What is nuclear waste?

Nuclear fuel waste is the  used uranium fuel from  nuclear reactors. It consists  of hundreds of different  by-products, including very  hazardous radioactive  substances which must be  isolated for millions of  years to protect all living  things.

Nuclear waste is very long-lived and extremely dangerous. High level nuclear fuel waste is created when nuclear power is used to generate electricity. The waste is a radioactive poison, and includes hundreds of different isotopes, or radiation-producing substances. Radiation can break down the structure of cells, cause cancers, genetic defects, and an overall weakening of the immune system. Some wastes last for 100's of thousands of years - many times longer than human history, and certainly longer than any human containers can be trusted for.

High level nuclear waste is the waste product of nuclear reactors. An estimated 1.9  million fuel bundles  of nuclear fuel waste have been produced by Canadian  nuclear reactors, with no known means of disposing of the waste. The wastes are made of hundreds of radioactive isotopes. Radioactive materials are extremely harmful to living organisms, breaking down cell structures and causing cancers, genetic defects, and an overall weakening of the immune system. Some, such as tritium, have relatively short half-lives (the time required for the material to decrease in volume by 50%), while others, such as Iodine 131, have half-lives of more than a million years. Plutonium 239 has a more "typical" half-life of 24,900 years. A few micrograms of plutonium is likely to cause cancer; a few milligrams, if inhaled, will cause massive fibrosis of the lungs, with the victim drowning in their own blood within hours.

Atomic Energy of Canada Limited has taken the lead for the Canadian nuclear industry in researching nuclear waste "disposal". In a federal environmental assesment hearing that concluded in 1998, AECL described two different containers, a titanium tube which AECL estimates will last for 500 years, or a copper cannister, which AECL has used a computer to estimate will last for one million years. At that time, the Swedish nuclear industry is now in its fifth design for a copper container, each one so far having been proven faulty.  No similiar container has every been built.

A partial list of nuclear waste's radioactive ingredients ...

How toxic is CANDU nuclear waste over 10 million years? (chart)

How toxic is U.S. nuclear fuel waste over 10 million years? (chart)


"The extreme lethality of a freshly removed spent fuel bundle is such that a person standing within a metre of it would die within an hour. During the next forty years (and probably for thousands of years), the management of hundreds of thousands of such bundles (in Ontario alone), which at all times must be isolated from the earth's ecosystem, will clearly present a problem of massive proportions." [ from A Race Against Time, pp. 73 - 76]

"Only with time will [a radioactive] material decay to a stable (non-radioactive) element. The pertinent decay times vary from hundreds of years for the bulk of the fission products to millions of years for certain of the actinide elements and long-lived fission products". [from Report to the President by the Interagency Review Group]

"When fuel bundles are removed from the reactor, they are very hot, very radioactive and extremely dangerous. An individual standing one metre from a fresh spent fuel bundle would receive a lethal radiation dose of about 200,000 rem per hour." (The AECB limit for the exposure of workers is 5 rem per year and, for the general population, one half a rem per year.) (p. 3) [from The Management of Nuclear Fuel Waste: Final Report]

"We are agreed that it would be irresponsible and morally wrong to commit future generations to the consequences of fission power on a massive scale unless it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that at least one method exists for the safe isolation of these wastes for the indefinite future."
Nuclear Physicist Sir Brian Flowers
U.K. Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution
Sixth Report "Nuclear Power and the Environment"
September 1976 -- page 81 paragraph 181 RADIOACTIVE


High Level Nuclear Fuel Waste

Over 99 percent of the radioactivity created by a nuclear reactor is contained in the spent fuel. An unprotected individual standing one metre from a CANDU fuel bundle just out of the reactor would receive a lethal dose in seconds. This intensely radioactive material is called high level nuclear waste. Spent fuel contains hundreds of radioactive substances created inside the reactors: (1) when uranium atoms split, the fragments are radioactive; these are the "fission products"; (2) when uranium atoms absorb neutrons without splitting, they are transmuted into "transuranium elements" such as plutonium, americium, and curium. Due to the presence of these toxic materials, spent fuel remains extremely dangerous for millions of years.

Uranium Tailings

There are 200 million tons of sand-like uranium tailings in Canada, mostly in Ontario and Saskatchewan. These radioactive wastes will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years. They contain several of the most powerful carcinogens known: radium, radon gas, polonium, thorium and others. Radioactive tailings also result from milling phosphate and other ores that are rich in uranium. In 1978, an Ontario Royal Commission recommended that a panel of world class ecologists study the long term problem of safely containing radioactive tailings, and that the future of nuclear power be assessed in view of their findings. The government has ignored these recommendations

Nuclear Lab Wastes

Chalk River has many waste problems: six underground tanks of high level radioactive liquid waste, a spent fuel pool which has leaked for 30 years, pits where isotopes have been dumped for decades, radioactive parts of damaged reactors buried on site, and a "dispersal area" where millions of gallons of radioactive liquids have been poured into shallow trenches near the Ottawa River.
The Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment has likewise created so much radioactive contamination that it will be expensive to close down. The Auditor General reports that Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (owner of both labs) has not properly accounted for the cost of restoring these sites. Ottawa is now trying to privatize Whiteshell.

At Chalk River, there are six underground tanks of high level radioactive liquid waste left over from reprocessing operations carried out in the late 1940s. Some of this liquid waste was cast into glass blocks and buried in sandy soil near the Ottawa River; it was the world's first liquid radwaste solidification pilot project

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