Radioactive waste originates with nuclear power, weapons, industry and nuclear medicine. It comes from uranium mining, reactor fuel fabrication and fuel reprocessing. Nuclear waste is radioactive and by nature, dangerous. It can be called “low-level, transuranic, intermediate-level or high-level depending on the country and agency categorizing the isotopes, or a label may depend on the radioactivity per mass or volume, or for what the element can be used. It can be long-lived or short-lived depending on the half-life, or the amount of time half of the isotope’s energy disintegrates. A half-life can be seconds or millions of years and the faster it decays, the more radioactive it will be. Radioisotopes are unstable configurations of elements in decay and through the decay process, radiation is emitted. Many radionuclides decay into other radioactive elements. Isotopes may be a gas, solid or liquid. Hundreds of human-made isotopes are created in nuclear reactors. Some waste can be handled by humans and some solely by robots.
Nuclear waste has been chucked into ravines, buried in shallow graves, stored in underground caverns, left to blow with the wind, thrown overboard into the sea, smelted in scrap yards and has been making its way, in increasing amounts, into our environment since its use for weapons and power became a focus for nations around the world.
Exposure to certain levels of radioactive waste may cause serious harm or death. The effect of exposure depends on the isotope and decay mode of an element. Cesium-137 is water soluble and can pass through the body and exit in urine causing less damage than iodine-131 which tends to lodge in the thyroid gland and continuously emits harmful beta and gamma radiation into surrounding tissue.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 108 sites nationwide are contaminated with enough radioactive waste as to be unusable for the foreseeable future. The Oak Ridge nuclear weapons production site contained 167 poisoned areas. While “clean up” is taking place, clean up means packaging and re-dumping in another location.
Radioactive waste has been filtered into industry and used for such things as the irradiation of food to kill pathogens, those harmful and useful to humans and industry has created radioisotope thermoelectric generators or RTH batteries for space craft.
Radioactive waste is a lethal by-product and the wisest path to take is to stop producing it.
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