What is Radwaste?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2019
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Radwaste is short for “radioactive waste,” a term used to refer to waste which contains radioactive materials. It comes from a number of sources, and it may vary from low-level waste with relatively low levels of radiation to very high-level, more dangerous waste. The generation of radwaste creates a number of issues, ranging from a need to protect the environment from harmful radiation to a desire to control the acquisition of radwaste so that it cannot fall into the wrong hands.

While many people associate radwaste specifically with processes of nuclear fission like those used to generate power and make bombs, it comes from all sorts of places. For example, hospitals generate a great deal of this type of waste, including contaminated clothing and needles used in cancer treatment, and it is also a byproduct of some industrial processes. By general agreement, all radwaste is treated as a threat which needs to be handled and contained with care.

This type of waste poses several dangers. The most obvious is the threat to the environment. The release of radiation can damage organisms exposed to the radiation, such as people, plants, and animals. Extremely high levels of radiation could make a region totally unusable and very dangerous. Radwaste also creates a political threat, as some types could potentially be used in dirty bombs which are bombs designed to spread nuclear contamination.


Containment of radwaste has become a pressing issue in many regions of the world, especially at sites where improperly contained waste has leaked, creating an environmental hazard. Because it poses a threat to human and environmental health, it must be handled, contained, and controlled, to ensure that it is not allowed to spread. Special facilities may be designated for the containment of radwaste, often creating friction in the communities where they are built, with citizens expressing their concerns about safety and the impact of the waste on future generations.

In addition to containing waste as it is generated, governments must also contend with poorly handled waste from previous generations. For example, barrels of radioactive materials were dumped in many locations in the ocean, forcing governments to attempt to retrieve these materials before they start leaking and pose a contamination hazard which could seriously disturb the marine environment.

This waste is also bound up with ethical issues, with some people expressing concern about nuclear proliferation as well as the cleanliness of nuclear power. In some communities, people believe that the generation of radwaste should not be an acceptable byproduct of industrial processes, and several advocacy organizations have argued that tighter restrictions need to be in place to reduce the generation of radwaste. Given that many containment facilities are overflowing with radioactive material, some of which is stored in unstable temporary containers, these concerns are entirely legitimate.


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