Compared with other types of waste, the mass of radioactive waste is tiny, representing around 2 kilograms per person per year in France; only 20 grams of this is high-level waste, of which 1 gram of long-lived elements. These few grams pale in comparison to the 360 kg of household waste, 2.5 tonnes of industrial waste and 6.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere per capita.
Clearly, however, the problems associated with the management of radioactive waste are of another order of magnitude. Management strategies vary according to the level of radioactivity.
The intended solution for the most radioactive waste (long-lived intermediate- and high-level waste) is to dispose of it deep underground. High-level waste releases heat and is currently kept in interim storage, allowing it to cool. Paradoxically, there is little urgency regarding the ultimate management of this category of waste. It can be held in interim storage until a suitable disposal site is found. Interim storage is necessary while the requisite licenses are obtained and the repository facilities are built.
In France, the first vitrified waste packages are scheduled to be sent to the CIGEO geological repository in 2025. A site near Bure en Lorraine, on the boundary between the Meuse and Haute-Marne departments, has been identified. This huge underground facility, for which must parliamentary approval must be obtained, among other licenses, would operate for around 100 years.
Apart from the WIPP military waste repository in the United States, no deep geological repositories have yet been built. The Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, where high-level waste would have been disposed of, was cancelled by the Obama administration in 2010. In France, research into the properties of clay layers continues at the underground laboratory in Bure, pending construction of CIGEO.
Management of lower-level radioactive waste (2 kilograms per capita) is the least problematic. Appropriate precautions must be taken, owing to the radioactivity, but the corresponding solutions are relatively simple to implement. Waste is conditioned according to its activity level using conventional means, and is then disposed of above ground. Repositories exist in France and other countries. There are three in France, one of which has been completely filled and is now in the monitoring phase.
Low- and intermediate-level short-lived waste (LILW-SL) and very low-level waste (VLLW) are the two least radioactive categories. These two categories account for approximately 90% of radioactive waste by volume. An operational disposal solution already exists, at the CSA facility in the Aube department (for low- and intermediate-level short-lived waste) and at the CIRES facility in Morvilliers (for very low-level waste).
The waste's radioactivity decays naturally, gradually falling to a level similar to natural background radioactivity. In the case of very low-level waste, as its name suggests, the initial radioactivity level is very low. With "low- and intermediate-level short-lived waste", the initial activity is higher, but radioactivity decays to an acceptable level relatively rapidly.
France's radioactive waste agency - Agence Nationale des Déchets Radioactifs (ANDRA) -is responsible for managing such waste and establishing appropriate disposal processes. ANDRA ensures that low-level waste from sources such as nuclear power plants, hospitals, factories and research laboratories is disposed of and monitored in accordance with safety guidelines. The agency's mission also includes designing and building repositories for waste not accepted by existing facilities.
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