As already noted, the volume of nuclear waste produced by the nuclear industry is very small compared with other wastes generated. Each year, nuclear power generation facilities worldwide produce about 200,000 m3 of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, and about 10,000 m3 of high-level waste including used fuel designated as waste.
In the OECD countries, some 300 million tonnes of toxic wastes are produced each year, but conditioned radioactive wastes amount to only 81,000 m3 per year. In the UK for example, around 120,000,000 m3 of waste is generated per year – the equivalent of just over 20 dustbins full for every man, woman and child. The amount of nuclear waste produced per member of the UK populations is 840 cm3 (i.e. a volume of under one liter). Of this waste, 90% of the volume is only slightly radioactive and is categorized as low-level waste (with only 1% of the total radioactivity of all radioactive wastes). Intermediate-level waste makes up 7% of the volume and has 4% of the radioactivity. The most radioactive form of waste is categorized as high-level waste and whilst accounting for only 3% of the volume of all the radioactive waste produced (equating to around 25 cm3 per UK citizen per year), it contains 95% of the radioactivity.
A typical 1000 MWe light water reactor will generate (directly and indirectly) 200-350 m3 low- and intermediate-level waste per year. It will also discharge about 20 m3 (27 tonnes) of used fuel per year, which corresponds to a 75 m3 disposal volume following encapsulation if it is treated as waste. Where that used fuel is reprocessed, only 3 m3 of vitrified waste (glass) is produced, which is equivalent to a 28 m3 disposal volume following placement in a disposal canister.
This compares with an average 400,000 tonnes of ash produced from a coal-fired plant of the same power capacity. Today, volume reduction techniques and abatement technologies as well as continuing good practice within the work force all contribute to continuing minimization of waste produced, a key principle of waste management policy in the nuclear industry. Whilst the volumes of nuclear wastes produced are very small, the most important issue for the nuclear industry is managing their toxic nature in a way that is environmentally sound and presents no hazard to both workers and the general public.