Applying a circular economy approach to nuclear waste

Nuclear technologies provide many benefits to citizens. These include the supply of low-carbon electricity as well as, for example, medical applications used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.  At the same time, like all industries, nuclear generates waste. For example, construction waste such as the steel and concrete used in a nuclear power plant or the radioactive waste which results from reprocessing spent fuel. Unlike others, the nuclear sector is one of the few industries which takes full responsibility for the handling and traceability of its waste. It also follows the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

As a result, it manages its waste in such a way so as to protect people and the environment.

There are four categories of Radioactive waste

Very low-level waste
Waste that does not need a high level of containment and isolation and, therefore, is suitable for disposal in near-surface, landfill-type facilities with limited regulatory control.
These include clothing, paper towels, concrete used in nuclear power plants, research facilities, hospitals etc.
low-level waste
Waste that is above clearance levels, but with limited amounts of long-lived radionucleides (which have a long radioactive life). Such waste requires robust isolation and containment for periods of up to a few hundred years. It is suitable for disposal in engineered near-surface facilities.
These include clothing, paper towels, concrete used in nuclear power plants, research facilities, hospitals etc.
Intermediate level waste
Waste that, because of its content, particularly of long-lived radionucleides, requires a greater degree of containment and isolation than that provided by near surface disposal. However, ILW needs no provision, or only limited provision, for heat dissipation during its storage and disposal.
Waste resulting from historical research activities, instrumentation used close to the core of the reactor
High level waste
Waste with levels of activity concentration high enough to generate significant quantities of heat by the radioactive decay process or waste with large amounts of long-lived radionucleides that need to be considered in the design of a disposal facility for such waste.
Residues remaining from the treatment/recycling of spent fuel

The Basics

Nuclear waste-The basics

Key Facts

Nuclear waste-key facts

How does the nuclear industry handle its waste?

  1. Several improvements have been implemented in the nuclear lifecycle, leading to a reduction in the volumes of waste generated
  2. Much of the spent nuclear fuel remains a valuable resource for the nuclear industry and is therefore reused.
  3. The industry implements well developed waste separation technologies which means that what might otherwise be considered as a waste can in fact be recycled in many different ways.
  4. Of course, like other industries, a very small percentage of the waste generated does become residual waste, particularly high-level waste. But even here, the nuclear sector is a leading example when it comes to handling such waste.

Find out more!

Download Nuclear Waste Reduce
Download Nuclear Waste Reuse
Download Nuclear Waste Recycle
Download Nuclear Waste Residual

Background papers on radioactive waste management and decommissioning activities

The nuclear sector already applies a circular economy approach in order to reduce the volumes of waste generated, to reuse and recycle as much as possible and to correctly manage any residual waste, as highlighted in our waste toolkit.  These four papers aim to provide more detailed background information on the following:

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