Nuclear Weapons Production Waste

The creation of nuclear weapons produced a large amount of waste, which is still being managed today.

About Nuclear Weapons Production Waste

When the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, the United States, and much of the rest of the world, stopped
making and testing new nuclear weapons. Since then, the U.S. has focused on maintaining existing warheads
and is in the process of disposing of the radioactive waste left behind.
Plutonium and uranium were used to create fuel for nuclear weapons. When
nuclear bombs detonate, atoms split and release enormous amounts of energy
through a nuclear reaction. Between 1944 and 1988, the United States built
special reactors to make about 100 metric tons of plutonium for nuclear
weapons. The reactors created the highly radioactive plutonium by bombarding
uranium fuel rods with neutrons. Each time a uranium atom changed to a
plutonium atom, more neutrons were released, causing a chain reaction. The
process  continued until the majority of the uranium atoms were converted  to
plutonium, thus ending the chain reaction. At this point, the fuel rods are said  to
be spent (used up) and they were removed from the reactor.
Workers used strong acids to dissolve the plutonium from the fuel rods. This
process  left behind more than 100 million gallons of hazardous liquid waste. It is
called mixed waste because it contains both hazardous chemicals and
radioactive materials. The Department of Energy is working to safely cleanup
and dispose of these nuclear weapons production wastes.
Workers at nuclear weapons production facilities wore protective clothing and worked with a variety of
equipment. Clothing, glassware, tools, equipment, soils and sludges became  contaminated with radioactive
materials. These are called transuranic wastes and are permanently disposed of at the Waste Isolation Pilot
Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Rules  and Guidance

DOE's Stockpile Stewardship Program assesses the safety, security and reliability of existing nuclear
warheads without the use of nuclear explosions.
DOE is also is in charge of cleaning up and  disposing of nuclear weapons production wastes.  DOE's Waste
Isolation Pilot Plant facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico is the nation's first geological repository for permanent
disposal of transuranic wastes and transuranic mixed wastes  (those also containing hazardous chemicals).
The facility is a mine deep underground in salt formations. It was built specifically to store U.S. weapons
production wastes in a way that protects people and the outside environment.
DOE's Environment, Safety and Health office protects its radiation workers and the communities surrounding
its facilities.
 DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
(WIPP), a deep geologic repository
  (a mine deep in a large natural
    underground salt dome).
      (Source: U.S. DOE)
  United States Environmental Protection Agency | Office of Radiation and Indoor Air (6608T) |  EPA 402-F-14-036 | August 2014 | p. 1


The military must use DoD and EPA regulations to prevent releases of radioactive materials from DoD

Federal agencies are responsible for radioactive waste at their facilities. EPA regulates releases of radioactive
material that travel beyond the federal facility boundaries. Section 112 of the Agency's National Emission
Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants' (NESHAPs) helps federal facilities manage airborne releases of

The EPA oversees the DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The Agency sets limits on
how much radiation is allowed to leave the WIPP site. DOE must recertify its compliance with EPA's standards
every five years.

What you can do

Plutonium levels in the environment are very low. They pose little risk to most people. However, people who
live near old weapons production or testing sites may have a higher risk of exposure. You can contact your
local facility or visit their website to learn more. You can also contact your state radiation office to get more
information about monitoring and safety rules.

Where  to learn  more

You can learn more about nuclear weapons production waste by visiting the resources available on the
following webpage:
  United States Environmental Protection Agency | Office of Radiation and Indoor Air (6608T) |  EPA 402-F-14-036 |  August 2014 | p. 2