Countries Handle Rising Volumes of Radioactive Waste for Safe Disposal

With IAEA assistance, the Radioactive Waste Management Team from Chile´s Commission for Nuclear Energy prepares to safely store old radium needles once used for cancer treatment. (Photo credit: K. Hansen/IAEA)

Volumes of low-level radioactive wastes from nuclear facilities, hospitals, and industries are rising worldwide, with some countries needing more assistance to manage and dispose of the wastes safely. An IAEA international symposium this month in Spain, from 13-17 December, brings together waste experts from around the world to assess the global situation and share experience.

The symposium´s focus is on "low- and intermediate-level" (LILW) radioactive waste. Such wastes - byproducts of nuclear power generation and industrial, medical, and research uses of radioisotopes - are hazardous, though not to the extent that they require deep underground disposal in geological repositories. They typically include items such as rags, paper, liquid, glass, metal components, resins, filters, and protective clothing that have been exposed to radioactivity or contaminated with radioactive material.

Proven methods and technologies are in use for the disposal of LILW, and efforts aim to transfer more experience and know-how to countries needing assistance. In most countries, such wastes are prepared and packaged for safe disposal in specially designed and controlled facilities built under shallow ground. The wastes are often incinerated or compacted first, to reduce their volume. More than 80 such "near surface" disposal facilities have been built worldwide and more are under development.

One big source of rising waste volumes over the coming years is the decommissioning of nuclear facilities that are being taken out of service. Symposium experts are taking a close look at possible management strategies for low-level wastes from decommissioning, which include recycling within the nuclear industry and disposal in a controlled facility. Another topic of interest is the safe management of disused radioactive sources, such as radium once used in medical care. The IAEA has a special project to help countries manage and safely dispose of old radium sources.

Check the Story Resources for more information about the Symposium and radioactive waste. The Symposium is co-sponsored by the "Agence nationale pour la gestion des déchets radioactifs" (national radioactive waste agency, ANDRA) in France and held in cooperation with the Paris-based OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. It is hosted by Spain´s nuclear and waste authorities, the "Empresa Nacional de Residuos Radiactivos, S.A." and the "Consejo de Seguridad Nuclear". Sessions open in Córdoba 13 December.

Last update: 12 November 2014