Atomic Energy of Canada Limited


Frequently Asked Questions

Radioactive Waste

What is radioactive/nuclear waste?

Radioactive or nuclear waste is any hazardous byproduct that comes from various activities such as nuclear reactors, nuclear research facilities, nuclear power generation, nuclear weapons re-processing, rare earth mining, fuel processing plants, and even hospitals that contain nuclear based medicine or treatments. Like everything, nuclear waste is made up of elements from the periodic table which includes isotopes or iron, zirconium, iodine, zinc, germanium, and silver.

What does it look like?

When looking at nuclear fuel and/or waste from the perspective of the “naked eye” the composition does not look as though it has changed. It comes out of the reactor looking the same as it did when going in. Nuclear fuel can be described as a small, black, and somewhat cylindrical ceramic pellet that are stacked and loaded into metal tubes. Even though nuclear waste and fuel look the same, it is the contents that are not visible to the “naked eye” that have changed. While these pellets are in the reactor their atoms split and release energy, therefore the pellets that emerge from the reactor are now nuclear waste because their basic composition has changed but they keep the same physically presenting form.

What makes nuclear waste dangerous?

When we think about the concept of energy consumption, we might think about it in a very generic way. The first thing you might think of is your energy over the course of a day. We might think that we use all our energy by end of day because we feel drained and tired, but we are constantly creating more. The creation of energy never stops, and this is exactly why nuclear waste exists. Keeping this in mind while considering nuclear energy is important. Nuclear energy is not simply used and then discarded of. The process of controlling nuclear waste is important since that energy does not simply vanish. In nuclear energy production, the nucleus of the atom splits during the process and most of the energy will be released immediately and carried off by a coolant to do the rest of the work. However, after the atom splits, it will continue to emit energy for thousands of years because it has a delayed energetic emission. Therefore, nuclear waste is highly radioactive. For example, if you were to stand too closely to nuclear waste that was recently released from a reactor and unshielded then you would receive a lethal dose of radiation poisoning within seconds which in turn, would kill you within the next few days following that exposure. Be that as it may, unlike most toxic waste, nuclear waste is one that becomes less toxic and radioactive over time. As the energy from nuclear waste emerges and gets released naturally, the waste becomes less hazardous with every passing moment, but it still takes quite a long time for it to shift from hazardous to benign.

How is radioactive waste produced?

A variety of activities leads to the production of radioactive waste including uranium mining, milling, refining and conversion; nuclear fuel fabrication; nuclear reactor operations; nuclear research; facility decommissioning; and the remediation of contaminated sites.

How long does it take to decay?

All radioactive material slowly decays over time. During this time radioactive waste becomes less and less hazardous. However, for radioactive waste to become completely decayed and not harmful can take thousands of years since the process of decay is so slow. Highly radioactive elements are those that take the longest amount of time to decay since they emit more radiation naturally.

How does radioactive waste affect our health?

In order for Radioactive waste to affect our health, we would have to be exposed to it. Having radiation exposure means a lot of different things since there is short term, and long term affects depending on the level of radiation exposure and contamination. Short term health affects from radiation and/or contamination can result in Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) also described as radiation sickness or Cutaneous Radiation Injury (CRI) which normally happens when radiation causes injury to your skin. There are also long-term health affects brought on by high doses of radiation which include cancer which for most, shows up later in your lifetime. There is also Prenatal Radiation Exposure which is specific to pregnant women who have been exposed or contaminated and there are also mental health problems that can occur which can cause emotional and psychological distress. All potential health complications brought on by radiation is specific to the dose that you get. For example, a dose received over a long period of time is less harmful than the same dose received all at once. Radiation harms our body by damaging the DNA in our cells. The more extreme cases that involve those higher doses of radiation are what cause cancer, pregnancy complications and even death. However, scientists and specialists have been studying radiation and its negative effects on our health for over a century. We can measure radiation and because of this we understand why or how these health problems can occur. Therefore, we can work safely with and around radiation.

How does radioactive waste affect our environment?

We receive low doses of radiation from our environment everyday since it is a naturally occurring element. However, there is such a thing as radiation pollution which certain areas have experienced and suffered from. The knowledge we have now about radiation was not always the case, and we were not always aware of how harmful radioactive waste or radiation can be on ourselves as well as our environment. Radioactive pollution has been categorized as one of the most significant hazards to our environment. The release of these hazardous materials on to the environment can contaminate and cause a substantial amount of risk regarding the survival of any living organism. Nuclear substances can contaminate the air, water, and soil of any environment. For example, radiation can bleed into bodies of water like it did in Japan when the 2011 incident at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant occurred. This incident was caused by an earthquake which released dozens of radioactive elements in large quantities into the ocean. Radioactive waste can also be found stored in mills or other spaces deep underground. If the process of storing and containing nuclear waste is not met with care and diligence, then incidence may occur causing adverse effects to the surrounding environment. For example, leaks in any of these underground storage spaces can lead to the contamination of the surrounding soil.

When did we begin to create nuclear waste?

In Canada, nuclear waste has been produced since the early 1930’s. The first radium and uranium mine was located at Port Radium in the Northwest Territories. However, the bulk of Canada’s nuclear waste history is located at Port Hope. The amount of waste and contaminated soils in this area is said to be roughly 2 million cubic meters. Workers at the time were not aware that radioactive waste was toxic or hazardous and therefore did not know that they had to carefully dispose of it. Not knowing this crucial detail that they would later discover, led to the contamination of soil that we continue to clean up today. In 2001, the Government of Canada along with local municipalities decided to launch the Port Hope Area Initiative. This community initiative was implemented in hopes that we can cleanup and manage the low-level radioactive waste that polluted Port Hope decades ago.

Who disposes of nuclear waste?

In order to protect and maintain the health, safety, and security of people as well as the environment in Canada we have the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). They are responsible for regulating all steps in the management and disposal of radioactive waste. They follow a four-level classification for nuclear waste; Low-Level radioactive waste (LLW), intermediate-level radioactive waste (ILW), high-level radioactive waste (HLW) and uranium mine/mill tailings. There are even subcategories for LLW such as, very low-level radioactive waste and very short-lived low-level radioactive waste. Since we can measure radioactive waste, it is easy to determine its hazard level so that we can properly distinguish what its necessary degree of containment and isolation may be. Different types of waste are also given additional consideration depending on the hazardous potential or the time frame associated with the waste.

Where does radioactive waste get stored?

There are several options to store radioactive waste depending on the level of it. A lot of what you might hear when discussing waste is storing it underground. This is called “Near surface disposal” which is storing the waste at ground level or in caverns below ground level at around depth of 10 meters. This option for storage is suitable for LLW and short-lived LLW since they are the least radioactive or hazardous. Another option called “Deep geological disposal” is for nuclear waste that is more hazardous and at a higher level. This includes long-lived ILW and HLW. This waste is stored much deeper underground compared to our LLW. Normally “Deep geological disposal” will have waste at depths between 250m and 1000m in mined repositories where packaged waste is disposed of and often, they surround these packages of waste with cement or clay which adds another barrier. Another deep geological disposal method is using boreholes which can allow us to store waste at depths of 5000m.

Why do people think nuclear waste is harmful?

Based on nuclear waste’s history with the environment it has a reputation for being seen as hazardous and unsafe. However, these are stigmas about nuclear energy and waste that come from the lack of education on the topic.

Why does it take so long to clean up?

Considering the hazardous and toxic nature of nuclear waste, this makes it a very expensive and time-consuming process. If not done properly it can also negatively impact those involved in the cleanup process. The contaminated sites require certain amounts of monitoring and stewardship as well. This lengthens the amount of time it can take to clean up an area. When cleaning these areas officials have public health and safety at heart which means they need to take care in the work they do to clean these areas to make sure no further areas of that region become contaminated.


What is GoCo?

GoCo stands for Government-owned, Contractor-operated. It is a governance model by which AECL contracts out the management and operation of our sites to a private-sector contractor. Under this model, AECL remains the owner of the sites, assets, facilities, liabilities and intellectual property, while a private-sector contractor, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, is responsible for operating our sites on a day-to-day basis. This model has been in place at AECL since 2015. For more details on this, please visit the GoCo Model page.

What is in place to make sure the contractor does not artificially inflate costs and cut corners to maximize their fees?

Safety and security is our highest priority. We provide priorities to our contractor in order to incentivize their performance in a number of areas, including improving safety and security metrics, achieving project milestones, improving processes, etc.

Furthermore, our contract with them includes provisions for fee reductions in instances where there are safety and security-related incidents. So the incentive is for them to improve safety, security and the protection of the environment in an efficient and cost effective manner.

As part of our oversight role, AECL looks at CNL’s activities to ensure that they meet established plans and priorities, in a manner that is safe and protects the public, workers and the environment. CNL’s activities are also overseen by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Canada’s independent nuclear regulator.

How does AECL assess CNL’s performance?

AECL establishes performance measures and associated targets on an annual basis. CNL’s performance is then assessed against this performance framework. The fee earned by the contractor is based on this assessment; that is, the extent to which performance measures and targets are met.

The process was set up so that performance measures can be updated on an annual basis, thereby allowing for flexibility for AECL to focus on priority areas and adjust incentives for elements that may require attention.

Who is ultimately responsible for the nuclear legacy liabilities, and where does the funding come from?

AECL is responsible for the Government of Canada’s radioactive waste and decommissioning liabilities. This includes legacy liabilities – essentially liabilities which have been created as a result of AECL’s own nuclear science and technology activities – and historic waste liabilities – which are liabilities for low-level radioactive waste for which the Government of Canada has accepted responsibility. The best example of historic waste liabilities is the Port Hope Area Initiative.

As AECL is a federal Crown corporation, these liabilities are ultimately the liabilities of the Government of Canada. That means that all of the responsibilities, including funding for, historic and legacy radioactive waste liabilities are AECL’s.

We deliver our mandate through a GoCo model, which means that we contract the work to deliver on our responsibilities to CNL. Practically speaking, this means that we provide funding to CNL to undertake the necessary activities to deliver on our radioactive waste and decommissioning responsibilities.

The GoCo model has provided an opportunity for AECL to leverage the experience and expertise of the private-sector to optimize work and increase efficiencies and effectiveness, resulting in plans to address risks sooner. AECL will reduce the Government’s liability in a much shorter period of time than what had previously been planned.


What is the government’s small modular reactor roadmapping exercise and how does it fit in with what CNL/AECL are doing?

The Government of Canada is exploring the potential for on and off grid applications of SMRs. It has convened provincial and territorial governments – who in Canada have the responsibility for energy production choices – as well as utilities, to understand the priorities and challenges associated with SMR deployment in Canada.

The process also includes several stakeholders, including Indigenous groups. It is meant to leverage existing work and initiatives in order to bring an integrated, approach to SMRs. More information on this is available on Natural Resources Canada’s website.

The work that CNL and AECL are doing on SMRs is contributing to that roadmap as it brings valuable information garnered through CNL’s Request for Expression of Interest process and Invitation for Application process, most notably to help to understand what it takes to develop and deploy SMRs in Canada from the perspective of technology developers and the labs.

What is AECL’s role in CNL’s process?

From a broad perspective, AECL approves CNL’s long-term and annual plans. Part of CNL’s objectives, as set out in its 10-year plan, is to host a demonstration SMR reactor at one of AECL’s sites by 2026. AECL approved this plan as we also think that there is potential value to Canada in hosting a demonstration SMR project.

We recognize that questions need to be answered as we move towards demonstration. We are working closely with CNL as they implement their process for inviting and assessing proposals for SMRs.

Part of CNL’s process includes CNL presenting a business case to AECL for acceptance. That business case will be reviewed by AECL.

Furthermore, AECL owns the lands and the sites which are operated by CNL. We therefore have to be involved and engaged from the perspective of approving such a project on our land.

We see SMRs as very exciting in terms of enabling innovation and achieving our and the Government of Canada’s priorities and our role is to look at the business case and value for Canada.


Are there any safety risks associated with this technique?

In-situ decommissioning has been used successfully at a number of nuclear sites worldwide, beginning in the 1960s. The technique minimizes radiobiological exposure to workers and reduces the need for handling and transportation overall minimizing the risks to workers and the environment.

As CNL advances their projects at NPD and Whiteshell , they will meet or exceed regulatory requirements that protect the health and safety of workers, the public and the environment.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), Canada’s independent nuclear regulator, will only allow projects to proceed if it can assure itself that it is safe.

What will the reactor at Whiteshell look like when it’s fully decommissioned?

The technique involves pouring a specially-engineered grout into the reactor to lock contaminants in place, essentially making a giant, underground, block of concrete. A protective cover is then added on the surface which will also serve to channel water away from the site and protect it from the elements.

Long-term care, maintenance activities and decommissioning site environmental monitoring will continue to ensure that the site remains safe and the decommissioning approach performs to expectation.

What is happening to the land at Whiteshell once the site is closed?

The proposed end state leaves approximately 10,800 acres of land unaffected, and only a small portion, less than 1% of the former laboratories site, would be maintained under institutional control.

AECL will continue to work with the Local Government District of Pinawa, the Government of Manitoba and any other relevant stakeholders and Indigenous groups to discuss the future of AECL’s lands, with a view to finding acceptable solutions which support the local community in advancing plans related to economic development.

Who will be responsible for the long-term surveillance of the Whiteshell site after their contract expires?

Following the Whiteshell site closure in 2024, AECL will remain the site owner and has responsibility to maintain the institutional controls and monitoring program for the WR-1 site. As with the other AECL sites, we expect the ongoing management and operation to be contracted to CNL. We expect that the vast majority of the Whiteshell site will be free to be released – i.e. it will either have been cleaned up or never impacted by the activities of the site. This represents more than 4,000 hectares of land unaffected, and only a small portion (less than one percent) of the former laboratories site, would be maintained under institutional control, meaning it cannot be used for other purposes.


Are there any dangers to having the NDSF close to the Ottawa River?

Our main priority is the protection of the environment, including the Ottawa River. In fact, the NSDF project is designed to make things better by remediating contaminated lands which have led to the contamination of soil and groundwater.

The facility will follow international best practices with multiple engineered layers designed to contain the stored contaminants.

In the very unlikely event of a breach, we would detect it quickly and take action to correct it.

Why choose this type of near surface facility? Why not build a deep geological repository?

AECL considers CNL’s proposal for a near surface disposal facility to represent a sound basis for managing the decommissioning, environmental remediation and waste management responsibilities at our sites.

The technology for near surface disposal facilities has been in practice for decades at other nuclear sites around the world. The track record is sound and the technology is mature and well understood.
The facility is designed to contain the waste and contamination. There are multiple engineered barriers and redundancies built into it, as well as a strong environmental monitoring program that will be in place to prevent any contamination of the Ottawa River.

CNL’s proposal is undergoing an Environmental Assessment and it will be up to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Canada’s independent nuclear regulator, to determine whether the project can proceed.

Why isn’t AECL leading this project?

AECL delivers its mandate through a Government-owned, Contractor-operated (GoCo) model whereby it contracts the operation of its nuclear laboratories, including decommissioning and waste management work, to Canadian Nuclear Laboratories.

Under this model, AECL continues to own the land, facilities, assets and liabilities, whereas the workforce, the licences and all other aspects of the running of the sites, including the proposed NSDF, are part of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ business.

Some people are saying that there is no nuclear waste policy for Canada. Don’t you need this before building a waste disposal site?

Canada does have a nuclear waste policy in place based on the “polluter pays” principle. This is supported by a strict legislative and regulatory framework that governs all operators, under the guidance of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the independent federal regulator. Many solutions exist for the management of radioactive waste, all of which focus on the protection of the environment, the public and workers.

The management of radioactive waste is the responsibility of all the owners of the waste they produce. All radioactive waste in Canada is accounted for, managed safely, and funds are available to pay for their final disposal.

Consistent with this approach, AECL has asked CNL to put forward proposals for the management of our inventory of radioactive waste. The proposal for a near surface disposal facility is meant to address AECL’s low-level radioactive waste. The key drivers for this project are AECL’s priority to protect the environment and its obligation to responsibly address its radioactive wastes.

How much will it cost and who is paying for this?

The estimated cost to build the facility and get it ready for operation is $230 million. AECL is paying for this project.

Over the life of the facility, which includes 30 years of post-closure monitoring and surveillance, it is estimated that costs will be just over $500M (net present value).

Why build a new NSDF when there are other nuclear waste storage projects underway in Canada?

These other projects have been carefully designed to meet only the specific needs of the respective proponents.  The focus of the NSDF is the disposal of AECL’s low-level radioactive waste.  Other projects currently underway in Canada are designed for different types of waste, such as intermediate and high-level radioactive waste (used nuclear fuel). As such, these projects have been built with technical requirements that fit their specific needs.   CNL is proposing a near surface disposal facility as the best technical solution for the safe management of AECL’s low-level radioactive waste.

What will happen when the 10-year contact with the contractor is up?

Under the Government-owned, Contractor-operated (GoCo) model, the land, facilities and importantly – the liabilities – are owned by AECL.  As a federal Crown corporation, AECL has the responsibility to oversee the GoCo contract, one aspect of which is to oversee the appropriate management and disposal of the Government of Canada’s radioactive waste liabilities.  The NSDF is an important component of effectively addressing the liabilities.

Also, it should be noted that as part of the GoCo model, CNL is meant to be an ‘enduring entity’, meaning that it will remain as the operator of the Chalk River site (including the NSDF) even after the initial contract, and even if or when a new contractor is selected.


How can you ensure the material be transported safely?

The highly-enriched uranium is transported in engineered casks that are specifically designed to contain contents under normal and abnormal situations. The casks undergo stringent testing, which simulate both normal and hypothetical accident conditions of transport, including free-drop, puncture and thermal testing.

The casks are certified and transportation is licensed by both Canadian and American nuclear regulatory bodies. This is undertaken in accordance with international safety requirements established by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Canada’s independent nuclear regulator, does not allow the shipment of any nuclear materials unless it is convinced the safety of Canadians will be protected.

Stringent security plans are in place for each shipment to avoid any risk of the material falling into the hands of unauthorized persons or organizations. Information on specific shipment details is withheld for safety and security considerations.

The transportation routes and security measures put in place are pre-approved and agreed by authorities in both Canada and the US Canada has an excellent safety record for the transport of nuclear substances.