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Nuclear weapons produce nuclear waste called Transuranic (TRU) waste. TRU materials have been generated in the U.S. since the 1940's. Most of this waste originates from nuclear weapons production facilities for defense programs. Find out more about it below!
Some TRU waste emits high levels of penetrating radiation; this type requires protective shielding. However, most TRU waste does not emit high levels of penetrating radiation but poses a danger when small particles of it are inhaled or ingested. The radiation from the particles is damaging to lung tissue and internal organs. As long as this type of TRU waste remains enclosed and contained, it can be handled safely.
|Another problem with TRU waste is that most of its radioactive elements are long-lived. That is, they stay radioactive for a long time. For example, half of the original amount of plutonium-239 in the waste will remain harmful after 24,000 years. Disposal must be carefully planned so that the waste poses no undue threat to public health or the environment for years to come.|
The total volume of TRU waste and TRU contaminated soil is estimated at around one million cubic meters. Figure 4 provides the historical and projected amounts of TRU wastes to the year 2015.
Figure 4DOE Accumulated TRU Waste
Reference: DOE/RW-0006, Rev.5
The DOE has evaluated several alternatives for managing buried waste and contaminated soil including: (1) leaving it in place and monitoring it; (2) leaving it in place and improving the containment; and (3) removing, processing, and disposing of the waste in a repository.
As a first step in developing a permanent disposal site for TRU waste, the DOE is developing an underground, geologic repository called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, NM. This site has been excavated in a salt bed about 2,100 feet underground. The WIPP will have to meet environmental standards established by the EPA before it can be used as a permanent disposal site.
If the WIPP site is eventually determined to be suitable for the disposal of TRU waste, the underground disposal area is planned to cover 100 acres. It will have a design capacity of over 2 million cubic meters, or about 850,000 barrels, of TRU waste. Figure 5 is a schematic drawing of the WIPP.
The WIPP Land Withdrawal Act reinstated all of the EPA's 1985 radioactive waste disposal standards except for the sections that the court found problematic, i.e., the Individual and Ground-Water Protection Requirements of the disposal standards. The reinstated sections consist primarily of containment requirements and assurance requirements. These requirements are designed to help ensure that the wastes will be disposed of in a manner that limits the release of radioactive materials.
In 1993, EPA finalized amendments to the standards to address the court's concerns. Individual radiation protection standards will limit a person's total annual radiation exposure, considering the sum of all possible exposures. Ground-water protection standards protect present and future sources of drinking water.
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