Low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste

In Canada, low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste refers to all forms of radioactive waste, except used nuclear fuel, limited waste from the production of medical isotopes, and the waste from uranium mining and milling.

International deep geologic repositories

Deep geological repositories have been built or are being considered in countries around the world, including the United States, Finland, France, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Nuclear regulators in these countries, including the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (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 under investigation by regulatory authorities in the United States.

While the WIPP is a deep geologic repository, it is different in both design (in a salt formation) and type of waste (waste that is the by-product of the US’ nuclear defense program) that those being proposed in Canada. Nevertheless, the events will provide operational experience that any Canadian licensee or applicant for a repository wouldbe required to consider in an application for an operating licence.

For more information, please visit the WIPP website.

Low-level radioactive waste

Low-level waste storage  facility

Low-level waste storage facility

Low-level radioactive waste contains material that is more radioactive than clearance levels and exemption quantities allow. This type of waste loses most or all of its radioactivity within 300 years.

It includes contaminated equipment from the operation of nuclear power plants (like protective shoe covers and clothing, rags, mops, equipment and tools).

Low-level radioactive waste does not usually require heavy shielding during handling and interim storage. Shielding refers to a barrier (like a concrete wall or protective clothing) between stored waste and nuclear workers.

The owners of low-level radioactive waste are responsible for managing the waste they produce. This usually takes place onsite, within its own facility.

Other than low-level waste originating from nuclear power plants, low-level radioactive waste that requires long-term management may be returned to the manufacturer.

Short-lived radioactive waste

Example of very short-lived radioactive waste. Containers holding radioactive isotopes become waste after they are used and must be managed accordingly.

It may also be transferred to an authorized waste management operator, such as the waste management facility operated by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories at its Chalk River Laboratories, on a fee-for-service basis.

Very short-lived low-level radioactive waste (such as that from hospitals, universities and industry) generally contains only small amounts of radioactive materials with short half-lives. This means that radioactivity decays away in hours or days.

Waste in this category is safely held until the radioactivity has decayed to levels authorized by the CNSC. It can then be disposed of by conventional means (in local landfill or sewer systems).

Intermediate-level radioactive waste

Waste that has been exposed to alpha radiation, or that contains long-lived radionuclides in concentrations that require isolation and containment for periods beyond several hundred years, is classified as intermediate-level radioactive waste.

It typically requires shielding during handling and interim storage. This type of waste includes refurbishment waste, ion-exchange resins and some radioactive sources used in radiation therapy.

The owners of intermediate-level radioactive waste are responsible for managing the waste they produce. This usually takes place onsite, within its own facility.

Intermediate  waste storage units at one of the OPG sites

Intermediate waste storage units at one of the OPG sites

Intermediate-level radioactive waste that requires long-term management may also be returned to the manufacturer or transferred to an authorized waste management operator – such as the waste management facility operated by CNL at its Chalk River Laboratories – on a fee-for-service basis.

Main sources of low- and intermediate-level waste

Ontario Power Generation (OPG), which owns 20 of Canada’s 22 CANDU reactors, is responsible for approximately 77 percent of the operational low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste generated in Canada each year.

CNL produces approximately 17 percent of the total Canadian annual volume, through its research and development activities at CRL and onsite decommissioning activities. CNL has waste storage facilities at its two laboratory sites - Chalk River Laboratories and Whiteshell Laboratories - as well as at its three prototype reactor sites.

CNL also accepts low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste for long-term management from many small producers and users of radioactive materials, amounting to a further three percent of Canada’s annual volume.

The other two CANDU reactors (owned by New Brunswick Power and Hydro-Québec) and Cameco Corporation’s uranium processing and conversion facilities generate most of the remaining waste.

Long-term management of low- and intermediate-level waste

A long-term management strategy is required for low- and intermediate-level waste containing long-lived radioisotopes.

At the moment, there are two main projects for the long-term management of low- and intermediate-level waste:

Who pays for the long-term management of radioactive waste?

Artist's representation of potential OPG deep geologic repository

Artist’s representation of potential OPG deep geologic repository

The CNSC requires facility operators to ensure they have sufficient funds to cover the costs associated with the long-term management of low- and intermediate-level waste.

OntarioPower Generation’s proposed deep geologic repository

OPG’s proposed deep geologic repository (DGR) will serve as a long-term storage facility for its low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste. An environmental assessment and regulatory review for a site preparation and construction licence are in progress.

It has been proposed to locate the DGR at the Bruce nuclear site in the municipality of Kincardine, Ontario. OPG is proposing that a deep rock vault be constructed in the limestone layer, hundreds of metres underground.

Nuclear Legacy Liabilities Program

The Government of Canada’s Nuclear Legacy Liabilities Program was launched in 2006 and provides a long-term strategy to manage legacy waste and contamination on CNL sites, including Chalk River Laboratories

Aerial view of AECL’s Whiteshell Laboratories, near Pinawa, Manitoba

Aerial photograph of CNL’s Whiteshell Laboratories