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How to Manage Radioactive Waste from Nuclear Power Plant?

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The myth that circulated in the community related to nuclear energy, in addition to safety and radiation, is a matter of radioactive waste. It is suggested that the radioactive waste of nuclear power plants is an unsolved problem to date. Either management or disposal. And that’s not true.

The nuclear industry is the only energy industry that  is fully responsible  for its waste management. In fact, the cost of managing radioactive waste of nuclear power plants is put into electricity production costs. However, the cost is very small, so it does not add to the expensive price of electricity [1] .

In the unlikely event that the radioactive waste of nuclear power plants can not be managed, nuclear technology is unlikely to have developed since the beginning of the discovery of nuclear fission reactors by Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard. In fact, most developed waste management methods are already in place and are working just fine. Which has not been fully implemented  not  because of technological issues  , but  politics .

Read also Revealing Radioactive Waste Hazard Myths

So, how is the radioactive waste of NPP managed?

Previously, it should be understood first categorization of radioactive waste. In general, radioactive waste is divided into three categories, although one classifies them in four categories [1,2] . Here the author takes the four categories, namely  Very Low Level Waste  (VLLW),  Low Level Waste  (LLW),  Intermediate Level Waste  (ILW) and  High Level Waste  (HLW). Each category has its own management method, mostly already in use.

VLLW has very low levels of radiation   and is harmless to humans and the environment. It usually consists of materials such as concrete, cement, bricks, metal and so on, from general industry, such as iron industry, chemical industry, etc. The reason is that some of the minerals used in those industries are naturally radioactive. Can also come from nuclear industry buildings that either experienced rehabilitation or  dismantling [2] .

Due to the low levels of VLLW radiation, this waste can be managed as any other domestic waste. No special treatment required.

LLW have radiation levels  low , usually containing a small amount of radioactive element with a short half-life. LLW comes from hospitals and nuclear industries, including nuclear fuel cycles, such as paper, clothing,  filters, and similar equipment. Just like the VLLW, the handling does not need to use a radiation shield. The waste itself can be buried in shallow ground [2] .

To reduce the volume, this waste can also be compacted or incinerated / burned. LLW has a volume of up to 90% of radioactive waste, but represents only 1% of total radioactivity [3] .

ILW have high levels of radiation  being . Some of its waste requires a radiation shield in the management. Origin of resins, chemical wastes and cladding of fuels, as well as materials contaminated by radioactive elements from reactor decommissioning [2] .

Small or liquid waste can be solidified in concrete or bitumen before being buried in shallow soil such as LLW. ILW represents 7% of waste volume and 4% of total radioactivity. [3]

Waste management with three radioactivity levels above has been practiced in many countries for decades without any problems to people or the environment. No one has cancer or genetic mutations because of dealing with VLLW, LLW and ILW.

In Indonesia, VLW and ILW from industry and hospitals are managed by the BATAN’s Radioactive Waste Technology Center (PTLR). At least 900 tons of waste managed by PTLR BATAN. For comparison, daily household waste in Jakarta reaches 6,000 tons [4] .

Last is HLW. This waste has very high levels of radiation   and is the residue of uranium burning inside the nuclear reactor core. The content consists of fission products and transuranic elements resulting from nuclear fission reactions. HLW is also  very hot , so it needs to be cooled first before it is managed. Managing it yourself must use a thick radiation shield and robotic device.

HLW volume is only 3% of radioactive waste, but represents 95% of total radioactivity. In other words, the most dangerous waste   has the least volume  . The volume is only equivalent to two units of cars. If it is reprocessed, the volume is reduced to one-tenth [3] .

When removed from the reactor core, the used fuel bundle is still very hot and amazingly radioactive. Thus, the cladding is stored first in a temporary waste collection pond to be cooled. This pool is inside the reactor building, made of thick concrete and coated iron. The water used must be mineral free, to prevent corrosion [1,2] .

In addition to cooling, water also serves as a radiation shield. Gamma and neutron radiation released from spent fuel can not move too far in water. Thus, people who are around the pond avoid high doses of radiation.

Figure 1. Example of temporary waste storage pond (source: NEI)

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Used fuel is cooled in a pond for at least five years. After about five years, waste radioactivity stayed 5% of the initial radioactivity when removed from the reactor core. Then, this spent fuel can be removed and stored in a dry storage container made of concrete. This used fuel is cooled with air [2] .
Figure 2. Sample of dry waste container (source: Connecticut Yankee)

For several decades or perhaps centuries, this interim storage method is sufficient. Moreover, after 40 years, radioactivity has fallen further to one thousandth of radioactivity when removed from the reactor core [1] .

Does this container harm people? Not at all. It’s just sitting there. These containers are laid out in the nuclear complex, workers can approach it without having to wear radiation protective clothing. How can waste confined in these containers harm the public?

Read also Does Nuclear Radiation Cause Infertility?

After this, there are two management options: recycled or immediately discarded. If it is recycled, it is not necessary to think first about the final disposal. But, if you want to immediately dispose of (highly discouraged), then the option  of sustainable waste disposal  should be considered.

There are several options on how to manage HLW for permanent disposal. The simplest way, waste is processed into borosilicate glass and throw it into random points at sea. No one can claim this way can not be done! Even if the entire HLW of all nuclear power plants that are and have been operating in this world are all thrown overboard, nothing will matter. Marine radioactivity will not rise in 1% items [5] .

But of course bureaucracy and politics do not want to use this way. Finally, the method then agreed upon is to store HLW in a repository of stable ground formations. Some places have been proposed for perennial repositories, such as in Finland, Sweden, France and the United States. In Switzerland, there is a kind of underground natural rock formation that is considered potential to be a perennial repository [1,2] .

However, none of the perennial repositories have been used. The repository in the Yucca Mountains, the United States itself is progressing, because the Nevada federal government refuses to allow the place to become a HLW repository.

But actually, the need for this perennial waste repository has not been too urgent. After all, actually this “waste” can still be reused in advanced reactors . As long as it is kept in dry containers, spent fuel is easy to pick up again.

In a perennial repository, the waste is divitrified in the form of borosilicate glass and encapsulated within  a 1.3 meter stainless steel cylinder  [5] . Dr. Yudiutomo Imardjoko, an Indonesian nuclear scientist (and my college lecturer), designed a timeless waste container design that received recognition from international scientists.

So, what points can be taken?

It is a big mistake to suspect nuclear technology has no solution about waste. For all categories of waste, nuclear technology has a clear, structured and largely managed management method for decades with success. No other industry can match the achievements of nuclear industry waste management. There has never been a story of nuclear waste poisoning the river or the water source of the surrounding community. It’s simply impossible .

The issue of how to manage radioactive waste is over. Unfinished are political decisions about recycling spent fuel. That is all. Again,  not  a technological issue, but a political issue  .


[1] World Nuclear Association. Radioactive Waste Management . . Retrieved on April 3, 2018.

[2] Bahman Zohuri, Patrick McDaniel. 2015.  Thermodynamics In Nuclear Power Plant Systems . Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

[3] Max Carbon. 2006.  Nuclear Power, Villain or Victim? Our Most Misunderstood Source of Electricity, 2nd Edition . Madison: Pebble Beach Publisher.

[4] Here’s how to manage radioactive waste . . Retrieved 3 April 2018.

[5] Bernard L. Cohen. 1990.  The Nuclear Energy Option . Pittsburgh: Plenum Press.

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