5 Effects of Radioactive Waste Explained

Effects of radioactive waste include; environmental pollution, genetic mutation, increased cancer risk, cutaneous radiation injury, and economic losses.


They can be categorized into effects on the environment, plants and animals, and humans.


Nuclear waste is dangerous because it emits radiations that can damage both abiotic and biotic components of the ecosystem.


This article discusses the effects of radioactive waste (also called nuclear waste), as follows;






-Effects of Radioactive Waste on the Environment

Effects of radioactive waste on the environment are mainly soil and water pollution, although air quality can be affected negatively as well.





1). Soil, Water Air Pollution (as one of the Effects of Radioactive Waste)

Radioactive waste can cause soil pollution by introducing harmful radioactive materials that mix with soil particles and reduce fertility while increasing toxicity.

Water pollution by radioactive waste occurs when such materials enter into water bodies as a result of human activities in the process of nuclear fuel production, or nuclear waste management.

Some nuclear waste disposal methods like dilution and dispersion can cause both water pollution, if the method is not practiced in a sustainable manner.

Various examples of nuclear waste such as uranium mill tailings (UMT) can cause soil, water and air pollution because they occur as solid particles that can be air-borne, or may take the form of slurry.

Even after disposal, leaching of radioactive waste that is not properly isolated in geological repositories, can cause groundwater pollution and pose a major hazard risk.

Radioactive pollutants in soil pollution (as well as in other types of pollution) are simply the unwanted radioactive materials that are deposited in the environment in such concentrations as can have notable environmental impact [5].

Effects of Radioactive Waste on the Environment: Soil, Water, Air Pollution (Credit: АннаВо 2010 .CC BY-SA 3.0.)
Effects of Radioactive Waste on the Environment: Soil, Water, Air Pollution (Credit: АннаВо 2010 .CC BY-SA 3.0.)






-Effects of Radioactive Waste on Plants and Animals

The main effect of radioactive waste on plants and animals is genetic mutation, which may involve significant damage to DNA.





2). Genetic Mutation

Radiation can cause genetic mutations in animals, by altering the genetic materials responsible for normal cell-functioning, metabolism and reproduction.

For animals, the role of radioactive waste in genetic mutation is based on the effect of radioactivity on DNA.

Radioactive waste affects DNA by emitting ionizing radiation that breaks up the strands and damages the cells that make up DNA, so that some cells are destroyed and others are significantly altered.

These effects on DNA are particularly severe, because they can be transferred by heredity from exposed animals (which include humans) to their unexposed offspring [2].

Radiation causes mutation in plants, by the same mechanism of cell alteration and damage; so that plants exposed to ionizing radiation from nuclear wastes become altered in their genetic and physiological characteristics.

The effect of radiation on plant genes can be an advantage, in cases where it is deliberately used to induce genetic diversity in plant species in order to diversify the output of sustainable agriculture, or to achieve some desired characteristics in plant species.






-Effects of Radioactive Waste on Humans

Effects of radioactive waste on humans are; increased cancer risk, cutaneous radiation injury (CRI) and economic losses on environmental remediation and healthcare.





3). Increased Cancer Risk

One of the ways in which radioactive waste affects humans is by increasing the risk of cancer incidence in exposed populations.

Radiation increases the risk of cancer by damaging DNA and altering genetic make-up to result in cancer-prone or cancer-inducing genetic mutations, when such radiation is absorbed by living tissues.

Quantifications of the extent to which radiation increases the risk of cancer have shown that exposure to radiant energy in nuclear medical procedures like X-rays, has a very minor effect on cancer risk.

However, significant and uncontrolled exposure like that which can occur environments containing large nuclear waste deposits, can be very impactful.

Analyses of cancer risk for inhabitants of areas close to nuclear power plants have generally not indicated any significant effect of such proximity on the risk of cancer [6].

What this means is that direct exposure is more likely to have such effect.

Examples of 'direct' exposure in this context include that of workers in unmanaged nuclear facilities, and people in areas where nuclear weapons like atomic bombs have been recently detonated.





4). Cutaneous Radiation Injury (CRI)

Cutaneous radiation injury is a type of radiation injury that involves damage to skin cells that occurs as a result of exposure to significant amounts of radiation.

Types of radiation injuries based on causes are; external irradiation injury, radioactive contamination injury and radioactive cell assimilation injury [3].

When radioactive material gets on the skin, it releases radiation that can either cause external dermal damage, both external internal dermal damage, or internal damage to tissues, organs and cells.

The resulting injuries from radiation may affect the skin, brain cells, and cardiovascular system.

These injuries may be indicative of acute radiation syndrome, where large doses of nuclear radiation have been absorbed by body tissues [1].

While cutaneous radiation injuries are more likely to occur from direct contact with radioactive waste and/or significant amount of nuclear radiation, they are sometimes caused by deliberate, controlled exposure during nuclear medical procedures.

Effects of Radioactive Waste on Humans: Cutaneous Radiation Injury (Credit: Ericalens 2008 .CC BY-SA 3.0.)
Effects of Radioactive Waste on Humans: Cutaneous Radiation Injury (Credit: Ericalens 2008 .CC BY-SA 3.0.)





5). Economic Losses

Aside the radiological effects of radioactive waste, it can also have some socioeconomic impacts on the human population.

The management of nuclear waste is complex and can be expensive, leading to significant investment for effective isolation of waste alone. This reduces the economic viability of electricity generation from nuclear energy.

In the case of nuclear pollution, major economic expenditure can be incurred in the form of healthcare for affected persons, and intensive environmental remediation.

Lastly, negative social imagery caused by the presence of notable amount of waste from nuclear activities, can reduce the economic viability of any region [4].







Effects of radioactive waste are;

1. Soil, Water Air Pollution

2. Genetic Mutation

3. Increased Cancer Risk

4. Cutaneous Radiation Injury (CRI)

5. Economic Losses







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2). Dubrova, Y. E.; Sarapultseva, EI. (2022). "Radiation-induced transgenerational effects in animals." Int J Radiat Biol. 2022;98(6):1047-1053. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/09553002.2020.1793027. (Accessed 7 February 2023).

3). Singh, V.; Seed, T. M. (2020). "Pharmacological management of ionizing radiation injuries: current and prospective agents and targeted organ systems." Expert Opinion on Pharmacotherapy 21(3):1-21. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/14656566.2019.1702968. (Accessed 7 February 2023).

4). Slovic, P.; Layman, M.; Kraus, N.; Flynn, J.; Chalmers, J.; Gesell, G. (1991). "Perceived risk, stigma, and potential economic impacts of a high-level nuclear waste repository in Nevada." Risk Anal. 1991 Dec;11(4):683-96. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.1991.tb00658.x. (Accessed 7 February 2023).

5). Smičiklas, I.; Šljivić-Ivanović, M. (2016). "Radioactive Contamination of the Soil: Assessments of Pollutants Mobility with Implication to Remediation Strategies." Soil Contamination - Current Consequences and Further Solutions. Available at: https://doi.org/10.5772/64735. (Accessed 7 February 2023).

6). Wing, S.; Richardson, D. B.; Hoffmann, W. (2011). "Cancer risks near nuclear facilities: the importance of research design and explicit study hypotheses." Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Apr;119(4):417-21. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1002853. (Accessed 7 February 2023).

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