Safety and control area series – Waste management

Safety and control areas

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is responsible for evaluating how well licensees meet regulatory requirements and expectations. We consider the performance of programs in 14 different safety and control areas (SCAs). For the next several months, we will be publishing a series detailing each SCA and its significance for the CNSC and its licensees. This feature article will focus on the waste management SCA. For a general overview of all SCAs and their functional areas, visit the CNSC’s safety and control areas Web page.

What is waste management?

Radioactive waste is produced as a result of activities associated with nuclear fuel cycle practices (uranium mining and milling, energy production, fuel processing), along with other uses of nuclear substances (e.g., nuclear medicine, isotope production). Waste producers and owners are responsible for the disposal and management of their wastes. Waste management does not only entail the stream of waste moving from nuclear operations to storage, but also includes the decommissioning of various facilities such as mines and mills, nuclear power plants, research reactors, and processing facilities. Licensee decommissioning plans must address how each facility will end its lifecycle.

Who manages waste?

It is the CNSC’s responsibility to license, regulate and monitor radioactive waste management activities and facilities associated with the Canadian nuclear fuel cycle to ensure safety. To uphold this standard, the CNSC implements rigorous approval and reporting requirements for the operators of nuclear waste management facilities, and verifies compliance with established safety requirements through inspections and audits. The CNSC also coordinates and implements policies, strategies and plans with its federal and international partners to ensure that owners manage waste safely and securely.The CNSC’s oversight of decommissioned facilities is continued until oversight is transferred to another party, or until the site no longer requires CNSC regulatory control.

Good waste management practices

Safe nuclear operations are achieved with strong waste management practices. Licensees must implement the following specific areas of the waste management SCA:

  • waste management practices, which include how waste is identified, characterized, sorted and disposed of or safely stored
  • waste characterization, which includes knowing which waste can go to conventional waste collection and which must be managed as hazardous or radioactive waste
  • waste minimization, which includes reducing the amount of hazardous or radioactive waste produced by the facility
  • decommissioning plans, which include how buildings, equipment, land and tailings ponds or other waste sites will be managed from cease of operations until they no longer need regulatory oversight

Licensees must always adhere to these practices and demonstrate to the Commission that their radioactive and hazardous waste will be minimized and managed responsibly over time and under a range of both foreseen and unforeseen conditions. CNSC staff conduct compliance verifications both through onsite inspections and desktop reviews of licensee documentation to ensure that regulatory requirements are being met.

The future of nuclear waste management

The nuclear industry applies the 3Rs concept to waste management: seeking ways to reduce the amount of waste generated, reusing what can be reused, and recycling where possible before sending an item to a waste management facility. Another important trend in waste management is the front-end loading of decommissioning activities, such as characterizing the buildings and equipment components before or during the closing of the facility instead of long after operations cease. Doing this leverages the expertise, knowledge and availability of licensee operational staff before they go.

Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) dry storage containers are made of reinforced concrete encased in interior and exterior shells made of carbon steel.

Status of decommissioning efforts in Canada

Under a normal operating licence, operators are able to place a nuclear facility in safe shutdown as a transitionary phase from operation to decommissioning. The Gentilly-2 Nuclear Generating Station recently ceased operations and moved into this phase. Units 2 and 3 of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station are already in safe shutdown.

As part of their decommissioning efforts, three prototype nuclear reactors in Rolphton and Kincardine, ON and in Bécancour, QC were shut down and placed in storage with surveillance in the 1980s. Similarly, the WR-1 Organic Cooled Reactor located at Whiteshell Laboratories in Manitoba operated until 1985, and it is currently in storage with surveillance as it awaits final decommissioning.

Waste continues to be managed safely in Canada, in accordance with CNSC requirements. The CNSC will continue to ensure that its regulatory framework protects the health, safety and security of Canadians, as well as the environment.

Stay tuned for our next piece from our SCA series!