing with radioactive waste. Under Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA along with its Member States and partner organizations is forging ahead to define and activate further stages in international cooperation to conquer the issue of radioactive waste in order to protect public health, safety and the environment in which we live.
Radioactive waste management has been an ongoing and ever-increasing problem across the globe. As a result, the IAEA has established the following as important aspects to the issue at hand: general progress has been made over the years, particularly in the establishment of geological depositories for radioactive waste in Finland and the United States, and in the creation of the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management; long-term surface storage is becoming a reality over final disposal in many countries despite its unsustainability; the inability to ensure long-term safety of radioactive waste is a prominent concern, especially when not isolated from the human environment; the current lack of knowledge pertaining to the radioactive waste and its hazards needs to be addressed, thus effective communication among all member states and their constituents must be emphasized.
It is clear that radioactive waste management cannot be achieved solely through technical means, rather by a balance of such with an interactive socio-political approach. It is the duty of Member States to work within the IAEA to establish and raise current levels of safety and waste management approaches, keeping in mind already-existing mechanisms of a legally binding convention and a set of internally agreed-upon safety standards.
Radioactive Waste, more commonly referred to as radwaste, comes in three different levels of severity. Low-level waste is generated from hospitals, laboratories and industrial complexes, as well as the nuclear fuel cycle. Items, such as paper, rags, tools, clothing and filters, contain small amounts of primarily short-lived radioactivity. These items do not present danger upon physical contact, but must be disposed of alternatively to regular garbage. Low-level waste is usually buried in shallow landfill sites and often compacted or incinerated in a closed container to reduce its volume. The largest of the three, low-level waste comprises 90% of the total volume of radwaste, but only 1% of the radioactivity.
Intermediate-level waste presents a more dangerous level of radioactivity and may require special shielding. Chemical sludges, reactor components and contaminated materials from reactor decommissioning represent examples of intermediate-level waste. For disposal, intermediate-level waste may be solidified in concrete or bitumen. Short-lived waste, from reactors, is buried but long-lived waste from reprocessing nuclear fuel is disposed of underground. It represents 7% of the volume and 4% of the radioactivity for all radwaste.
High-level waste, as its name suggests, poses the greatest threat. The fuel itself and the principal waste from reprocessing the spent fuel are categorized here. Comprising only 3% volume of all radwaste, it contains 95% of the radioactivity. It generates excessive amounts of heat and requires intensive cooling in addition to special shielding during handling and transport. If spent fuel is reprocessed, the separated waste is vitrified by incorporating it into borosilicate glass and sealed in stainless steel containers for deep-underground disposal. Despite its high radioactivity level, if reprocessed, approximately 97% of the spent fuel can be recycled, leaving a mere 3% of high-level waste. This 3% of high-level waste amounts to about 700 kilograms per year that needs to be isolated from the environment for a long period of time. France and the United Kingdom are two examples of countries that house successful commercial reprocessing plants.
The nuclear fuel cycle, or the process of producing electricity from nuclear materials, produces radioactive wastes during all of its stages. The cycle's stages are as follows: the mining and milling of the uranium ore; its processing and fabrication into nuclear fuel; its use in the reactor; the treatment of the spent fuel taken from the reactor after use; and lastly, the disposal of the waste. The cycle as a whole is divided into two major parts: the “front end”, starting with mining up to the use of uranium in the reactor; and the “back end”, the removal of spent fuel from the reactor and its subsequent treatment and disposal. The latter is where the majority of radioactive waste problems occur; more than 99% of the radioactivity is produced during this fission reaction and retained in the fuel rods.
The Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology (NEFW) is the subcommittee of the International Atomic Energy Agency charged with possessing the latest nuclear fuel cycle and waste management strategies and implementing safe, sustainable, cost efficient and environmentally sound activities in all Member States of the United Nations. Its activities comprise two sectors: the safe, secure, environmentally sound and cost effective nuclear fuel cycle activities associated with nuclear power and research reactors; and waste management strategies and technologies associated with all activities that generate radioactive waste, decommissioning of nuclear facilities and remediation of radioactive sites. The latter sector, the Waste Technology Section (WTS), is responsible for promoting the distribution of information and cooperative research to aid Member States in managing radioactive wastes resulting from the nuclear fuel cycle and from other nuclear applications.
Technologies already exist to safely dispose of radioactive wastes and it has been determined that governments are willing and committed to demonstrate disposal in an environmentally sound fashion. Under this premise, the United States created the world's first geological repository for types of radioactive waste in March of 1999. This Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), located outside of Carlsbad , New Mexico , houses waste to be safely contained and isolated for centuries. WIPP only takes defense wastes, thus the United States is pushing ahead for a repository site in Nevada for all of the nation's spent fuel.
Issues for the IAEA to address, debate and ultimately resolve are endless; however, there are numerous key components on which to focus regarding waste management. Safe and low-cost technologies for the pre-disposal and near-surface disposal of radioactive waste and disused sealed radiation sources, methods and technologies for decommissioning, environmental remediation and disposition of resulting residual radioactive materials, and finally facilitating the transfer of technology and information exchange comprise the challenging, yet necessary facets to effective waste management. Several countries stand out in making progress toward addressing this issue, yet it remains a complicated and often controversial topic that merits thorough and immediate attention.