Radioactive Waste

Discharge to Sewer/ Airborne Release

State and Federal regulations allow radioactive materials licensees to discharge radioactive materials to sanitary sewer and to the atmosphere by incineration for certain radioisotopes in specific quantities, and concentrations.

Decay in Storage

Radioisotopes having short half-lives may be stored at the licensee’s facility until the material is no longer detectable.  The material may then be disposed as non radioactive waste as long as all radioactive labels have been removed or made illegible.  This method of disposal is called “Decay in storage”.

Ocean Burial

Many decades ago, radioactive materials were disposed at sea.  However, the United States became a Contracting Party to the London Convention (ratified April 29, 1974) , which bans the disposing of radioactive materials at sea.  The London Convention, entered into force on August 30, 1975, applies to the deliberate disposal at sea of wastes or other matter from vessels, aircraft, platforms and other man-made structures at sea, as well as to the deliberate disposal at sea of vessels, aircraft, platforms or other man-made structures themselves.  Contracting Parties to the London Convention agreed to control dumping by implementing regulatory programs to assess the need for, and the potential impact of, dumping.  The London Convention requires that Contracting Parties issue a permit for the dumping of wastes and other matter at sea, and generally prohibits the dumping of certain hazardous materials.

Land Burial

Land burial of radioactive materials is authorized only in a licensed low level radioactive waste facility. Although the Code of Virginia authorizes the sitting and licensure of such a facility, there are none in Virginia.

Low Level Radioactive Waste

Since a few low level radioactive waste facilities can handle the nation’s disposal needs, Congress has authorized the creation of regional low level radioactive compacts for states to join, rather than each state build its own facility.  Until July 1, 2008, the low-level waste facility for the eastern U.S. was located in Barnwell, SC. After this date the South Carolina Legislature closed Barnwell to all states except for those in the Atlantic Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Compact (Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina).

Southeast Low -Level Radioactive Waste Regional Compact

Virginia is a member of the Southeast Low -Level Radioactive Waste Regional Compact.  To meet their obligations under the Act, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia formed the Southeast Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Compact in 1983. The number of states in the Compact changed to six with the withdrawal of South Carolina in 1995 and North Carolina in 1999. The compact concept offers the significant advantage of rotating responsibility for the region’s LLRW and maximizing efficient use of available resources to protect public health and the environment.  The mission of the Compact is “to ensure that adequate, reliable, and appropriate services are available, now and in the foreseeable future, such that low-level radioactive waste generated in the Southeast Region can be safely managed in an efficient, equitable, economical, and environmentally responsible manner in order that each party state may meet its responsibility for providing for the availability of capacity either within or outside the State for disposal of low-level radioactive waste generated within its borders (Article 1, PL 99-240).”

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a News Release on May 29, 2008 entitled “NRC Updates Guidance to Licensees for Extended Storage of Low-Level Radioactive Waste.” See

For information regarding activities of the Southeast Compact see their web page at:

High Level Radioactive Waste

Radioactive waste that is highly radioactive and have long half life requires additional precautions for disposal and is regulated by the federal government. An example of high level radioactive waste is spent reactor fuel.  Spent reactor fuel originating from US Naval Nuclear reactors or fuel provided to foreign countries under the “Atoms for Peace” Program are returned to the Department of Energy for disposal at its facility in Hanford, WA.

Currently there is no high-level radioactive waste disposal facility for spent commercial nuclear reactor fuel.  Congress has approved the selection of a site located at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. For information on this facility see the following web page: U.S. GAO: Disposal of High Level Nuclear Waste Summary

Until this facility is opened, all commercial nuclear power stations are required to store their spent fuel at the power station.  Most power stations have limited storage capacity to store spent fuel in fuel storage pools.  The spent fuel generates significant heat after it is removed from the reactor. This is called decay heat and can damage the fuel rod assemblies if the heat is not removed.  So they are typically stored in a pool of water.  Virginia Power pioneered work in the development of storing these spent fuel assemblies in a dry cask.  The large steel casks have fins surrounding the cask to radiate the heat from the casks into the air, in other words the spent fuel is air cooled instead of using a liquid coolant, such as water.  The first dry cask storage facility in the nation is located at Surry Nuclear Power Station.  The North Anna Nuclear Power Station now has one as well.


Office of Radiological Health | 109 Governor Street, 7th Floor | Richmond, VA 23219

Telephone (804) 864-8150 | Fax: (804) 864-8155