What is Radioactive Waste?

In very simple terms, the nuclear industry classifies radioactive waste into three categories:

  • Low-level
  • Intermediate
  • Higher Activity

Most waste generated falls into the first two categories (low-level and intermediate).  These wastes account for about 85%, by volume, of all waste created.  It is generally disposed of quickly, and is not really relevant to the GDF.  The public body responsible for managing the UK’s radioactive waste, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) publishes a regular updated inventory of all the UK’s radioactive waste. The above links to both these sites will also lead you to much more detailed information about the UK’s radioactive waste management programme and about radioactive waste.

It is primarily ‘higher activity’ waste (aka HAW) which is due for disposal in a GDF — this includes spent fuel.  This is the stuff which remains harmful for millennia.  RWM, a subsidiary of the NDA, regularly updates the ‘inventory for disposal’ in the planned GDF.  This inventory is prescribed by Government and kept under review — for example, it currently includes the UK’s plutonium stockpile.

It is worth noting here, that radioactivity in the waste decays over time, with the steepest decline in danger during the first 1000 years, and tailing off from there.  Therefore, unlike other industrial wastes which humans generate, radioactive waste does eventually become safe.  Until it does become harmless, is the reason for carefully packaging it and placing it deep underground safely away from people and the environment.

This page is not an academic or technical treatise.  It simply provides a layperson’s explanation, and directs you to sources where you can get far more detailed and accurate information.  For instance, if you want to explore the historic academic and scientific research papers on the myriad technical issues which need to be assessed when packaging waste for disposal and planning for safe disposal of waste in a GDF, RWM have compiled a ‘bibliography’ of these papers, dating back to the 1980s.