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Summary of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act
Describes the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), which supports the use of deep geologic repositories for the safe storage and/or disposal of radioactive waste.
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Summary of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act
42 U.S.C. §10101 et seq. (1982)
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) supports the use of deep geologic repositories for the safe storage and/or disposal of radioactive waste. The Act establishes procedures to evaluate and select sites for geologic repositories and for the interaction of state and federal governments. It also provides a timetable of key milestones the federal agencies must meet in carrying out the program.
The NWPA assigns the Department of Energy (DOE) the responsibility to site, build, and operate a deep geologic repository for the disposal of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel. It directs EPA to develop standards for protection of the general environment from offsite releases of radioactive material in repositories. The Act directs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to license DOE to operate a repository only if it meets EPA's standards and all other relevant requirements.
Amendments to the NWPA:
The Office of Air and Radiation (OAR) develops national programs, policies, and regulations for controlling air pollution and radiation exposure.
Nuclear Waste Disposal
Radiation is used in many different industries, including as fuel for nuclear power plants and in the production of nuclear weapons for national...
Radiation is used in many different industries, including as fuel for nuclear power plants and in the production of nuclear weapons for national defense. These uses generate nuclear waste, and this waste must be disposed of in safe and effective ways. There are three main types of nuclear waste—high-level, transuranic, and low-level waste—and each type must be disposed of according to its risk to human health and the environment. For instance, high-level nuclear waste remains highly radioactive for tens of thousands of years and must be disposed of in such a way that it can be securely isolated for a long period of time.
The Department of Energy (DOE) oversees the treatment and disposal of radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear weapons program; it is also responsible for siting, building, and operating a future geologic repository to dispose of nuclear waste. However, there are a number of ways that DOE could improve how it stores, treats, and disposes of this waste.
DOE also oversees the treatment and disposal of about 90 million gallons of radioactive waste from the nation's nuclear weapons program. Most of this waste is stored in tanks at 3 DOE sites. According to federal law, certain high-level mixed waste must be vitrified—a process in which the waste is immobilized in glass—and disposed of in a deep geologic repository. However, DOE estimates that about 90% of the volume of this waste contains about 10% of the radioactivity and is therefore considered to be low-activity waste. DOE may be able to reduce certain risks and save tens of billions of dollars by adopting alternative approaches to treating and disposing of a portion of its low-activity radioactive waste at its Hanford Site in Washington State. DOE has also faced challenges designing and building high-level waste treatment facilities at its Idaho National Laboratory, as well as at its Hanford Site.
The Partially Constructed Hanford Pretreatment Facility in Washington State, 2013 and 2020
Underground tunnel at the geologic repository for defense waste in New Mexico
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) is an independent federal government agency that regulates the use of nuclear energy and material to protect health, safety, security and the environment and to respect Canada&rsquo:s international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Under section 2 of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act (NSCA), radioactive waste in Canada is defined as any material (liquid, gaseous or solid) that contains a radioactive nuclear substance for which no further use is foreseen. In addition to containing nuclear substances, radioactive waste may also contain hazardous substances that are not radioactive, as defined in section 1 of the General Nuclear Safety and Control Regulations. All radioactive waste generated in Canada is safely managed. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) regulates all steps in the management of radioactive waste in order to protect the health, safety and security of persons and to protect the environment.
Proposed nuclear facility – Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF): The NSDF is a proposed engineered disposal facility for low-level radioactive waste at the Chalk River Laboratories site.
Radioactive waste classification
In Canada, 4 general classes of radioactive waste are used as the basis for a classification system:
Low-level radioactive waste can be further divided into the following subclasses:
Waste should be classified according to the degree of containment and isolation that is necessary to ensure safety, with additional consideration given to the hazardous potential of different classes of waste and the time frame associated with the hazard. For a description of each of the classes of radioactive waste, consult CNSC regulatory document REGDOC-2.11.1, Waste Management, Volume I: Management of Radioactive Waste.
Oversight and management of Canada’s radioactive waste
Policy and legislative framework
In Canada, matters that relate to nuclear activities and substances are under the jurisdiction of the Government of Canada. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) is responsible for determining Canada’s nuclear energy policies, including those that concern radioactive waste. The Government of Canada’s Radioactive Waste Policy Framework establishes the roles and responsibilities of the Government of Canada, as well as waste producers and owners. The roles are as follows:
The CNSC is responsible for the regulatory oversight of the management of radioactive waste, including, as applicable, handling, processing, transport, storage and disposal of that waste.
The CNSC’s regulatory framework consists of laws passed by Parliament, as well as licences and regulatory documents issued and/or used by the CNSC to regulate the nuclear industry.
The following are the statutes used to regulate and oversee the nuclear industry in Canada; the statutes include the management of radioactive waste:
Several Government of Canada departments are involved in administering this federal legislation. When multiple regulators are involved, the CNSC establishes joint regulatory groups to coordinate and optimize the regulatory efforts necessary.
In addition, the nuclear industry is subject to the provincial legislation and regulations in force in the individual provinces and territories where nuclear-related activities are carried out. Where an overlap occurs in jurisdictions and responsibilities, the CNSC takes the lead in efforts to harmonize regulatory activities, including those of joint regulatory groups that involve provincial and territorial regulators.
CNSC regulatory oversight and framework
The CNSC regulates the use of nuclear energy and materials to protect health, safety, security and the environment. The CNSC has established a licensing and compliance system to ensure that all persons who use or possess nuclear substances and radiation devices do so in accordance with a licence, and that regulated parties have safety and security provisions in place that ensure compliance with regulatory requirements.
The CNSC’s regulatory philosophy is based on the following:
The CNSC therefore ensures that regulated parties are informed of requirements and provided with guidance on how to meet them. The CNSC then verifies that all regulatory requirements have been and continue to be met.
To safely regulate an evolving nuclear sector, the CNSC maintains an effective and flexible regulatory framework. Specifically for waste management, this regulatory framework consists of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, its associated regulations (such as the General Nuclear Safety and Control Regulations), licences and licence conditions handbooks and, finally, the CNSC’s regulatory documents and industry standards on waste management.
The following regulatory documents are a key part of the CNSC’s regulatory framework for waste management and decommissioning:
The following CSA Group standards complement the CNSC’s regulatory framework on waste management:
You can access these standards for free through the CSA Group website.
When making regulatory decisions about the management of radioactive waste, the CNSC will seek to achieve its objectives by considering certain key principles in the context of the facts and circumstances of each case, as follows:
The CNSC participates in international forums to provide global nuclear leadership and to benefit from international experience and best practices. It also participates in undertakings implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Nuclear Energy Agency, the International Commission on Radiological Protection and other international organizations, as well as activities under certain treaties, such as the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.
These international activities give the CNSC opportunities to understand and compare various ways of evaluating and mitigating risks, and to share research and operational experience, and thus help the CNSC in its decision-making processes.
Radioactive waste facilities and inventory in Canada
The table below lists the facilities, locations and sites in Canada that manage radioactive waste.
Radioactive waste inventory
Every 3 years, NRCan collects, compiles and analyzes inventory data for radioactive waste managed in Canada. NRCan publishes the updated data in the triennial Inventory of Radioactive Waste in Canada, which provides an overview of the production, accumulation and future projections of radioactive waste in Canada based on Canada’s 4 general waste classes. NRCan also provides this data to the IAEA’s radioactive waste management database, which tracks low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste worldwide.
The inventory data is also reported internationally in Canada’s National Reports to the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.
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.
All licensees must consider the waste hierarchy in the management of radioactive waste and must consider measures to control the generation of radioactive waste in terms of both volume and radioactivity content.
One of the key principles in REGDOC-2.11, Framework for Radioactive Waste Management and Decommissioning in Canada, and in IAEA guidance, is that the licensee must minimize the generation of radioactive waste to the extent practicable.
To do this, licensees must develop a waste management program that helps to reduce the overall volume and activity of radioactive waste requiring long-term management.
Clearance and exemption of waste from regulatory control, coupled with the reuse and recycling of material, can be effective in reducing the amount of radioactive waste that needs further processing or storage. Clearance and exemption from regulatory control take place once the waste has been appropriately characterized, processed and/or stored for a sufficiently long period of time. The limits and controls for clearance and exception are found in the Nuclear Substances and Radiation Devices Regulations.
In every instance, methods used to reduce the overall volume and activity of radioactive waste requiring long-term management 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.
To address the long-term management of used nuclear fuel, the 3 major waste owners — Ontario Power Generation (OPG), Hydro-Québec (HQ) and New Brunswick (NB) Power — established the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) in 2002 as required under the NFWA.
NWMO is responsible for implementing the Adaptive Phased Management (APM) approach that was selected by the Government of Canada for the long-term management of Canada’s used nuclear fuel. OPG, NB Power, HQ and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) are responsible for the management of used nuclear fuel generated at their respective sites until the NWMO is ready to accept the used nuclear fuel for management in a deep geological repository constructed using the APM approach. At this time, the CNSC has not yet received any applications for site preparation and construction of a deep geological repository that will provide long-term management of radioactive waste.
Figure 1 lists the organizations responsible for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel, low-level radioactive waste, intermediate-level radioactive waste, and uranium mine and mill tailings in Canada.
Used Nuclear Fuel
Low-level radioactive waste
Intermediate-level radioactive waste
Uranium mines and mill tailings
Different approaches are used to manage each of Canada’s 4 general waste classes.
High-level radioactive waste
In Canada, used nuclear fuel is stored in wet and dry states. When the fuel first exits a power reactor, it is placed in water-filled bays. Water cools the nuclear fuel and shields the radiation. After several years in the bays — 6 to 10 years, depending on site-specific needs and organizational administrative controls — and when the associated heat generation has diminished, the fuel can be transferred to a dry storage facility. These dry storage facilities employ large, reinforced concrete canisters or containers. Each nuclear power plant site in Canada has enough space to store all the used nuclear fuel produced during the operating life of the station. A 600-megawatt CANDU nuclear reactor, for example, produces approximately 90 tonnes of heavy metal used nuclear fuel annually.
In Canada, all used nuclear fuel is stored at the site where it was produced, with the following exceptions:
Low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste
AECL and OPG are responsible for approximately 90% and 99%, respectively, of the annual accumulated volume of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, as of 2019. These accumulation rates represent the waste generated from research and development activities at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ CRL and nuclear power production from 20 nuclear generating reactors in Ontario, respectively. Included in AECL’s accumulation rate is low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste for long-term management from a number of small producers and users of radioactive materials (e.g., hospitals and universities). Two other nuclear power reactors (owned by NB Power and HQ) and Cameco’s uranium processing and conversion facilities in Ontario generate the majority of the remaining waste. The owners of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste are licensed by the CNSC to manage and operate interim storage facilities for their radioactive wastes.
Canada also has volumes of LLW from past practices (referred to as historic waste) that was once managed in a manner no longer considered acceptable, but for which the current owner cannot be reasonably held responsible. Canada’s historic waste inventory consists largely of refinery process residues in the area of Port Hope, Ontario, and radium- and uranium-contaminated soils in the form of spilled ores on the Northern Transportation Route (NTR) from the former Port Radium mine site in the Northwest Territories. The Government of Canada has accepted responsibility for the long-term management of these wastes.
The bulk of Canada’s historic LLW is located in the southern Ontario communities of Port Hope and Clarington. These wastes and contaminated soils amount to roughly 1.7 million cubic metres and relate to the historic operations of a radium and uranium refinery in Port Hope dating back to the 1930s. In March 2001, the Government of Canada and the local municipalities agreed on community-developed proposals as potential solutions for the cleanup and long-term management of historic LLW in the Port Hope area, and launched the Port Hope Area Initiative. These initiatives are the responsibility of AECL, and the work is delivered by CNL, based on a government-owned contractor-operated model.
Activities continue to be carried out to quantify the extent of historic LLW liabilities across Canada (non-Port Hope sites) and develop plans for their discharge.
Legacy wastes (in the Canadian context) specifically date back to the Cold War and birth of nuclear technologies in Canada; these wastes are located at AECL sites. Besides these radioactive wastes, the AECL site includes other wastes resulting from the decommissioning of buildings and infrastructure, and from environmental remediation.
Uranium mine and mill tailings
Uranium mining and milling wastes comprise 3 major waste streams: mill tailings, waste rock and waste water. The method used to manage tailings from uranium mine operations varies from mine to mine.
Tailings management facilities have evolved over the decades, from the simple deposition of tailings into natural landforms, lakes or abandoned underground mines, to the construction of engineered surface storage facilities, to the current practice of placing the tailings in engineered mined-out open pits converted to tailings management facilities. Tailings in modern facilities are covered with water (subaqueous deposition) during operations to enhance radiation protection and to avoid the oxidation and winter freezing of the tailings.
In the northern Saskatchewan open-pit sites located within the Athabasca Basin, most of the waste rock is sandstone, which is environmentally benign and suitable for surface disposal. Some of the waste rock (special waste rock), however, contains either low-grade, uneconomic ore or significant concentrations of secondary minerals. The current method for managing special waste rock is to either blend it with high-grade ore for processing or isolate it from atmospheric conditions (e.g., locate it at the bottom of a flooded pit), keeping it in an environment similar to that from which it was mined and preventing oxidation reactions.
The waste water, or effluent, generated from mining and milling processes is treated as required. Treated water that is discharged to the environment is monitored to ensure it meets the regulatory standards prescribed by the provincial and federal governments. These prescribed limits ensure that the impacts on the environment are minimal.
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 for transport is that safety is incorporated in the design of the transport package.
Package designs are combined with additional regulatory controls including labelling, placarding, and 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.
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 3 years, the Government of Canada issues 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.