Nuclear substances

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) regulates all aspects of nuclear energy, ensuring that strict rules are followed for possession, use, packaging, transport, storage, and import and export of nuclear substances in order to protect the health, safety and security of Canadians and the environment.

General Information

Licensing and Certification


Uses of Nuclear Substances

Nuclear technology contributes to Canadians' everyday life and well-being. Nuclear substances have many useful applications in Canada and play a vital role in medical, research, and industrial fields.

Radioisotopes are used for the diagnostic of diseases such as cancer, heart disease and bone ailments

From licensing the possession of nuclear substances to overseeing the safe transport of nuclear material, the CNSC ensures effective regulatory oversight of all uses of nuclear technology in Canada. Before anyone can possess, use or store any type of nuclear substances, they require a licence issued by the CNSC.


Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear medicine uses radioactive substances (radioisotopes) incorporated into pharmaceuticals. These "radio-pharmaceuticals" or "radio-tracers" are designed to target specific tissues and organs, allowing the delivery of the radioactive substance to specific areas of the body.

Nuclear substances are widely used in medicine to diagnose illnesses and treat certain diseases, such as thyroid disorders, and cancer

Radiopharmaceuticals are widely used in the diagnosis, management and treatment of disease.

In diagnostic nuclear medicine imaging, the radiation emitted by the radiopharmaceutical (ingested, inhaled, or injected into the patient) is measured by an external detector, such as a gamma camera or a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner.

The data is then processed by a computer to generate images.

The radioisotopes used for PET imaging are produced in cyclotrons. Cyclotrons are also subject to CNSC regulations and are always located in a shielded facility to protect workers and the public from radiation.

In therapeutic nuclear medicine, high doses of radiopharmaceuticals are administered to treat diseases such as cancer and thyroid disorders.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is an important method for treating cancer. Dose delivery in radiation therapy is done in one of two ways: teletherapy or brachytherapy.

Teletherapy involves delivery of high doses of radiation to the tumour using intense external beams of radiation.

This can be delivered by medical linear accelerators or specially-designed teletherapy machines containing sealed radioactive sources, both of which are located in specially-designed and well shielded facilities.

Linear accelerator used in teletherapy

Brachytherapy involves the placement of sealed radioactive sources within the body to deliver a controlled radiation dose to the tumour.

Brachytherapy treatment can be delivered manually or by a machine under remote control. The latter type of treatment typically takes place in a shielded facility.


In research, devices such as linear accelerators are used primarily for teaching and applied research, while nuclear substances are licensed for use in life science and health care research projects at a wide range of institutions across Canada.


Industrial uses of nuclear substances include ensuring the integrity of pipelines or structures, and analyzing ground density. Irradiators are also used in industry and commercial settings to sterilize blood, equipment, cosmetic and foodstuffs.

Additional Information

Portable gauge used to measure soil density and moisture level

Nuclear Substance Processing Facilities

Nuclear substances are processed for industrial, medical and research purposes. All nuclear substance processing facilities must meet the CNSC safety and security requirements and are regulated under the Nuclear Safety and Control Act.

Below are the largest processing facilities licensed in Canada:

At each licensing stage, CNSC determines whether the licence applicant is qualified and has made adequate provisions for the protection of the environment, the health and safety of persons, and the maintenance of national security.

Worker at Nordion Inc facility in Ottawa

CNSC staff with specific technical expertise regularly visit licensed facilities to ensure compliance, and that facilities are operated safely and securely.

Another important aspect of CNSC oversight involves the protection of nuclear materials as part of our international obligations for nuclear safeguards.

Canada has a national accounting system for nuclear materials, to help ensure no materials are lost or diverted for unauthorized uses.

Transportation and Packaging

The CNSC regulates the packaging and transport of nuclear substances in Canada in cooperation with Transport Canada. The transport of nuclear substances must comply with transport regulations for the entire journey of a shipment, from its initial packaging to arrival at its destination and unpackaging.

On the international level, all industrialized countries use the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) SSR-6 Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material (PDF) as the basis to regulate the packaging and transport of radioactive material.

The CNSC's Packaging and Transport of Nuclear Substances Regulations, 2015 (PTNS Regulations) apply to all persons who handle, offer for transport, transport or receive nuclear substances.

The CNSC ensures that every shipment of nuclear substances conforms to all established safety standards in accordance with the PTNS Regulations,. In all cases, the health, safety and security of the public and the environment must be protected.

The CNSC's responsibilities include:

  • certifying the design of the transport packages
  • registering users of certified packages
  • conducting inspections of shipments of nuclear substances for compliance with applicable regulations
  • licensing shipments of nuclear substances where licences are required
  • ensuring that radiation protection programs for transport are in place

All nuclear substances are transported in packages that are selected based on the nature, form, and quantity or activity of the substance. There are general design requirements specified in the CNSC regulations that apply to all package types to ensure that they can be handled safely and easily, secured properly, and are able to withstand routine conditions of transport.

More than 1 million packages containing nuclear substances are shipped to, from and within Canada every year. The majority of these are routine shipments containing low-risk quantities of nuclear substances.

The contents of these packages can include:

  • consumer products, such as smoke detectors
  • medical products, such as radioisotopes used for diagnostic imaging procedures
  • nuclear fuel cycle products such as processed uranium ore and uranium fuel bundles for nuclear power plants
  • industrial products such as moisture and density gauges used in construction

All packages used to transport nuclear substances must conform to basic safety performance requirements specified in the regulations.

ackages designed for the transport of high-risk quantities require certification by the CNSC before they can be used in Canada.

Stringent Import and Export Controls

Since 1946, the CNSC has worked to ensure Canada's nuclear exports are used for peaceful purposes and to respect Canada's international commitments regarding non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

As a founding and active member of the Zangger Committee and the Nuclear Suppliers Group — multilateral organizations with supply conditions for nuclear and nuclear-related exports — CNSC is committed to monitoring and controlling the import and export of controlled nuclear substances, equipment and information.

Canada's major nuclear exports are governed by bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements with destination countries. CNSC works Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development to negotiate these agreements and to implement Canada's nuclear non-proliferation policy by providing policy and technical advice in developing multilateral nuclear export control lists and guidelines.

The Nuclear Non-proliferation Import and Export Control Regulations require Canadian importers and exporters to obtain and comply with licences controlling the international transfer of nuclear and nuclear-related items.

These regulations contain a complete list of CNSC-controlled imports and exports, which include:

  • special fissionable material (for example, certain isotopes of plutonium and uranium)
  • deuterium and heavy water
  • nuclear-grade graphite
  • tritium
  • nuclear reactors and their parts
  • controlled nuclear information (for example, technology, technical data, drawings, models)
  • nuclear-related dual-use items (controlled nuclear substances, equipment and information with legitimate non-nuclear uses, which could also be used in nuclear explosive or unsafeguarded nuclear fuel cycle activities

In compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources, CNSC licenses and controls the export and import of certain risk-significant radioactive sealed sources.

Popular Topics

Devices Containing Radium Luminous Compounds

Until the 1960s, various consumer and military products were manufactured using a radium-based, glow-in-the-dark paint. Radium is a radioactive element found naturally in the environment.

The most common remaining radium luminous devices (RLDs) are aircraft instruments, and there are tens of thousands of these in Canada today.

Dial being tested to confirm the presence of radium

Although the radium in these devices remains radioactive for thousands of years, the paint which the radium was mixed with usually breaks down chemically after several years and may no longer glow in the dark. When new, the paint was often white, but typically it tarnished to yellow as it aged.

RLDs are generally not identified or marked as containing radioactive materials. Only a radiation detection instrument can confirm if a device contains radium. The hazards from exposure to radium can occur in two ways: by external contamination or by internal contamination through ingestion or inhalation.

When intact, an RLD poses little health risk. However, care should be taken when handling RLDs in order to avoid contamination. Exposure can be reduced or virtually eliminated by not opening the items and wearing gloves when handling them, keeping food or drinks in a separate location and properly disposing of broken devices.

The CNSC has exempted indefinitely devices containing radium luminous compounds from most regulatory controls given the low risk involved. Some restrictions remain in place however. A CNSC licence is still required to service RLDs. Service activities include disassembling or repairing a device or removing radium luminous compounds from a device.

RLDs are not permitted to enter into regular municipal waste streams, and their disposal must be with an authorized CNSC-licensed waste management facility. CNL's Low Level Radioactive Waste Management Office (LLRWMO) will accept RLDs for transfer to a CNSC-licensed waste management facility.

Smoke Detectors

Household smoke detectors, also referred to as ionization chamber smoke detectors, use radioactive material to warn of fire hazards.

The radiation source in these smoke detectors is usually a small amount of americium-241 that does not pose a risk to people.

The CNSC licenses the manufacturing and initial distribution of smoke detectors in Canada.

Pipeline contaminated with NORM
(Photo courtesy of Tervita Corporation)

Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORMs)

NORM is material naturally found in the environment that contains radioactive elements like natural uranium and thorium.

The handling and disposal of NORM within Canada is regulated by the provincial and territorial governments.

The transport, import and export of NORM must follow CNSC regulations.

NORM-contaminated equipment and waste should only be handled by a person with appropriate radiation training.