Nuclear power is produced for various applications. They are mainly used in the production of electricity, through nuclear fission, and are also used in the treatment of and diagnosis of diseases. They are also used for destructive purposes, such as the production of nuclear weapons. But what happens to the byproducts from these applications? Nuclear waste, also called radioactive waste, is what's left from the use of nuclear materials.
Nuclear reactions can occur in one of two ways. They can occur naturally or they are man-made. The federal government or state governments regulate the radioactive wastes and materials formed from these reactions. In nuclear power plants, the reactors use lightly enriched uranium fuel. It produces energy using the process of nuclear fission. This yields discharge that contains plutonium and other highly radioactive isotopes. In the beginning of the nuclear era, it was believed that the potential energy from discharged nuclear fuel could be used, making nuclear power an unlimited source of energy. But this seemed to be dangerous for several reasons. It was feared that the plutonium from reprocessed fuel could be stolen and used in nuclear weapons.
For this reason, used nuclear fuel is stored in one of two ways. It can be stored in a wet environment or in a dry environment. In wet environment storage, used or spent fuel rods are placed in deep water pools. The rods must be under at least twenty feet of water to protect any worker near the pool. Fuel rods must also be far away enough from other spent rods to prevent a nuclear reaction. The other type of storage, dry storage, is used above ground. Used fuel is put in a cask. The rod is immersed in gas. The cask may be made of metal or it may be made of concrete. In either kind of storage, nuclear material must be kept for extended periods of time, due to the radioactive substances having such long half-lives.