Radioactive Waste: What is it? How do we keep ourselves safe from it?

Radioactive wastes are usually by-products of nuclear power generation and other applications of nuclear technology, such as research and medicine. It is hazardous to people and the environment. Therefore, it is regulated by government agencies to protect the health of citizens and the environment.

Over time, radioactivity diminishes. Radioactive waste is properly stored and isolated until it is no longer hazardous. The period of time that radioactive waste needs to be isolated and stored depends on the type of waste. Common medical and industrial radioactive wastes, often low-level wastes with low levels of radioactivity per mass or volume, may need to be stored for only a few hours or days. High-level wastes, such as nuclear fuel or byproducts of nuclear reprocessing, may need to be stored for millions of years!

Radioactive medical waste usually contains beta particles and gamma ray emitters. Beta particles are high-energy and high-speed electrons or positrons emitted by certain types of radioactive nuclei. Beta particles can be used to treat conditions such as eye and bone cancer, and can be used in radiation therapy. Gamma radiation is the electromagnetic radiation of high frequency. It has very high energy per photon. Although gamma rays can sometimes cause cancer, they are also used to treat some types, since the rays kill cancer cells also. During gamma-knife surgery, multiple concentrated beams of gamma rays are directed on the growth in order to kill the cancerous cells.

All ionizing radiation can cause damage at a cellular level. However, beta particles are mostly non-penetrating and external exposure to them causes only localized damage. Gamma rays are much more penetrating and cause diffuse damage throughout the body, rather than just burns. Learn about the products you work with, and dispose of radioactive waste properly, and you’ll maintain a healthy environment for all.

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