What is Radioactive Pollution? - Causes & Management

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What is Radioactive Pollution?

What is Radioactive Pollution? Radioactive pollution, like any other kind of pollution, is the release of something unwanted into the environment and, in this case, the unwanted thing is radioactive material. Radioactive pollution can be a very dangerous thing because radiation mutates DNA, causing abnormal growth and possibly cancer, and this radiation remains in the atmosphere for years, slowly diminishing over time. There are many causes of radioactive pollution, which can significantly harm the environment. There are techniques used to manage this pollution, however, we are far from keeping our planet clean of radioactive pollution.

Causes Of Radioactive Pollution

There are many causes of radioactive pollution. The causes are, as you may have guessed, radioactive substances or, more accurately, radioactive waste but only when improperly disposed of. If radioactive waste is disposed of in the appropriate manner then it does not contribute towards radioactive pollution. The causes are as follows:

  • Production of nuclear weapons - radioactive materials used in this production have high health risks and release a small amount of pollution. Thanks to good current health-standards this release is not significant and is not a danger to us unless an accident occurs. Standards have not always been so high, however, as in Fernald, Ohio.
  • Decommissioning of nuclear weapons - the decommissioning of nuclear weapons causes slightly more radioactive pollution than in the production, however, the waste (alpha particles) is still of low risk and not dangerous unless ingested.
  • Mining of radioactive ore (uranium, phosphate etc.) - mining these involves crushing and processing of the radioactive ores and this generates radioactive waste which emits alpha particles. This waste is of low risk unless ingested.
  • Coal ash - it may come as a surprise that coal ash can be very dangerous. Some coal contains more radioactive material than usual and is often referred to as 'dirty' coal; when this is burnt the ash becomes more radioactive as the radioactive particles do not burn well. This level of radioactivity is less than in phosphate rocks, however, due to small amounts being released into the atmosphere and its ability to be inhaled, this ash is significantly more dangerous.
  • Medical waste - a number of radioactive isotopes are used in medicine, either for treatment or diagnostics. These can be left to decay over a short period after which they are able to be disposed of as normal waste.
  • Nuclear power plants - nuclear power plants under current standards produce little radioactive pollution due to safety precautions that must be adhered to. Accidents at these power plants can cause dangerously high radioactive pollution, such as in the case of Chernobyl, the most well-known and worst nuclear disaster in history and the more recent Fukushima, after the earthquake and tidal wave in Japan.

Morsleben, Germany

An example of a geological excavation used for disposal of radioactive waste
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An example of a geological excavation used for disposal of radioactive waste

Radioactive Waste Management

Part of the reason that radioactive pollution is a problem is that radiation can remain for up to a million years if levels of certain isotopes are high enough. For this reason radioactive waste management is very important and plans stretch up to around 100 years in the future, with ongoing evaluations and research into these to make sure radioactive pollution affects us as little as possible. There are four main techniques used for radioactive waste management:

  • Geological disposal – this is, effectively, the burying of radioactive material. Large geologic formations are located and tunnels as deep as 1000m underground are drilled. Rooms are then excavated at the bottom of these and radioactive material is stored here until it has decayed enough to not be dangerous any more. Radioactive waste has also previously been dumped into the world’s oceans but following the sixteenth meeting of the LDC (London Dumping Convention) in 1993, the dumping of radioactive waste into the sea is banned, permanently.
  • Transmutation – transmutation of radioactive waste is the process of consuming this radioactive waste and turning it into less harmful waste. This is currently not used very often due to high costs, however, research is being done to make the process more efficient and more economically viable. This currently is our most environmentally friendly radioactive waste management technique and, as such, when perfected will effectively solve the problem of radioactive waste.
  • Re-use of radioactive waste – some radioactive isotopes, such as strontium-90 and caesium-137 are able to be extracted for use in other industries such as food irradiation. The re-use of radioactive waste means that the quantity of waste produced is reduced, so this serves as another good environmentally friendly management scheme.
  • Space disposal – space disposal is not currently used to reduce radioactive pollution, due to the potential problems which could occur when attempting to carry out the procedure. If, for example, a rocket used to launch the waste fails (and bear in mind that many rockets would have to be used due to the large amount of radioactive waste) then huge amounts of radioactive material would be released into the atmosphere, causing significant health risks to people within thousands of miles of the launch. Sometime in the future this may be possible, however, for now, it is best for us to avoid space disposal.

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