I'm writing a story about a town whose residents all work at a nuclear reprocessing site. Some teenagers begin to hang out near a small body of water close to the site that they call "the swamp". The swamp, unknown to them, is actually chemical waste from the site.

I know this is all very far fetched, so far, but hear me out. I'm wondering what the makeup of this chemical waste could be? And if so, would it be flammable? I'm thinking the waste would probably have a bit of plutonium and uranium in it, but I'm not very science oriented so I'm not sure. Any info would be very helpful!

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    – L.Dutch
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ There was a lake in Russia named Karachay... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 16:06

2 Answers 2


Just to touch on definitions first, nuclear and chemical waste refer to different types of hazards. Nuclear waste is the usually the remnants of spent nuclear fuel, or byproducts in the processing of the the fuel before it is used. Nuclear waste is hazardous because is radioactive (emits particles that are dangerous as they damage DNA).

Chemical waste is usually from other industrial processes, and is dangerous because the chemical itself is harmful when ingested, inhaled, etc.

Nuclear waste has varying degrees of severity- high level (very dangerous) waste includes spent nuclear fuel like caesium 137 and plutonium, to low level waste like clothing that has been contaminated with radioactive material. Depending what element it is, the half life (how long it takes for the radioactivity to reduce by half) could be decades to thousands of years.

Nuclear waste can be flammable, which is why many waste facilities invest heavily in remote fire detection and extinguishing. However, it depends on what type of waste- just as some materials are not flammable, not all waste is either. Intermediate level waste is often formed in to a 'sludge' before being placed into containers which would likely be less susceptible to fire, for example.

  • $\begingroup$ One thing that might be worth pointing out is that the long-lived decay products are dangerous on different time-scales than the short-lived decay products. Long-lived decay products release radiation slowly, so it's not dangerous to spend a few minutes near. But you wouldn't want to build a society near it. Short-lived decay products release radiation quickly, so it's dangerous to spend any time near. But it'll be gone in a few decades, maybe a century, so by the time your society is built, it's gone. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 20:10

Addressing the nuclear waste aspect, the government is VERY particular about waste products from nuclear facilities---the NRC has very strict regulations for disposal, so it would be unlikely for them to just be dumped in the same town as the facility. If you're looking for a common source of radioactive contamination, fracking often produces waste with alarmingly high levels of Radium, and is not nearly as well-tracked, because the radioactive materials are classed as Naturally Occurring. If you're set on the waste being from the site, it would almost certainly have been processed to remove long-lived radioisotopes, which would be disposed of separately, but there might be short-lived isotopes---in some cases, waste is left to decay before disposal, so that it doesn't need to go to expensive waste-storage sites. If some of this waste was accidentally released before it fully decayed there could potentially be a temporary contamination event (as well as a whole host of legal issues, but it sounds like that's a different kettle of fish). -sol


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