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Radioactive Waste Streams: Waste Classification for Disposal

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Radioactive waste is a byproduct of nuclear weapons production, commercial nuclear power generation, and the naval reactor program. Waste byproducts also result from radioisotopes used for scientific, medical, and industrial purposes. The legislative definitions adopted for radioactive wastes, for the most part, refer to the processes that generated the wastes. Thus, waste disposal policies have tended to link the processes to uniquely tailored disposal solutions. Consequently, the origin of the waste, rather than its radiologic characteristics, often determines its fate.

Plutonium and enriched uranium-235 were first produced by the Manhattan Project during World War II. These materials were later defined by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 as special nuclear materials, along with other materials that the former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) determined were capable of releasing energy through nuclear fission. Reprocessing of irradiated nuclear fuel to extract special nuclear material generated highly radioactive liquid and solid byproducts. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (NWPA) defined irradiated fuel as spent nuclear fuel, and the byproducts as high-level waste. Uranium ore processing technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material and left behind uranium mill tailings. The fabrication of nuclear weapons generated transuranic waste. Both commercial and naval reactors continue to generate spent fuel. Highlevel waste generation has ceased in the United States, as irradiated fuel is no longer reprocessed. The routine operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors, however, continues to generate low-level radioactive waste, as do medical procedures using radioactive isotopes.

The NWPA provides for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel and highlevel radioactive waste in a deep geologic repository. The repository is to be constructed and operated by the Department of Energy (DOE) under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) licensing authority. Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, is the candidate site for the nation's first repository.

The NRC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) share regulatory authority for radioactive waste disposal. However, these regulatory agencies have yet to adopt uniform radiation protection standards for disposal sites. The NRC's jurisdiction, however, does not extend to DOE's management of defense-related waste at DOE facilities other than Yucca Mountain.

Radioactive waste classification continues to raise issues for policymakers. Most recently, DOE policy on managing the residue in high-level waste storage tanks proved controversial enough that Congress amended the definition of high-level waste. The disposition of waste with characteristics left undefined by statute can be decided by an NRC administrative ruling. The case for low-activity waste promises to provoke similar controversy. This report will be updated as new radioactive waste classification issues arise.


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