The radioactive and toxic by-products of the nuclear energy and nuclear weapons industries. Nuclear waste may have an active life of several thousand years. Reactor waste is of three types: high-level spent fuel, or the residue when nuclear fuel has been removed from a reactor and reprocessed; intermediate, which may be long-or short-lived; and low-level, but bulky, waste from reactors, which has only short-lived radioactivity. Disposal, by burial on land or at sea, has raised problems of safety, environmental pollution, and security.
The issue of nuclear waste is becoming the central controversy threatening the future of generating electricity by nuclear energy. The dumping of nuclear waste at sea officially stopped in 1983, when a moratorium was agreed by the members of the London Dumping Convention (a United Nations body that controls disposal of wastes at sea). Covertly, the USSR continued dumping, and deposited thousands of tonnes of nuclear waste and numerous faulty reactors in the sea during 1964-86. Russia has no way of treating nuclear waste and in 1993 announced its intention of continuing to dump it in the sea, in violation of international conventions, until 1997.
Waste from a site where uranium is mined or milled may have an active life of several thousand years, and spent (irradiated) fuel is dangerous for tens of thousands of years. Sea disposal has occurred at many sites, for example 450 km/300 mi off Land's End, England, but there is no guarantee of the safety of this method of disposal, even for low-activity waste. There have been proposals to dispose of high-activity waste in old mines, granite formations, and specially constructed bunkers. The most promising proposed method is by vitrification into solid glass cylinders. About one-third of the fuel from nuclear reactors becomes spent each year. It is removed to a reprocessing plant where radioactive waste products are chemically separated from remaining uranium and plutonium.
In 1997 at the Oslo Paris Commission it was announced that the UK was to give up its right to dump nuclear waste at sea. The UK committed itself to accepting new targets for radioactive discharges.
A report by Britain's nuclear safety watchdog, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), published in January 1999, estimated that more than half of Britain's stored radioactive waste (70,000 cu m/91,557 cu yd, spread over 22 sites) was in danger of leaking. The greatest problems were identified at Sellafield, Aldermaston Atomic Weapons establishment, and in eight magnox power stations across the country.
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