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Canada’s radioactive waste

At present, radioactive waste is generated in Canada from a variety of activities, including: uranium mining, milling, refining and conversion; nuclear fuel fabrication; nuclear reactor operations; nuclear research; facility decommissioning; and the remediation of contaminated sites.

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Overview

Radioactive wastes have been produced in Canada since the early 1930s when the first radium mine in Canada began operating at Port Radium in the Northwest Territories. The pitchblende ore mined from Port Radium was taken to Port Hope, Ontario where it was refined, initially to extract radium for medical treatments, and later to extract uranium. Initially, the extracted uranium was used for military purposes. It was not until the 1940s that research and development on the application of nuclear energy to produce electricity began at the Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL).

Canada’s Radioactive Waste Policy Framework

Canada’s approach to radioactive waste management is founded upon the Government of Canada’s Policy Framework for Radioactive Waste (the Policy Framework). Natural Resources Canada is the lead Department responsible for federal radioactive waste policy matters.

The elements of a comprehensive radioactive waste policy framework consist of a set of principles governing the institutional and financial arrangements for disposal of radioactive waste by waste producers and owners.

  • The federal government will ensure that radioactive waste disposal is carried out in a safe, environmentally sound, comprehensive, cost-effective and integrated manner.
  • The federal government has the responsibility to develop policy, to regulate, and to oversee producers and owners to ensure that they comply with legal requirements and meet their funding and operational responsibilities in accordance with approved waste disposal plans.
  • The waste producers and owners are responsible, in accordance with the principle of "polluter pays", for the funding, organization, management and operation of disposal and other facilities required for their wastes. This recognizes that arrangements may be different for nuclear fuel waste, low-level radioactive waste and uranium mine and mill tailings.

Canada's Radioactive Waste Policy Framework provides the overall principles for radioactive waste management and is supported by three primary pieces of legislation that govern the management of radioactive waste in Canada:

  • The Nuclear Safety and Control Act, which sets out the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s mandate, responsibilities and powers;
  • The Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, which provides the framework for progress on a long-term strategy for the management of nuclear fuel waste; and
  • The Impact Assessment Act (and previously, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012), which, while not being specific to radioactive waste management, establishes the legislative basis for the federal impact assessment process.

Nuclear Fuel Waste Act

In 2002, Parliament passed the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act (NFWA). This legislation required nuclear energy corporations to establish a waste management organization, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), as a non-profit entity to manage the long-term management of Canada’s nuclear fuel waste.

Under the NFWA, the Government of Canada is responsible for reviewing the study of long-term management options prepared by the NWMO, selecting a long-term option from those proposed, and ensuring oversight during its implementation. After a comprehensive three-year study and public engagement, the Government of Canada selected the NWMO's Adaptive Phased Management approach for the safe and secure long-term management of used nuclear fuel. The NWMO is currently in the site selection process.

Read the Federal Oversight of the NFWA

What is radioactive waste?

Radioactive waste is a gas, liquid, sludge, or solid that has been declared as a waste and contains a nuclear substance in excess of the clearance or exemption criteria and without foreseeable use.

The nuclear fuel cycle includes the mining, refining, and processing of uranium to produce fuel for nuclear reactors, the use of that fuel in nuclear power and research reactors, and the production and use of reactor by-products that contain nuclear substances for medical, research, and industrial purposes. Each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, including the eventual decommissioning of nuclear facilities, produces radioactive waste. Because of its toxicity and its radioactivity, radioactive waste is highly regulated, by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, to protect human health and the environment.

What are the classes of radioactive waste?

Canada has developed a standard that recognizes four main classes of radioactive waste:

Uranium mine and mill tailings

The main types of waste made by mining uranium ore are tailings and waste rock. Tailings are made from grinding uranium ore and has the consistency of fine sand when dried. The rocks removed to gain access to the ore is waste rock, which is sorted and managed depending on its contents.

Low-level radioactive waste

Low-level waste requires containment up to a few hundred years, does not usually require heavy barriers (e.g. concrete or protective clothing) during handling and interim storage. Includes contaminated rags, shoe covers and tools needed for the operation of nuclear power plants.

Intermediate-level radioactive waste

Intermediate-level waste requires containment beyond several hundred years and requires heavy barriers (shielding). Examples include products refurbishing nuclear power plants and waste from some forms of radiation therapy.

High-level radioactive waste

Generates significant heat, long-lived, requires greatest levels of heavy barriers for handling, interim storage and long-term isolation. Some examples includes nuclear fuel waste and to a small degree from the creation of medical isotopes.

As the level of radioactivity of the waste increases, so does the associated level of hazard. This creates a need for greater design efforts for handling, interim storage and long-term management to ensure the protection of workers, the public and the environment. For example, low-level radioactive waste generally requires minimal isolation and shielding whereas intermediate- and high-level radioactive waste require greater shielding for handling, interim storage and long-term management.

How much radioactive waste does Canada have?

A summary of the radioactive waste inventory as of December 31, 2016 can be seen in the table below.

Radioactive waste produced over Time across Canada
(data as of December 31, 2016 )

Waste Type Volume (Cubic Meters) % of total
Low-Level 2,359,385 98.1%
Intermediate-Level 33,155 1.4%
High-Level 11,089 0.5%
TOTAL 2,403,629 100%

 

Waste Type Mass (tonnes)
Uranium Mine and Mill Tailings 218 million
Uranium Waste Rock 169 million
TOTAL 387 million

Inventory of Radioactive Waste in Canada

The Government of Canada collects and compiles inventory information and data from waste owners and producers and publishes the data in a triennial inventory report. This inventory report provides an overview of the production, accumulation and projections of radioactive waste in Canada.

Projections are provided for three years in the future and to the end of 2050, when all existing nuclear generating stations in Canada are either closed, or nearing the end of their operational lives. For the 2016 Inventory Summary Report, projections are also provided for 2100, as all existing nuclear generating stations are expected to be fully decommissioned by that date.

Please find the most recent version of Canada’s Radioactive Waste Inventory Report.

Radioactive waste management: Canada’s international commitments

Canada is a member of several international organizations in order to strengthen nuclear safety at home and abroad. Two of the key international organizations in which Canada participates are the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency (OECD NEA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Canada is a signatory of the IAEA’s Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. This Joint Convention is an international agreement governing all aspects of spent fuel and radioactive waste management and the first legally binding international treaty on safety in these areas. The Joint Convention’s objectives are to:

  • achieve and maintain a high level of safety in spent fuel and radioactive waste management;
  • protect individuals, society and the environment from ionizing radiation; and
  • prevent accidents and, if necessary, mitigate their consequences.

Every three years, Canada submits a National Report for peer review on how they meet their obligations under the Convention, and attends the triennial Review Meeting at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna to present and discuss its National Report. The peer review meetings also provide an international forum for cooperation and experience sharing for regulators, government agencies, and industry. It also provides opportunities to learn about international decommissioning experience and the status of waste repositories in various countries. 

Learn more about the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

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