nuclear power plant with smoke coming out of chimneys.
Facts about nuclear waste

Nuclear and Radioactive Waste Facts

Nuclear reactors generate electricity, but the processes also create radioactive and incredibly hazardous waste materials. It’s estimated that 90% of nuclear waste is low-level (lightly contaminated tools and work clothing). However, the remaining 10% or so poses a serious threat to human health and the environment if it’s not managed properly.

There are around 450 nuclear reactors in the world operating in more than 30 countries that all create nuclear and radioactive waste. Plans are also in place to introduce at least 60 new nuclear reactors in 16 countries, which will lead to an increase in nuclear and radioactive waste production.

Step into a hazmat suit and safely discover how much of this toxic waste we create with these statistics and facts about nuclear waste and radioactive waste across the world.

What causes nuclear and radioactive waste?

The primary source and cause of nuclear and radioactive waste are nuclear reactors. These are at the heart of any nuclear power plant. They control nuclear fission, which is essentially the process of splitting atoms to create energy. There are many steps to this process, and it leaves behind some dangerous waste products.

Used nuclear fuel is the main type of nuclear and radioactive waste. It can be used for around five years but once it’s spent must be removed and disposed of safely. Exposure and contamination from nuclear or radioactive materials in power plants also cause nuclear and radioactive waste – such as clothing, tools, and machinery.

Laboratories and hospitals are two other common sources of nuclear and radioactive waste. Nuclear fuel is sometimes used in research facilities, which eventually becomes waste. Old and broken X-ray machines are the most common kind of radioactive waste produced by hospitals and healthcare facilities, alongside the use of any other radioactive materials for treatments such as chemotherapy.

Facts about nuclear waste

Nuclear waste mostly refers to the fuel used in reactors. It also covers anything contaminated with nuclear or radioactive material, such as clothing, tools, and machinery. Most of the radioactivity associated with nuclear power stays contained in the fuel after it’s been removed, which is why it’s such dangerous waste.

Understand more about the serious nature of it with these facts on nuclear waste:

  • Nuclear electricity production started in 1954, which is when nuclear waste also began being produced
  • There are two categories of nuclear waste:
    • High-level nuclear waste – often used fuel from nuclear reactors
    • Low-level nuclear waste – items contaminated and exposed to nuclear activity (such as gloves, machine parts, and tools)
  • Nuclear waste can’t be destroyed as there are no known chemical or mechanical processes that eliminate the radioactive elements
  • Incineration can reduce the volume of some nuclear and radioactive waste, but it won’t destroy it
  • Radioactive isotopes decay and disintegrate at different rates – it can take Plutonium-239 about 24,000 years to decay
  • Most nuclear waste is stored underwater and in dry casks at first, before being put in secure canisters and buried deep underground in sealed tunnels to prevent any waste from escaping
nuclear power plant in action.

Nuclear waste statistics

Across the world nuclear waste statistics vary between countries, as many nations don’t have nuclear power plants, so such waste production is minimal. The volume of nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel generated globally is relatively small. However, it gets a lot more attention due to its incredibly dangerous nature and the problems with disposal.

See the scale of this toxic waste with these top-level nuclear waste statistics:

  • Around 400,000 tonnes of used fuel have been discharged from nuclear reactors worldwide in total since nuclear energy production began in 1954
  • The radioactivity of the total volume of nuclear waste in the world:
    • High-level waste – 3%
    • Intermediate-level waste – 7%
    • Low-level waste – 90%
  • About one-third of spent nuclear fuel has been reprocessed
  • There are five nuclear power stations in the UK that have nine operational nuclear reactors
  • Almost three-quarters of all nuclear waste in the UK is currently stored at Sellafield
  • The USA has the most nuclear power plants in the world – 54 nuclear plants in 28 states with 93 operational nuclear reactors
  • The USA creates around 2,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel every year
  • It’s estimated that 88,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel remain at reactor sites in the USA awaiting disposal
Hazardous waste facts

Facts about radioactive waste

Every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle creates some level of radioactive waste – from the mining of uranium ore to the treatment of spent fuel from a reactor. Many facts about radioactive waste overlap with those for nuclear waste as the two go hand-in-hand. Most radioactive waste is also a type of nuclear waste.

Stay safe with these radioactive waste facts:

  • There are three different classifications of radioactive waste based on the type and quantity of radioactivity they contain:
    • Low-level radioactive waste – radioactive content not exceeding four giga-becquerels per tonne (GBq/t) of alpha activity or 12 GBq/t beta-gamma activity
    • Intermediate-level radioactive waste – radioactive waste that generates heat (<2 kW/m3), and typically includes resins, chemical sludges, and metal fuel cladding
    • High-level radioactive waste – sufficiently radioactive for its decay heat (>2kW/m3)
  • Most radioactive waste is solid and includes everything from discarded protective clothing to tools and equipment, and even concrete and steel from dismantled buildings
  • Liquid and sludge radioactive waste are normally converted into solids with cement and glass to stabilise them
  • Radon is an example of a radioactive waste gas, but often only small amounts are produced
radioactive waste sign in field.

Radioactive waste statistics

Lots of radioactive waste stats crossover with statistics about nuclear waste. As the use of nuclear power has grown so has the amount of radioactive waste produced around the world. Get an idea of how much there is and how it’s managed with these dangerous radioactive waste statistics:

  • About 80% of all solid radioactive waste volume is now in disposal
  • The UK currently has a reported volume of around 4,580,000m³ of radioactive waste stored
  • Around 94% of radioactive waste stored in the UK is low and very low-level waste
  • The radioactivity of nuclear waste decays naturally but it can take between 1,000 and 10,000 years (or longer)
  • Globally about 15 million packages of radioactive material are transported each year on public roads, railways, and ships
  • In the USA, radioactive waste accounts for just 5% of the total hazardous waste – and less than 10% is from nuclear power production
  • More than 2,500 cask shipments of spent nuclear fuel have been made in the USA in the past 55 years
  • Around 70 reactor sites in the USA store spent nuclear fuel and about a quarter of them no longer have an operating reactor

How should I get rid of 
nuclear and radioactive waste?

Any organisation that produces nuclear and radioactive waste must have safe and legal processes in place to store it on-site. This is the case whether you run a power plant or a hospital and simply create radioactive waste from the radiography department. Responsible management protects human health and the environment.

Using appropriate containers to store any nuclear and radioactive waste is vital. Those responsible for on-site waste management must be trained and follow practices to store it securely and safely to reduce the risk of spillages. Then licensed waste carriers must remove it from your site and transport it to a facility for safe storage and disposal.

At Business Waste we can help with your nuclear and radioactive waste management needs. Speak to one of our expert team members about nuclear and radioactive waste storage and disposal from your business anywhere in the UK and get a free quote for collection. Call 0800 211 8390 or contact us online today.

free bins icon.

Get a fast and free quote

Get a fast FREE quote for radioactive waste removal

  • Free quote within 1 hr
  • Any type of hazardous waste
  • FREE bins and delivery
  • We cover all of the UK