Bringing Radioactive Waste Programs Beyond Compliance


Disposing of radioactive waste can be a costly and time consuming effort if not managed properly. In addition to logistical considerations, meeting compliance requirements of state and federal regulations can be a daunting task.  Lauren Kelly offers valuable insight into the proper procedure for identifying, handling, and disposing of radioactive waste properly.

Lauren Kelly is an expert on radioactive waste programs.  She is a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager and previously was the manager of a hazardous materials program in an environmental safety program in New York City. Additionally, she has been a speaker at numerous CSHEMA conferences. Kelly explains that the use of radionuclides in a wide variety of research applications can lead to the generation of radioactive waste.


  “Many organizations that generate a lot of radioactive
waste don’t consider the most cost effective ways of managing it.
I recommend bringing in an entity that specializes in managing
radioactive waste program, such as Veolia. They can evaluate
the different waste streams and discuss the most cost effective disposal methods.



 “A lot of researchers will use a variety of different types of radionuclides as tracers for their research,” explains Kelly. “Those tracers may be used in animals during a research project. Additionally, radioactive waste may be generated when radionuclides contaminate undesirable areas or materials or when used to detect the presence of contamination."

Identifying Radioactive Waste

The first step toward bringing a program into compliance is identifying all types of radioactive waste. While some examples are obvious, such as contaminated rags and gloves, a full audit should be performed to verify that all streams are accounted for.

Examples of Common Radioactive Waste

  • Animal carcasses
  • Beta plates/96-well plates
  • Radioactive biological materials
  • Consolidated radioactive, nonhazardous liquids
  • Dry solid waste such as contaminated bench pads, gloves, etc.
  • Liquid scintillation vials
  • Mixed waste
  • Contaminated lead used as shielding
  • Exit signs
  • Smoke detectors
  • Check sources and sealed sources

Creating a Proactive Program Focused on Service

Designing Training Resources for Handlers

 “The personnel who pick up radioactive waste and place it into containers may not give much thought into how it will be managed downstream. Therefore, training staff members on how to better segregate the waste can result in savings for the organization. Hands on training in the field is often the best type of education, where techniques can be demonstrated.

“For example, laboratories may generate radioactive waste containing I-125, Cr-51, or Na-22 waste. These was streams may present a potential exposure issue to the researchers. If those researchers know they can count on reliable service from waste handlers, they will dispose of their waste streams on a more regular basis. This reduces their potential exposure and helps them discard of the waste in a safe and cost effective manner.
“Strong communication and a good service model are also important. If researchers know they can count on their waste being picked up on a certain day, consistently, they can efficiently manage their materials on their RSO provided permits, if applicable. Realistically, a lot of researchers’ grants and research dollars fund waste programs indirectly.”

Developing Training Resources for Users

“It’s important that researchers and handlers know what the organization's waste reduction program is and the importance of accurately labeling and segregating waste. For example, it may be required that they fill out a header on a waste label that lists the researcher’s name, their location, the isotope, their activity, and the type of waste that they’re working with. This type of information is helpful so if a waste handler finds something inconsistent or noncompliant with the waste stream they can go back to the researcher for more information.
“It’s also critical to understand the organization's user background during the education process and training. What may be acceptable in one country, state, or institution may not be at their current location. This can be challenging in international communities, especially if English isn’t their first language. Therefore, visual aids, such as a waste disposal guide, can be used to complement the educational programs an organization may already have in place.”

Producing Spill Response Videos

“Videos can be a very helpful way for radiation safety officers to demonstrate proper techniques to researchers or waste handlers. Examples could include properly setting up a radioactive material research bench, how an area should be delineated with ‘Caution: Radioactive Material’ tape, how to clean up small spills, how to use a Geiger counter to check for the presence of contamination, and more.

“Posting short video clips on a website is very helpful. Radiation Safety Officers typically have a wealth of knowledge and have a lot of practical experience and can demonstrate some of those finer techniques which will help a program not only be safe, but compliant, too.

Plan Cost Effective Waste Management

“Many organizations that generate a lot of radioactive waste don’t consider the most cost effective ways of managing it. I recommend bringing in an entity that specializes in managing radioactive waste programs, such as Veolia. They can evaluate the different waste streams and discuss the most cost effective disposal methods.

“For example, if you have dry solid waste in metal drums, it must be compacted and then disposed of in a landfill. A less expensive method of disposal may be to use fiber containers that can be incinerated. You would then only need to dispose of a small amount of ash as opposed to the entire compacted drum. This could also reduce liability to the organization in the "cradle to grave" management process.
“Another example of cost effective waste management would be separating short lived isotopes from long lived isotopes. Some isotopes may be mixed together, like H-3 and C-14, because they’re long lived, whereas short-lived isotopes like P-32, I-125, and P-33, it would be better to separate them. This separation of short-lived isotopes may even be required by organizations that have a license for decay in storage. Typically, short-lived isotopes can be held on-site, and then after a proper clearance process, discarded as non-radioactive materials. Again, that’s a cost savings mechanism to the organization that has the radioactive materials.”

Partner With an Expert in Compliance and Regulations

“It’s important to work with a knowledgeable partner like Veolia that knows the ins and outs of every state’s regulations. For example, in New York generators may opt to use the mixed waste exemption, which is very beneficial. There are several specific criteria to follow outlined in the regulations, but it allows the generators of mixed waste (hazardous and radioactive materials) to potentially manage their mixed waste as regular radioactive waste through decay in storage or while accumulating waste potentially over their 90 or 180 day generator clock, so that they can package waste in a more cost effective manner for disposal.

“If a generator knows that every couple of weeks a researcher generates a gallon’s worth of mixed waste, it would be cost effective to wait and dispose of a full drum as opposed to a three-quarter full drum by utilizing the mixed waste exemption.
“Segregating liquid scintillation vials is another method of reducing costs. People that have a lot of radioactive material laboratories are potentially running large amounts of wipe tests on a regular basis to check for contamination onsite. A lot of these wipe tests may not indicate something is contaminated, so they might be currently dumping all of their vials coming off the scintillation counter into one drum. This drum of radioactive and clean vials can be very expensive, because now they’re saying that there’s a possibility that there are several isotopes in that drum when, in fact, there may not be. If they can encourage the researchers using the liquid scintillation counter to separate their non-radioactive from their radioactive vials and their long lived isotope from their and short lived isotope vials, it can be a major cost savings mechanism for organizations.”

Effective Management Onsite

  • Identify all types of radioactive waste that are generated onsite
  • Conduct a full audit of all waste to verify that all radioactive waste streams are included
  • Train staff members on how to segregate the waste and identify savings for the organization
  • Educate all users on the specifics of the organization's waste reduction program and stress the importance of labeling and segregating all waste
  • Identify videos for Radiation Safety Officers to demonstrate proper techniques to researchers and waste handlers
  • Create visual aids where necessary to illustrate proper management onsite
  • Ask for help from a company that specializes in managing radioactive waste programs, such as Veolia. They can evaluate the different waste streams and recommend the most cost effective disposal methods.