Nuclear waste is a term that’s become commonplace in pop culture because of its associations with the war, as well as being an intricate part of superhero origin stories that are too many to count. But very few people have any idea what nuclear waste really is, or what qualifies something as nuclear waste.
There are actually three official levels of nuclear waste that determine how dangerous a specific sample is. These levels are known to professionals like Energy Solutions simply as low-level, intermediate level, and high-level waste, and the authorities decide which category a sample falls under by its volume and radioactive content.
The Nuclear Green Zone
It’s important to remember that nuclear waste doesn’t just include the refuse of the nuclear process; any item exposed to certain levels of radioactivity is considered waste. For example, low-level waste can include lightly contaminated objects such as tools or work clothes. Anything with an approximate of one percent of radioactive content qualifies as low-level waste; ninety percent of nuclear waste belongs to this group.
Intermediate-level waste can include instruments that were in direct contact with the radioactive materials during the nuclear process. Common examples of this kind of refuse are filters, and the steel components that make up the reactor. An item needs to register radioactive content around four percent to be included in this category, and intermediates make up seven percent of the total amount of nuclear waste.
The Danger Zone
Only three percent of the total volume of nuclear waste is high-level, but it’s responsible for ninety-five percent of the radioactivity that comes from the plant. This entire category is for the nuclear fuel itself that reactors use to generate electricity through heat; if anything’s getting superpowers, it’s going to be through high-level waste, though that’s unlikely as well.
The only way to safely dispose of nuclear waste, regardless of level, is by storing them underground. Low and intermediate level wastes are put into establishing repositories, and isn’t much different from municipal waste sites, other than the radioactive labels. High-levels on the other hand, require cooling and shielding until it decays to a state that’s safe to handle – in perhaps a hundred thousand years from now.