Managing radioactive substances

Introduction Radioactive materials are used in some industries, including the medical industry and some manufacturing activities. There are…

This guidance was withdrawn on


Radioactive materials are used in some industries, including the medical industry and some manufacturing activities.

There are legal controls on keeping and using radioactive materials and accumulating and disposing of radioactive waste. These aim to protect people and the environment from the harmful effects of radiation.

If your business works with radioactive substances you must have an environmental permit or be covered by an exemption. Your permit or the exemption will cover activities such as keeping or using radioactive material and receiving, storing or disposing of radioactive waste. You must comply with the conditions in your environmental permit or exemption as they control the impact your activities have on the environment and human health.

This guide is intended for users of radioactive substances on non-nuclear sites. It is not intended for radioactive waste disposal sites, underground storage or disposal facilities, or nuclear licensed sites (such as nuclear power stations). It outlines what radioactive substances are, how to apply for an environmental permit and what you must do to comply with your permit.

What are radioactive substances?

Radioactive substances include radioactive material and radioactive waste. Different legal controls apply to handling radioactive material and dealing with radioactive waste.

Radioactive material

Radioactive material includes substances or articles that are radioactive, or have become radioactive through non-natural processes, for example at a nuclear reactor.

Radioactive materials are used by many organisations. For example, hospitals, research organisations, radiographers and process industries use radioactive materials for:

  • diagnosing and treating disease
  • controlling industrial processes
  • preventing static electricity
  • industrial radiography
  • scientific research

Different types of radioactive material, including open and sealed radioactive sources, are used for different activities.

Open radioactive sources are radioactive materials that you can easily divide, disperse or dilute. They can be in a liquid, gaseous or sometimes solid form. Open sources include radioactive laboratory chemicals and radiopharmaceuticals.

Open radioactive sources can potentially contaminate other material through leakage or leaching. You must store all open radioactive sources securely.

Sealed radioactive sources have a structure which prevents radioactive material from leaking during normal use. If you use sealed sources incorrectly you could cause radioactive contamination.

Sealed radioactive sources used to be called ‘closed’ sources. They are categorised according to their hazard or risk as:

  • high activity sealed sources (HASS)
  • sources of similar potential hazard to HASS
  • category 5 (low hazard or risk)

A sealed source may take the form of a welded steel capsule, or a homogenous, laminated, electrodeposited or foil source.

HASS present a greater hazard to the environment and human health than other sealed sources. HASS may include sterilisation sources, hospital radiotherapy sources, industrial radiography sources, density and moisture gauges and some industrial process control gauges.

Download HASS guidance from the Environment Agency website (PDF, 129K).

Mobile radioactive apparatus

Mobile radioactive apparatus includes equipment, appliances or other things that are portable and classed as radioactive material. They may be used for:

  • testing, measuring or investigation
  • releasing radioactive material into the environment or introducing it into organisms

Mobile radioactive apparatus may contain sealed or open radioactive sources.

You must have an environmental permit if you use or keep mobile radioactive apparatus, unless you are covered by an exemption.

Radioactive waste

Radioactive waste includes certain substances which would be radioactive material if they were not waste, or substances which have been contaminated by radioactive material or other radioactive waste. It can be in a solid, liquid or gaseous form.

Radioactive waste may include contaminated clothing that needs to be disposed of, laboratory wastes from the use of open radioactive material or a sealed source which is scrap.

Environmental permits and exemptions for radioactive substance activities

You must have an environmental permit if you carry out a radioactive substances activity including:

  • keeping or using radioactive material at your premises
  • accumulating radioactive waste on your premises
  • disposing of radioactive waste on or from your premises
  • receiving radioactive waste for disposal
  • keeping or using mobile radioactive apparatus for certain purposes

Disposing of radioactive waste includes discharging radioactive waste into the air, land, sea, surface water (such as rivers and lakes) or foul sewers. You are also disposing of radioactive waste if you transfer it to another site.

Find radioactive substances guidance on the Environment Agency website.

Download environmental permitting guidance on radioactive substances regulation from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) website (PDF, 567K).

You will not need to apply for an environmental permit if you already held a certificate of registration or authorisation on 5 April 2010 and it meets your current needs. This will have automatically become an environmental permit on 6 April 2010.

You must not carry out a radioactive substances activity before you receive your environmental permit. If you are unsure whether you need an environmental permit for radioactive substances activities, you should contact the Environment Agency.

Exemptions from environmental permitting

You do not need an environmental permit if an exemption applies to your activities. The exemption specifies the types of premises, materials or waste which do not need a permit.

If you rely on an exemption you are responsible for checking that:

  • the exemption applies to your activities
  • you can comply with the conditions of the relevant exemption

You do not need to register your exemption with the Environment Agency.

Find information about exemptions on the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) website.

Contact a suitable radiation protection adviser, radioactive waste adviser or the Environment Agency if you are unsure whether your activities are covered by an exemption.

Nuclear site regulation

This guidance is not intended for radioactive waste disposal sites, underground storage or disposal facilities, or nuclear licensed sites.

Nuclear licensed sites are jointly regulated by the Environment Agency and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Find information about the Nuclear Directorate on the HSE website. Read nuclear industry guidance on the Environment Agency website.

Applying for an environmental permit for radioactive substance activities

There are three main types of environmental permit for radioactive substance activities:

  • standard rules permits for keeping or using small, non-exempt sealed radioactive sources
  • permits for other sealed sources, including high activity sealed sources (HASS), sources of a similar level of potential hazard to HASS and sources contained in mobile radioactive apparatus
  • permits for open source use and waste storage and disposal

You must complete an application form for the type of permit you need and pay an application fee to the Environment Agency. Find radioactive substance permit application forms on the Environment Agency website.

You must submit a site plan with your application unless it is for mobile radioactive apparatus.

Disposing of radioactive waste can be very expensive so make sure that you can afford these costs before you apply for a permit.

Your radioactive substances permit will also cover water discharge or groundwater activities that result from the operation of your radioactive substances activity. For example, if you have a permit for the disposal of solid radioactive waste to land, your permit will cover both the disposal and any related water discharge or groundwater activities.

If you carry out any other water discharge or groundwater activities that do not result directly from your radioactive substances activities you will be issued with separate environmental permits - one for your radioactive substances activities and one or more for your other regulated facilities.

Download guidance on how the Environment Agency regulates non-nuclear radioactive substance activities from the Environment Agency website (PDF, 278K).

Complying with your environmental permit for radioactive substance activities

You must comply with the conditions in your environmental permit. Conditions control the impact your radioactive substance activities could have on the environment and human health.

The Environment Agency will carry out site inspections, conduct audits and review information it receives about your site to make sure you are complying with your permit.

You can be fined, or even sent to prison, if you do not comply with the terms of your environmental permit.

Comply with your permit conditions

The conditions in your environmental permit will depend on what radioactive substances activities you carry out at your site. Your permit may contain conditions that relate to:

  • managing your site activities
  • what activities are permitted on your site
  • operating your site, such as site security and safe storage
  • high activity sealed radioactive sources (HASS)
  • transferring radioactive sources
  • receiving radioactive waste
  • accumulating radioactive waste, including accumulation limits
  • disposing of radioactive waste safely and securely, including appropriate disposal routes
  • keeping records, reporting and making notifications

For example, if you store radioactive substances the conditions in your permit might require you to:

  • prevent unauthorised persons from accessing the radioactive substances
  • take measures to prevent loss of, theft of or damage to the radioactive substances
  • maintain the radioactive substances and any associated containers and equipment in good repair
  • ensure the radioactive store is labelled clearly and correctly

If your business keeps or uses HASS, disposes of HASS or holds sealed sources with a similar level of potential hazard, your environmental permit will contain additional conditions to protect people and the environment. For example, you must comply with additional site security arrangements. There are also special reporting requirements and additional financial requirements for HASS.

You must display a copy of your environmental permit on your business premises, unless it relates to sealed radioactive sources or it is otherwise subject to national security restrictions.

The Environment Agency has issued guidance on how to comply with the conditions in your environmental permit:

How compliance is enforced

The Environment Agency has a range of enforcement tools to ensure that businesses comply with environmental permitting legislation. They will take enforcement action that is appropriate for the severity of the non-compliance. Enforcement action includes verbal and written warnings, enforcement notices, suspension notices and prosecution with the possibility of a fine or prison.

To find out what other enforcement action the Environment Agency can take, see the page on how environmental permitting is enforced in our guide on environmental permits - who needs one and how to comply.

Other radioactive substances regulation

If you handle radioactive substances you may have to comply with other legislation in addition to environmental permitting.

Importing and exporting radioactive substances

If you are importing or exporting radioactive materials or waste, you must contact the Environment Agency to find out what you need to do.

Find information about importing and exporting radioactive waste on the Environment Agency website. You can also call the Environment Agency IWS helpline on 01925 542 265.

The Export Control Organisation at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills is responsible for legislating, assessing and issuing export and trade licences for specific categories of controlled goods, including certain radioactive sources. Read guidance about controls on radioactive sources and export controls: an introductory guide.

Health and safety requirements

If your business uses or keeps radioactive substances you may need to comply with health and safety requirements. Find radiation guidance on the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) website.

Transport requirements

If your business transports radioactive substances you may need to comply with transport requirements. Find information about transporting class 7 dangerous goods on the Department for Transport website.

Radioactive substances environmental legislation

This page provides links to the full text of key pieces of environmental legislation relating to radioactive substances. The websites hosting the legislation may list amendments separately.

If you are setting up an environmental management system (EMS) for your business, you can use this list to start compiling your legal register. Your legal adviser or environmental consultant will be able to tell you if other environmental legislation applies to your specific business.

For more information about EMS, see our guide on environmental management systems - the basics.

Find other current environmental legislation that may affect your business on the NetRegs website.

Find guidance about future environmental legislation on the NetRegs website.

Further information

Environment Agency Helpline

03708 506 506

Radioactive substances guidance on the Environment Agency website

Radioactive substance environmental permitting guidance on the Defra website

Radioactive substance exemptions explained on the DECC website

Radioactive substance application forms on the Environment Agency website

Radiation guidance on the HSE website

Current environmental legislation lists on the NetRegs website

Future environmental legislation guidance on the NetRegs website

Published 2 January 2013