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Managing Radioactive Materials & Waste

Any activity that produces or uses radioactive materials generates radioactive waste. Mining, nuclear power generation, and various processes in industry, defense, medicine, and scientific research produce by products that include radioactive waste. Radioactive waste can be in gas, liquid or solid form, and its level of radioactivity can vary. The waste can remain radioactive for a few hours or several months or even hundreds of thousands of years.

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Are there different kinds of radioactive waste?

Yes, radioactive waste sorts into six general categories :

“Mixed waste” contains both radioactive and chemical components. Mixed waste is not a “category” of nuclear waste because depending on the source and level of radioactivity, the waste may be categorized, for instance, as low-level versus high-level radioactive waste.

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What About Disposing of Radioactive Waste?

Proper disposal is key to protecting the public's health and safety and the quality of the environment. However, because it can be so hazardous and can remain radioactive for so long, finding suitable disposal facilities for radioactive waste is difficult. Depending on the type of waste disposed, the disposal facility may need to contain radiation for a very long time.

Radioactive waste disposal practices have changed substantially since the 1970's. Evolving environmental protection considerations have provided the impetus to improve disposal technologies, and, in some cases, clean up facilities that are no longer in use. Designs for new disposal facilities and disposal methods must meet environmental protection and pollution prevention standards that are stricter than originally foreseen at the beginning of the atomic age.

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How is Radioactive Waste Disposal Regulated?

Disposal of radioactive waste is a complex issue, not only because of the nature of the waste, but also because of the complicated regulatory structure for managing it. There are a variety of stakeholders affected, and there are a number of regulatory entities involved. Federal government agencies involved in radioactive waste management include: the Environmental Protection Agency , the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy , and the Department of Transportation. In addition, the states and affected Indian Tribes play a prominent role in protecting the public against the hazards of radioactive waste.

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What is EPA doing about radioactive waste management?

Generally speaking, EPA's role in radioactive waste management is to set (develop and issue) radiation protection standards and to provide technical expertise during radioactive site cleanup. EPA also works with and provides assistance to other federal agencies and state and local governments on radioactive waste issues.

Setting Standards

EPA sets generally applicable radiation protection standards for the safe management of radioactive waste. Federal, state, and other organizations implement EPA's standards in waste management regulations.

In some cases, such as the U.S. Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and Yucca Mountain repository, Congress has assigned EPA responsibility for setting site-specific standards. For WIPP, EPA also oversees DOE's activities and reexamine's its certification of the facility's compliance with the standards every 5 years.

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