Collecting and Preparing Radioactive Waste

Solid Radioactive Waste Management

Solid radioactive waste is disposed of by land burial at licensed, low-level radioactive waste facilities or by holding short-lived wastes for radioactive decay until their radiation levels are indistinguishable from background, and then disposing of them as ordinary waste. Because the availability of land burial sites is subject to political and technical limitations, and the space available for decaying short-lived wastes is limited, radioisotope users should make every effort to minimize the volume of radioactive wastes generated in their laboratories.

All solid radioactive waste is packaged by users and then transferred to Division of Research Safety (DRS) personnel for treatment by decay-in-storage or other method of final disposal.  

As much as possible, wastes shall be segregated according to isotopes. It is especially important to segregate dry wastes containing tritium (H-3) and carbon-14 (C-14) from other long-lived isotopes.

Solid wastes should be collected, stored, and packaged in containers lined with plastic bags with a thickness of at least four mils of LDPE, clear or transparent yellow in color, and bearing the radiation hazard symbol. The containers shall be labeled with the radiation hazard symbol and the words “Caution–Radioactive Material”. Individual bags should be no greater than 30 gallons in volume. Laboratories are responsible for providing their own disposal containers and bags.  

No freestanding liquids, lead, sharps or animal carcasses/tissue may be disposed of in solid wastes. If lead cannot be decontaminated, it should be packaged separately for collection. See Section 8.3 of the Radiation Safety Manual for handling of radioactive sharps. 

Activities that generate wastes that are classified as both hazardous chemical wastes and radioactive wastes may not be initiated without specific approval from the Radiation and Laser Safety Committee or DRS.

It is the responsibility of the laboratory personnel to comply with the segregation, collection, packaging, and labeling requirements and to secure all wastes for removal from the laboratory. DRS may refuse any package that does not conform to the requirements of this section or which, in their opinion, may present a safety hazard to waste-handling personnel or members of the public.

Prior to pick-up by DRS, each container must have a completed Radioactive Waste tag attached to it. These tags are available from DRS. Appendix B of the Radiation Safety Manual gives instructions for completing these tags. When waste has been properly prepared, logon to the Radioactive Pickup Request page and complete the online pickup request.

Liquid Scintillation Counting Vials, Glassware, and Plastic Containers

Empty liquid scintillation counting vials that contained media in which the concentration of C-14 or H-3 is less than 0.05 microCurie per milliliter (μCi/ml) need not be decontaminated and should be disposed of with the regular, non-radioactive solid waste. Ensure that vials have been properly emptied and “radioactive material” labels have been removed or defaced.

Empty vials containing radioactive materials other than C-14 or H-3 must be held for decay or decontaminated.

After contaminated vials have been washed, a representative sample of the wash water should be counted to determine the effectiveness of the washing. If the average count rate is less than twice the background level, dispose of the containers in the non-radioactive waste. Containers that cannot be sufficiently decontaminated must be disposed of in the solid radioactive waste after having been properly emptied and dried. Wash water may be disposed of according to the conditions in Section 8.4 of the Radiation Safety Manual.  

Most glass items (e.g., test tubes, dishes) can be decontaminated and re-used after routine washing (or an overnight soaking) with an industrial-strength detergent.

Radioactive Sharps

Radioactive sharps are hazardous items that require special precautions and handling. If the following items have come into contact with radioisotopes, dispose of them in containers specifically designed for sharps that bear a Caution–Radioactive Material label listing isotope and date:

  • Needles and syringes,
  • Pasteur pipettes,
  • Scalpels and razor blades,
  • Microscope slides and coverslips,
  • Glassware that cannot be decontaminated.

Sharps containers are closable, puncture-resistant, leak-proof on the sides and bottoms, and are typically available in 1-quart, 2-gallon, and 8-gallon sizes.

Most glassware, such as liquid scintillation vials and test tubes, is easily decontaminated as described in Section 8.2 of the Radiation Safety Manual and should not be routinely discarded as sharps.

When sharps containers are full and properly tagged, enter the appropriate information for pickup and disposal on the Sharps Disposal Containers page

Animal Carcasses

Radioactive material used in animals must be handled on a case-by-case basis.  Principal Investigators planning to administer radioactive material to animals should contact DRS for guidance concerning carcass disposal.  

Animal tissues containing 0.05 µCi or less of hydrogen-3, carbon-14, or iodine-125 per gram of animal tissue averaged over the weight of the entire animal can be disposed of as if it were not radioactive.  However, animal tissue in which radioactive materials have been introduced shall not be disposed in a manner that would permit its use either as food for humans or as animal feed, such as rendering. 

Unacceptable Methods of Radioactive Waste Disposal

No freestanding liquids, lead, sharps, or animal carcasses/tissue may be disposed of in solid wastes.  

Under no circumstances shall personnel bury radioactive waste in the soil.

Under no circumstances shall non-aqueous radioactive waste be released into the sewage system.  

Aqueous radioactive liquids in excess of the concentrations specified in Section 8.4 of the Radiation Safety Manual shall not be released into the sewage system. The liquid must either be held for decay or turned into dry waste and packaged appropriately. 

Carcasses or animal tissues in which radioactive materials have been introduced shall not be disposed of by rendering (a manner that would permit its use either as food for humans or as animal feed).

Last Update: 6/6/2017