Executive Summary – Nuclear Energy and Radioactive Waste Management in Canada

(Disponible en français : Résumé – L’énergie nucléaire et la gestion des déchets radioactifs au Canada)

Nuclear energy is used by about 30 countries around the world, including Canada, and provides just over 10% of the world’s electricity. However, producing this energy generates radioactive waste with no foreseeable use and with a radioactive lifespan that can be of more than one million years.

There is therefore an international consensus on the need to come up with permanent solutions for the long-term storage (i.e., disposal) of this waste. But how is Canada managing its radioactive waste today and how does it plan to manage it in the long term? How are other nuclear energy producing countries addressing this issue?

This paper examines the governance framework for radioactive waste management in Canada and describes the various disposal projects proposed to date and the decision-making process that supports them.

Disposal projects vary according to the different categories of radioactive waste, which require a type of containment and isolation specific to their level of risk in order to protect human health and the environment. For example, low-level radioactive waste, such as contaminated soil and equipment used in nuclear power plants, can be stored long term in near‑surface facilities. In comparison, high-level waste, such as spent nuclear fuel, and some intermediate-level waste, such as former nuclear reactor parts, may have to be contained and isolated in deep geological repositories for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years.

In Canada, four long-term, low- and intermediate-level waste management projects are expected to be completed in the coming years. Three of these projects involve the disposal of low-level waste owned by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in near-surface facilities. Two of these projects are already under construction (Port Hope and Port Granby) and the other is in the approval phase (Chalk River). A proposed deep geological repository for the disposal of low- and intermediate-level waste owned by Ontario Power Generation that was in the process of being approved was rejected in its current form following a ratification vote by the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. An alternative solution will have to be considered.

With respect to high-level waste, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization was established in 2002 as a not-for-profit organization to develop and implement a national long-term management plan for all of Canada’s spent nuclear fuel. This plan, known as Adaptive Phased Management, is expected to lead to the selection of a suitable site for a deep geological repository.

In addition, technological advances may offer the possibility of reducing waste production or using it more efficiently. Nevertheless, countries that use nuclear energy should consider establishing a long-term management system to safely isolate radioactive waste.

Read the full text of the Background Paper: Nuclear Energy and Radioactive Waste Management in Canada

Authors: Xavier Deschênes-Philion and Sophie Leduc, Library of Parliament