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Where is radioactive waste produced?

Radioactive substances are used in nuclear power plants and in medicine, industry and research. Radioactive waste is produced in the process. The waste producers are legally obliged to dispose of it safely.

Legislation protects humans and the environment

The producers of radioactive waste are obliged to dispose of it at their own cost. This is also known as the polluter pays principle (Nuclear Energy Act, Article 31). To ensure the permanent protection of humans and the environment, waste produced in Switzerland has to be disposed of in a deep geological repository (Nuclear Energy Act, Articles 30 and 31).

Waste from nuclear power plants

The largest producers of radioactive waste in Switzerland are the nuclear power plants. Four nuclear power plants are operational and generate electricity. The Mühleberg nuclear power plant was shut down in December 2019 and decommissioning is in progress.

Nuclear power plants generate two types of radioactive waste:

  • high-level waste in the form of spent fuel assemblies
  • low- and intermediate-level waste from operation and decommissioning
Kernkraftwerk Leibstadt
One of Switzerland’s nuclear reactors is located in Leibstadt. The reactor is inside the hemispherical building.

Waste from medicine, industry and research

Waste from medicine, industry and research will also eventually be sustainably disposed of in a deep geological repository. First, however, the raw waste has to be conditioned for disposal. Following this, it can be held in the Swiss Federal Interim Storage Facility (see also waste types). The Federal Government, in partnership with Nagra, is responsible for this waste.

What are radioactive substances used for?

Aside from the generation of electricity in nuclear power plants, radioactive substances have many uses.

Medical applications

Clinical diagnostics: To generate images of the inside of the body, medical professionals use techniques such as scintigraphy. For this investigation method, the patient ingests a substance containing radioactive tracers (or radiopharmaceuticals). These spread throughout the entire body and accumulate in certain organs or cells. Using the radiation from a tracer, it is possible to depict the location and structure of organs, tissue and tumours or the metabolism of organs.

Medizinsche Anwendung Radioaktivität PET CT Scanner
Using a special scanner and substances containing radioactive tracers, physicians can even identify small metastases in the body. Photo: © Grieze | Dreamstime.com

Radiation therapy: To treat cancer, specialists use strong external radiation sources which destroy the tumours. Alternatively, weaker sources with a localised effect are used over longer time periods directly in the body, for example in cervical cancer. In some cases, radioactive medications are also administered.

Healthcare: Ionising radiation is also used in food hygiene and in fighting pathogens. It can be used to kill bacteria such as salmonella and to extend the shelf-life of foodstuffs such as spices and seeds. Radiation also plays a role in eradicating the tsetse fly and Egyptian tiger mosquito. Male mosquitoes are sterilised through irradiation, preventing the reproduction of these dangerous insects when they are subsequently released.

Applications in industry and technology

Radioactive substances are used for materials testing, for example, welding seam inspection and for process monitoring of level and density measurements (radiometry). They are also used for analytical procedures such as the detection of drugs, explosives or water damage. Small amounts make fluorescent substances in paint light up, for example in old watches, old display units or compasses.

Schweissnahtprüfung
Testing a welding seam. Photo: MME Group

Radioactive substance in research

At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), a research reactor is fuelled with lowly-enriched uranium. The Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Villigen and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva use particle accelerators. The targeted radiation of certain accelerator components with particles results in the generation of radioactive substances that are needed for medical and industrial applications.

CERN
European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Photo: CERN

Dating: Various naturally occurring radioactive substances (radionuclides) with different half-lives can be used to determine the age of archaeological finds, rocks and groundwaters.

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