High Level Waste

High level waste (HLW) is a type of nuclear waste created by the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. It exists in two main forms:

  • First and second cycle raffinate and other waste streams created by nuclear reprocessing.

Liquid high level waste is typically held temporarily in underground tanks pending vitrification. Most of the high level waste created by the Manhattan project and the weapons programs of the cold war exists in this form because funding for further processing was typically not part of the original weapons programs. Both spent nuclear fuel and vitrified waste are considered as suitable forms for long term disposal, after a period of temporary storage in the case of spent nuclear fuel.

fission products

Q *
99Tc 0.211 6.1385 294 β
126Sn 0.230 0.1084 4050 βγ
79Se 0.327 0.0447 151 β
93Zr 1.53 5.4575 91 βγ
135Cs 2.3 6.9110 269 β
107Pd 6.5 1.2499 33 β
129I 15.7 0.8410 194 βγ
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fission products

Q *
155Eu 4.76 .0803 252 βγ
85Kr 10.76 .2180 687 βγ
113mCd 14.1 .0008 316 β
90Sr 28.9 4.505 2826 β
137Cs 30.23 6.337 1176 βγ
121mSn 43.9 .00005 390 βγ
151Sm 90 .5314 77 β
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HLW contains many of the fission products and transuranic elements generated in the reactor core and is the type of nuclear waste with the highest activity. HLW accounts for over 95% of the total radioactivity produced in the nuclear power process. In other words, while most nuclear waste is low-level and intermediate-level waste, such as protective clothing and equipment that have been contaminated with radiation, the majority of the radioactivity produced from the nuclear power generation process becomes high-level waste.

In the US, HLW from reprocessing of spent fuel from electrical power stations amounts to less than 1% of the total volume of US HLW; the rest is defense related. Some other countries, particularly France, reprocess commercial spent fuel.

High level waste is very radioactive and, therefore, requires special shielding during handling and transport. It also needs cooling, because it generates a great deal of heat. Most of the heat, for the first several hundred years, is from the medium-lived fission products cesium-137 and strontium-90.

A typical large nuclear reactor produces 25–30 tons of spent fuel per year. If the fuel were reprocessed and vitrified, the waste volume would be only about three cubic meters per year, but the decay heat would be almost the same.

It is generally accepted that the final waste will be disposed of in a deep geological repository, and many countries have developed plans for such a site, including France, Japan, and the United States (see also High-level radioactive waste management).

Read more about High Level Waste:  Definitions, Disposal

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