Fact sheet: Radioactive waste management – Canada's regulatory process

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission regulates the use of nuclear energy and materials to protect health, safety, security and the environment; to implement Canada’s international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy; and to disseminate objective scientific, technical and regulatory information to the public.

Radioactive waste is defined as materials that are considered of no further use and that are contaminated with nuclear substances. Radioactive waste has been produced in Canada since the early 1930s – when the first uranium mine began operating in the Northwest Territories – and has been regulated federally since the 1940s, when research and development into the application of nuclear energy began.

Activities involving nuclear energy and nuclear substances, including radioactive waste, are regulated under the Nuclear Safety and Control Act (NSCA) and associated regulations, and require a licence from the CNSC. Some of those activities include the possession, use, transfer, packaging and transport, management, storage and disposal of nuclear substances.

Licensed activities can produce various types of radioactive waste, such as uranium mine and mill tailings, high-level waste (more commonly known as spent nuclear fuel), and operational waste, each presenting its own level of hazard. Operational waste can be further divided into two basic categories: low-level and intermediate-level waste.

Low-level radioactive waste consists of industrial items that have become slightly contaminated with radioactivity. This can include mops, rags, paper towels, floor sweepings, protective clothing and hardware items such as tools. This type of waste may be safely handled by workers using normal industrial practices and equipment without any special radiation protection.

Intermediate-level radioactive waste consists primarily of used nuclear reactor components and the ion-exchange resins and filters used to purify reactor water systems. This type of waste is more radioactive than low-level waste and requires shielding to protect workers during handling.

In Canada, individual licensees are responsible for the short and long-term management of the low and intermediate-level radioactive waste they produce. They are also responsible for the funding, organization and operation of the waste management facilities required for their wastes.

For high-level waste, or spent fuel, the federal government enacted the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act (NFWA) in 2002, to address its long-term management. Spent nuclear fuel is currently stored onsite at nuclear power plants either in wet bays or dry canisters. Both methods are considered safe, secure and environmentally sound.

The NFWA directed waste owners to finance long-term waste management responsibilities by establishing trust funds with independent trust companies. They were also made responsible for establishing a separate organization to handle the full range of long-term management activities for spent nuclear fuel. This separate entity is the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO).

The NWMO was mandated to develop a socially acceptable, technically sound, environmentally responsible and economically feasible management approach for the long-term care of Canada's used nuclear fuel. In November 2005, the NWMO issued its fourth and final report on the future management of Canada's nuclear fuel for the government of Canada to reach a decision on the way forward. Any application for the licensing of a long-term management facility for nuclear fuel will be considered by the CNSC after the government reaches its decision.

The CNSC applies the same rigorous safety and regulatory standards to both high level and low level waste management. The onus is on the licensee to prove that any radiological hazards posed by their waste management systems have minimal impact on human health, safety, security and the environment.

Compliance with all conditions attached to licences is verified by the CNSC through inspections and audits as well as through the assessment of events and the review of reports.

The CNSC's regulatory activities for nuclear waste management in Canada are based on safety requirements that are aligned with the International Atomic Energy Agency's standards and reflect industry best practices. Canada is a party to the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

For more information on the CNSC and its activities, including the Joint Convention, please consult our website at nuclearsafety.gc.ca.

Date modified: