Radioactive waste

Radioactive waste produced in Canada is managed safely in specially designed facilities.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) regulates and licenses these facilities, in order to protect the health, safety and security of Canadians and the environment.

What is radioactive waste?

Radioactive waste is any material (liquid, gas or solid) that contains a radioactive nuclear substance (as defined in section 2 of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act) and which the owner has determined to be waste (as per regulatory policy P290, Managing Radioactive Waste).

Oversight of Canada's radioactive waste

Policy and legislative framework

The Government of Canada's Radioactive Waste Policy Framework (1996) is a structure of policies, legislation and responsible organizations set in place to govern the management of radioactive waste in Canada.

The federal government, including the CNSC:

  • ensures that radioactive waste disposal is carried out in a safe, environmentally sound, comprehensive, cost-effective and integrated manner
  • develops policy, to regulate and to oversee producers and owners, to ensure they comply with legal requirements and meet their funding and operational responsibilities, in accordance with approved waste disposal plans

In accordance with the "polluter pays" principle, waste producers and owners are responsible for the funding, organization, management and operation of disposal and other facilities required for their wastes.

The policy framework recognizes that long-term management arrangements may be different for various categories of radioactive wastes, such as used nuclear fuel, low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, and uranium mining and milling waste.

The documents that guide the CNSC's waste management program are:

The CNSC's role

CNSC  inspector visiting a radioactive waste management facility
CNSC inspector visiting a radioactive waste management facility

The CNSC licenses, regulates and monitors Canada's waste management facilities to ensure they are operated safely.

As with any other nuclear facility, the CNSC imposes rigorous reporting requirements on the operators of nuclear waste management facilities, and verifies that facilities comply with established safety requirements through inspections and audits.

Read about the CNSC approach to compliance verification and enforcement.

The CNSC also coordinates and implements policies, strategies and plans with its federal and international partners to ensure that waste owners and those possessing radioactive waste treat, handle, manage and store it safely and securely.

Classifying radioactive waste

The Canadian Standards Association (CSA), in collaboration with industry, government and the CNSC has developed a standard that recognizes four main classes of radioactive waste:

The waste classification system is generally organized according to the degree of containment and isolation required to ensure safety in the short and long term. It also considers the hazard potential of the different types of radioactive waste.

Radioactive waste facilities and inventory

Radioactive waste facilities

Radioactive waste is generally managed by the owner onsite (where it was produced).

In addition to the facilities identified below, several closed and decommissioned uranium mines are also managed under CNSC licences.

Radioactive waste management facilities in Canada

Site Location Licensee Type of waste Status

Chalk River Laboratories

Chalk River, ON

CNL

Various reactor and isotope production wastes, contaminated soils, as well as external waste

Operating/Storage with surveillance

Douglas Point Waste Management Facility

Tiverton, ON

CNL

Decommissioned reactor waste

Storage with surveillance

Gentilly-1 Waste Management Facility

Trois-Rivières, QC

CNL

Decommissioned reactor waste

Storage with surveillance

Gentilly-2 Waste Management Facility

Trois-Rivières, QC

Hydro-Québec

Operational reactor waste

Operating

Nuclear Power Demonstration Waste Management Facility

Chalk River, ON

CNL

Decommissioned reactor waste

Storage with surveillance

Pickering Waste Management Facility

Pickering, ON

Ontario Power Generation

Re-tube reactor waste from refurbishment

Operating

Point Lepreau Waste Management Facility

Saint John, NB

New Brunswick Power

Operational reactor waste

Operating

Pine Street Extension Temporary Storage Site

Port Hope, ON

CNL-LLRWMO

Contaminated soil

Operating

Port Hope Radioactive Waste Management Facility

Port Hope, ON

CNL-LLRWMO

Contaminated soil

Storage with surveillance

Bruce Power Development Radioactive Waste Operations Site 1 (RWOS 1)

Tiverton, ON

Ontario Power Generation

Low- and intermediate-level waste from Douglas Point Waste Management Facility and Pickering A

Storage with surveillance

Darlington Waste Management Facility

Darlington, ON

Ontario Power Generation

Used nuclear fuel

Operating

Western Waste Management Facility (WWMF)

Tiverton, ON

Ontario Power Generation

Interim storage of low- and intermediate-level reactor waste generated at Bruce Nuclear Generating Stations A and B, Darlington Nuclear Generating Station and Pickering Nuclear Generating Stations A and B

Operating

Whiteshell Laboratories

Pinawa, MB

CNL

Research reactor waste

Decommissioning

University of Alberta Clover Bar

Edmonton, AB

University of Alberta

Low-level waste from research labs

Operating

University of Toronto

Toronto, ON

University of Toronto

Low-level waste from research labs

Operating

Energy Solutions Canada Corp.

Brampton, ON Brantford, ON

Energy Solutions Canada Corp

Low level waste

Operating

Mississauga Metals and Alloys Inc.

Brantford, ON

Mississauga Metals and Alloys Inc.

Slightly contaminated metals

Storage

Bruce Power Central Maintenance and Laundry Facility

Tiverton, ON

Bruce Power

Contaminated laundry and equipment

Operating

Port Hope Long Term Low-level Radioactive Waste Management Project

Port Hope, ON

CNL

Contaminated soil

Operating

Port Granby Long Term Low-level Radioactive Waste Management Project

Port Hope, ON

CNL

Contaminated soil

Operating

Radioactive waste inventory

Statistics on Canada's radioactive waste inventories are gathered by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).

Every five years, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office (LLRWMO), on behalf of NRCan, issues the Inventory of Radioactive Waste in Canada report, which profiles waste management statistics based on Canada's four waste categories.

Inventory data is reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for submission in the Radioactive Waste Management Database. This database tracks low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste worldwide. NRCan also provides this data for Canada's National Report for the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

Waste inventory projections from 2010 to 2050

Waste category Waste inventory to end of 2011 Waste inventory to the end of 2050

High-level radioactive waste
(used nuclear fuel)

9,075 cubic metres

20,000 cubic metres

Intermediate-level radioactive waste

32,906 cubic metres

67,000 cubic metres

Low-level radioactive waste

2,338,000 cubic metres

2,594,000 cubic metres

Uranium mill tailings

214,000,000 tonnes

Not available

Source: Inventory of Radioactive Waste in Canada, LLRWMO, March 2012

Reduce, reuse and recycle

Old steam generators (like the ones above) can be processed to recycle the clean steel shell and reduce the volume of waste by 90%, which is good for the environment and represents a good waste management practice

One of the key principles in IAEA guidance and in the CNSC's regulatory policy P-290, Managing Radioactive Waste, is that the licensee must minimize the generation of radioactive waste as much as possible.

To do this, licensees must develop a waste management program that helps to reduce the overall volume of radioactive waste requiring long-term management.

They are also expected to investigate and implement new radioactive waste management technologies and techniques as they become available. Some of these strategies include:

  • reusing and recycling materials by separating radioactive components from non-radioactive ones
  • preventing contamination by restricting the amount of materials in radioactive areas
  • assessing technology advances in waste minimization, and implementing improvements to waste-handling facilities that reduce the volume of radioactive waste

In every instance, methods used to reduce, reuse and recycle radioactive waste must ensure that the health and safety of persons and the environment are protected.

Responsibilities for long-term management

While many government departments, agencies, hospitals, universities and industry members are involved in the short-term management of radioactive waste, only a few organizations are involved in long-term management.

The organizations responsible for the long-term management of spent fuel and radioactive waste in Canada are listed in figure 1:

Figure 1: Organizations responsible for the long-term management of used fuel and radioactive waste

Organizations responsible for the long-term  management of used fuel and radioactive waste

Different approaches are used to manage each of Canada's four waste categories.

Used nuclear fuel waste

All used nuclear fuel in Canada is currently held onsite in interim storage facilities and falls under the responsibility of the nuclear power plant operator.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is responsible for implementing the approach to the long-term management of Canada's used nuclear fuel.

Low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste

Low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste is held onsite or at a CNSC-licensed waste management facility and is the responsibility of the producer.

Historic low-level radioactive waste

Historic, low-level waste consists of soil contaminated with uranium and radium at sites located in the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. This waste was originally managed in a way that is no longer considered acceptable, but for which the current owner cannot be reasonably held responsible.

The Government of Canada has accepted responsibility for long-term management of this waste, which is managed by the Low-level Radioactive Waste Management Office (LLRWMO) of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories Ltd. (CNL).

Legacy low- and intermediate-level waste

Nuclear legacy liabilities are the result of over 60 years of nuclear research and development conducted first by the National Research Council of Canada (1944 to 1952), then by Atomic Energy of Canada (1952 to 2014), and now CNL, on behalf of the Government of Canada. The liabilities consist of outdated and unused research facilities and buildings, a wide variety of buried and stored radioactive waste and affected lands.

Legacy facilities include the Whiteshell Laboratories, Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) and the three partially decommissioned prototype reactors (Gentilly-1, the Nuclear Power Demonstration reactor and Douglas Point).

Nuclear legacy liabilities also include small quantities of high-level waste, such as prototype and research reactor used fuel, by-products of the production of medical isotopes at the National Research Universal reactor and waste from early fuel reprocessing experiments conducted between the 1940s and 1960s at CRL.

Uranium mine and mill waste

Cameco and AREVA are the only two active uranium mine and mill operators in Canada. They are responsible for the long-term management of uranium mine and mill waste.

The management of shutdown or decommissioned mines and mines, along with their adjacent waste facilities, is either under the responsibility of the former operators or within the purview of the provincial and federal governments.

Deep geologic repositories

Feature Article: Deep geologic repositories

A geologic repository is constructed underground, usually at a depth of several hundred metres or more below the surface in a stable rock formation.

There are two separate long-term radioactive waste management initiatives underway in Canada that may result in geological repositories.

  • The NWMO APM project seeks to find a solution for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel – a solution that is socially acceptable, technically sound, environmentally responsible and economically feasible to Canadians.
  • The Ontario Power Generation (OPG) Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) focuses on the disposal of low- and intermediate-level radioactive wastes at the Bruce Site in Tiverton, Ontario. The DGR will also hold waste produced from the continued operation of the Bruce, Pickering and Darlington nuclear power plants.

Independent research

Since 1978, the CNSC has been involved in independent research and assessment, including international collaboration, on the safe long-term management of used nuclear fuel in geological repositories.

Read about the CNSC's research on geologic repositories.

International deep geologic repositories

Deep geologic repositories are being considered in countries around the world including the United States, Finland, France, Sweden, and the United Kingdom for the long-term management of their high-level radioactive wastes. The only operating deep geologic repository is in the US at the WIPP; however, this is for the long-term management of a different type of radioactive waste resulting from their defence program. Nuclear regulators in these countries, including the CNSC, share information and best practices to ensure the safe long-term management of radioactive waste in geologic repositories.

Read about the CNSC’s participation in international projects

United States: Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery (Source: United States Department of Energy)

The February 2014 events at the US Department of Energy’s (US DOE) Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) are currently investigation by regulatory authorities in the United States.

Canada has been following closely the events at the U.S.'s WIPP and tracking their progress. While the WIPP is a deep geologic repository, it is different in both rock structure (in a salt formation) and type of radioactive waste (in this case, the by-product of the U.S. nuclear defence program) than the initiatives in Canada. Nevertheless, the events will provide operational experience, which any Canadian licensee or applicant for a repository will be required to consider in an application for a CNSC licence.

For more information, please visit the WIPP website.

Read the US DOE's Accident Investigation Report on the February 5, 2014 fire at the WIPP.

Licensing of geologic repositories

As Canada's nuclear regulator, the CNSC is responsible for licensing geologic repositories intended to provide long-term management of radioactive waste.

The CNSC uses a comprehensive licensing system that covers the entire lifecycle of a geological repository – from site preparation to construction, operation, decommissioning (closure) and, finally, post-closure. This approach requires a separate licence at each phase, although the site preparation and site construction licences can be combined.

The CNSC's regulatory oversight of radioactive waste stems from the Nuclear Safety and Control Act (NSCA) and is articulated in CNSC documents P-299, Regulatory Fundamentals, P-290, Managing Radioactive Waste, and G-320, Assessing the Long Term Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

The CNSC can make a licensing decision on a geologic repository only after the completion of an environmental assessment (EA).

EAs are used to predict, evaluate and manage the environmental impacts of a proposed project, and to determine whether these impacts can be mitigated.

EAs examine elements such as air quality, long-term environmental impacts, human health, use of land and resources, as well as Aboriginal interest, physical and cultural heritage.

In a licence application, an applicant must include information associated with a facility's operation and future decommissioning, including financial guarantees for each phase.

Financial guarantees ensure the licensees have sufficient funds to cover the cost of decommissioning work resulting from the licensed activity.

The outcome of the licensing process feeds back into a compliance program that verifies that the licensee fulfills the regulatory requirements.

Transport of radioactive waste

The responsibility for ensuring safe transport of nuclear substances, including radioactive waste, is jointly shared between the CNSC and Transport Canada.

The basic philosophy that has guided the development of CNSC regulations is that safety is incorporated in the design of the transport package.

Package designs are combined with additional regulatory controls including labeling, placarding, quality assurance and maintenance records, and allow for radioactive material to be carried safely in all modes of transport such as road, rail, air and sea.

International responsibilities

CNSC representative at a meeting of the IAEA Joint Convention
CNSC representative at a meeting of the IAEA Joint Convention

As long-term strategies and solutions for the safe management of radioactive waste evolve, the government of Canada must continue to demonstrate how it meets its international obligations under the terms of the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

This international agreement aims to ensure worldwide safe management of used nuclear fuel and radioactive waste - an objective that is achieved through the peer-review of a country's radioactive waste management programs.

Every three years, the Government of Canada issues the Canada's National Report for the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

The CNSC coordinates the preparation of this national report with other government of Canada departments and the nuclear industry to demonstrate how Canada is meeting its international obligations and to report on its radioactive waste inventories to the IAEA.

The CNSC is responsible for coordinating Canada's responsibilities under the Joint Convention.

Canada's National Reports for the Joint Convention on Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management