Like any other industry, waste is produced by the nuclear industry as a by-product of generating electricity. The costs associated with spent fuel management, plant decommissioning and waste disposal are included in the cost of electricity generation.
Nuclear is one (if not the only) form of electricity generation to include the full lifecycle costs within the cost of generation.
Any waste arising from new build nuclear reactors would be significantly less than from current reactors due to advancements in reactor technology.
Waste is classified as either Low level waste (LLW), Intermediate level waste (ILW) or High level waste (HLW).
Waste other than those suitable for disposal with ordinary refuse, but not exceeding certain concentrations of radioactivity. LLW consists of equipment, protective clothing and building material (soil, concrete, cement and rubble) most of which can be directly handled by people. It is not particularly hazardous and is generally disposed of within a short period of being produced.
Waste which is more radioactive than Low Level Waste but heat doesn't need to be taken into account in the design of storage or disposal facilities.
Waste in which the temperature may rise significantly as a result of their radioactivity, so this factor has to be taken into account in the design of storage or disposal facilities.
Low level waste and Intermediate level waste account for about 97% of the waste produced.
HLW and spent fuel is kept in secure nuclear facilities with appropriate protection measures. Most high level wastes produced are held as stable ceramic solids or in vitrified form (glass), designed to ensure that radioactive isotopes resulting from the nuclear reaction are retained securely in the glass or ceramic.
Because of radioactive decay, waste can move from one category to a lower one, e.g. from HLW to ILW, or from ILW to LLW).
The storage or nuclear waste is a political issue, not a technical issue. Disposal solutions are currently being developed for HLW that are safe, environmentally sound and publicly acceptable. The most widely accepted solution is deep geological disposal, and repository projects are well advanced in countries such as Finland, Sweden and the USA.
A deep geological waste repository (WIPP) is already in operation in the US for the storage of transuranic waste - long-lived ILW contaminated with military materials such as plutonium. These countries have demonstrated that political and public acceptance issues at a community and national level can be met.
Today, safe management practices are implemented or planned for all categories of radioactive waste. LLW and most ILW are being disposed of securely in near-surface repositories in many countries so as to cause no harm or risk in the long-term. This practice has been carried out for many years in many countries as a matter of routine.
HLW is currently safely contained and managed in interim storage facilities. The amount of HLW produced (including spent fuel when this is considered a waste) is in fact small in relation to other industry sectors.
HLW is currently increasing by about 12,000 tonnes worldwide every year, which is the equivalent of a two-storey structure built on a basketball court or about 100 double-decker buses and is modest compared with other industrial wastes.