10 Top Effects of Nuclear Waste On The Environment

One of the most significant challenges that scientists and researchers face is the effect of nuclear waste on the environment. Although necessary steps have been taken to curb the impact of nuclear waste by regulatory bodies, there is still a lot to be done to curtail the effects of nuclear waste. 

This article will highlight the sources, categories, and Effects of Nuclear Waste On The Environment.

Also, we will extend our discussion to the effects and control measures taken to prevent nuclear waste from contaminating the environment. 

What is nuclear waste? 

Nuclear waste is the by-product or result of activities that use nuclear materials. According to Michael Stothard, nuclear waste can also be described as the most destructive and Indestructible waste in history. This is because nuclear waste remains radioactive for thousands to millions of years ago. 

Sources That Generate Nuclear Waste 

Various sources and activities contribute to nuclear waste in the environment. These activities have been grouped into distinct segments for better understanding. These include:

1. Industrial waste 

The industrial sector utilizes radioactive materials for various reasons, such as gamma sterilization, gamma radiography, gauging, tracers, and smoke detectors. 

Sources of Industrial Waste Are: 

● Manufacturing, handling, and use of radioactive sources in glove boxes

● Mildly active waste can be obtained from washing protective clothing

● Disposal of these sources after they have been used 

● Contamination of equipment (glove boxes), metal shaving, glassware, rubber gloves, and properties by radioactive sources 

Although the amount of waste generated by the industries is minute. 

2. Medical activities 

Medical activities produce small amounts of nuclear waste and are generally categorized as low-level waste. The following medical activities generate nuclear waste:

  • The manufacture, use, and disposal of radioactive sources 
  • Radiopharmaceutical
  • waste got from washing protective clothing. 
  • Contaminated laboratory materials and equipment 
  • Liquid waste from washing protective clothing and shoes. 
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3. Defence 

Nuclear waste is produced during strategic deterrent nuclear weapons’ production, management, and decommissioning. 

Sources of defense waste include: 

● Depleted uranium 

● contaminated target and ground from weapon testing. 

● Decontamination of plants and liquid treatment 

● From resin and filters of submarine reactor operation 

● During the process of active nuclear-powered submarines and the decommissioning of old submarines 

● The cleaning up of defense sites that have been contaminated in the past.

● The testing and decommissioning of submarine reactors. 

4. Uranium milling and mining 

Nuclear waste is from excavated ores (uranium ores) that produce mill tailings. These tailings contain radioactive radium. 

Nuclear waste can also be obtained from waste slurry ponds. 

These wastes are classified as Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) waste. 

5. Spent fuel reprocessing 

Spent fuel reprocessing produces both high-level and intermediate-level wastes. Sources of nuclear waste are: 

  • The treatment of cooling pond water leads to contaminated ion exchange that generates waste. This is classified as intermediate-level waste. 
  • During decaning and shearing, the metallic part of the fuel assemblies is separated from the fuel, and these metal parts are known as intermediate-level waste. 
  • Raffinate produced during reprocessing is converted into a solid formed through vitrification. This process generates a lot of low-level radioactive wastes. 

6. Decommissioning of Nuclear Facilities

The decommissioning of nuclear plants and research facilities evolves by dismantling and removing reactive structures. During this process, a lot of low-level wastes are generated. 

The Categories of Nuclear Waste 

There are five categories of nuclear waste, according to the United States Agency.

1. High-level waste 

High-level wastes are primarily used or spent uranium fuel that is no longer efficient in producing electricity. These wastes are generated from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Components of a nuclear power reactor include ceramic pellets of uranium-235 inside metallic rods. 

Most high-level waste is stored at the site where the waste was generated in a spent fuel pool. This pool serves to shield the waste from radiation and cool the rods. 

2. Transuranic waste 

Transuranic waste is waste obtained from nuclear weapons production facilities. They are artificial radioactive elements with an atomic number of 92 or higher. Examples of transuranic wastes include lab equipment, rags, and tools contaminated during nuclear weapon production and development. 

Transuranic wastes are stored in federal facilities across the country. 

3. Low-level waste 

Low-level radioactive waste can be obtained from industries, government facilities, utilities, medical facilities, manufacturing factories, and research agencies. Low-level wastes are those that are not classified as high-level wastes or intermediate-level wastes. 

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Low-level wastes can also be obtained from uranium, thorium mĺill tailings, or uranium recovery operations. Most low-level waste is items that have come in contact, are contaminated with radioactive materials, or have been exposed to neutron radiation. 

Some examples of these wastes include contaminated shoes and protective clothing, paper, mop, wiping rags, reactor water treatments residue, packaging materials, cardboard, plastic bags, injection needles, syringes, equipment and tools, medical swab, lab animals carcass and tissues and luminous dials. These items have come in contact with radioactive materials, and dogs can be classified as low-level waste. 

They are usually stored on-site until they decay away and can be disposed of as ordinary trash or stored at disposal facilities specializing in the disposal of low-level waste. 

4. Uranium Mill Tailing/ Thorium Mill Tailing 

Uranium mill tailings are nuclear waste generated during the milling and mining of certain ores, such as uranium or thorium. These tailings contain thorium, radium (which becomes radon through radioactive decay), and a small amount of uranium. These wastes are stored in specially-designed plants called impoundment.

5. Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM)

TENORM wastes are produced by mining, oil and gas drilling, production, and water treatment. Naturally occurring radiological materials that become increasingly concentrated due to human activities during milling or mining. They must be disposed of according to state regulations. 

The List of Effects of Nuclear Waste on The Environment 

Nuclear waste’s environmental effects are significant and dangerous if not correctly managed or contained. These include: 

1. Improper storage and disposal 

The improper storage and disposal of nuclear waste from industries, factories, and storage sites can lead to radioactive waste leaking into the groundwater. This error leads to groundwater contamination. 

Contaminated groundwater spreads to nearby water bodies such as lakes, rivers, seas, and oceans, creating hazardous health risks to aquatic animals and ecosystems. Contaminated groundwater leads to water pollution. This can affect the human food chain through the consumption of animals. 

2. Nuclear activity 

Most nuclear waste can remain radioactive for long periods ranging from hundreds to millions of years, depending on the element’s half-life. Due to their radioactivity, nuclear waste continues to emit radiation in small quantities, accumulating in the environment.

The accumulation of these wastes causes damage to the environment over extended periods. 

3. Radioactive pollution 

Nuclear waste contains radioactive materials that, if released, can contaminate the environment. These radioactive wastes can penetrate the soil, water and ecosystem, disrupting the normal ecological balance flow pattern and system.

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All of these are detrimental to animals, microorganisms, and ecosystems. Radioactive pollution disrupts the ecological balance and damages biodiversity. 

4. Ecological destruction 

Nuclear wastes cause ecological destruction by killing and harming plant and animal species. This disruption affects food chain species interactions and some ecological processes. In addition, the loss of biodiversity negatively affects the function and stability of the ecosystem. 

5. Airborne pollution

Airborne pollution can occur due to improper storage and packaging of nuclear waste. This will lead to the release of nuclear gasses or particulates. Most air pollution accidents occur during evacuating gasses from storage facilities, transportation accidents, and improper waste disposal.

These radioactive gasses can spread over a long distance causing harm to humans and the ecosystem. 

6. Radioactive Materials

Radioactive materials from nuclear wastes pose significant health risks to humans and animals present in the environment. Constant exposure to radiation leads to increased genetic mutation, cancer (especially in dogs), skin tumors, and other health challenges.

Humans and domestic animals can also be affected by the ingestion of food or drinking water that has been contaminated with nuclear waste. Farm animals can also be affected if radioactive waste contaminates their water or feed sources. 

How to Control Nuclear Waste 

Specific control measures have been put in place to ensure that nuclear waste from their various sources does contaminate the environment. 

● Medical sector 

Medical waste is categorized as low-level waste and should be properly disposed of through incineration. 

● Industrial sector 

Highly radioactive sources should be returned to the manufacturers, where they are sealed in cans and put in cans, drums, and stored as radioactive waste. 

Lower radioactive sources should be appropriately incinerated. 

Other control measures 

1. Adherence to safety protocols and regulations testified by regulatory bodies.

2. Creation of containment systems, such as storage facilities, deep tanks, and deep geological repositories, to curtail leakage of these waste products. 

3. Regular monitoring and testing to ensure proper waste management. 

4. Proper waste treatment before disposal 

5. Decontamination. 

All nuclear wastes must undergo shredding, compacting, drying, and solidifying of the waste before disposal.


With the advancement in science and technology, researchers and scientists continue to explore better methods to curtail the effects of nuclear waste. Our role as citizens is to protect ourselves and take necessary precautionary measures. Check out the 40 Top Winter Vegetables To Grow In South Australia.

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