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Regulating Canada's Geological Repositories

Quick Facts

  • The Government of Canada’s 1996 Policy Framework for Radioactive Waste provides the national context for radioactive waste management, along with a set of principles to ensure that this management of radioactive waste is carried out in a safe, environmentally sound manner.
  • Radioactive waste is defined as any material (liquid, gaseous or solid) that contains a radioactive nuclear substance for which the owner has no foreseen use and that is determined to be a waste product.
  • The Government of Canada and the nuclear industry are developing long-term radioactive waste management solutions that protect health, safety, security and the environment.

The CNSC is mandated to regulate 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. It licenses, monitors and inspects nuclear facilities in Canada, including radioactive waste management facilities.

As the Canadian nuclear regulator, the CNSC is responsible for licensing geological repositories intended for the long-term management of radioactive waste. A geological repository is constructed underground – usually at a depth of several hundred metres or more below the surface – in a stable rock formation.

There are currently two geological repository initiatives underway in Canada: the Ontario Power Generation (OPG) Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) project and the Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s (NWMO) Adaptive Phased Management initiative.

Ontario Power Generation’s proposed Deep Geologic Repository

Conceptual design of a Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) Source: Ontario Power Generation
Conceptual design of a Deep Geologic Repository (DGR)
Source: Ontario Power Generation

OPG has formally withdrawn its application to the CNSC for a licence to prepare a site for and construct a DGR for low- and intermediate-level waste at the Bruce nuclear site. No further work will proceed on the project.

The CNSC will apply its research and the lessons learned from the work completed to date on the OPG DGR project to any future applications for low- and intermediate-level waste storage.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s plan for a deep geologic repository

Conceptual design of NWMO’s Adaptive Phased Management Initiative Source: Nuclear Waste Management Organization

Conceptual design of NWMO’s Adaptive Phased Management Initiative Source: Nuclear Waste Management Organization

The second initiative, a separate project, is the Nuclear Waste Management Organization’s (NWMO) Adaptive Phased Management initiative.

In June 2007, the Government of Canada selected the NWMO’s Adaptive Phased Management (APM) approach as Canada’s plan for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel.The NWMO is conducting a site selection process to select an informed and willing community to host a deep geological repository in a suitable rock formation. The NWMO’s deep geological repository would accommodate all used nuclear fuel in Canada.

Current status: The APM initiative is still in the very early stages and no application has been submitted to the CNSC. However, the CNSC is providing regulatory guidance to the NWMO and is conducting pre-project design reviews of geological repository concepts. The CNSC is also ensuring that potentially affected communities have a comprehensive understanding of its role in regulating Canada’s nuclear sector and in the licensing process for future projects such as this one.

What are the licensing steps for a deep geologic repository?

The CNSC uses a comprehensive licensing system that covers the entire lifecycle of a geological repository – from site preparation to construction, operation, decommissioning (closure and post-closure) and finally, release from CNSC licensing. This approach requires a separate licence at each phase, although the site preparation and site construction licence can be combined.

The CNSC’s regulatory philosophy for radioactive waste stems from the Nuclear Safety and Control Act (NSCA) and is articulated in CNSC documents REGDOC 3.5.3, Regulatory Fundamentals, REGDOC 2.11 Framework for Radioactive Waste Management and Decommissionning, and REGDOC 2.11.1 Volume III, Assessing the Long Term Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

The CNSC can make a licensing decision on a deep geological repository only after the completion of an environmental assessment (EA). An EA is a process for predicting the environmental impacts of proposed initiatives before they are carried out. An EA:

  • identifies and proposes measures for mitigating or avoiding potential adverse environmental effects
  • predicts whether there will be significant adverse environmental effects (after mitigation measures are implemented)
  • may include a follow-up program (to verify the accuracy of the EA and the effectiveness of the mitigation measures)

Did you know?

  • Within the current Government of Canada policy, waste producers and owners are responsible for the funding, management and operation of interim and long-term waste management facilities so that future generations of Canadians are not burdened with the cost. This responsibility is also known as “the polluter pays” principle. One exception is historic waste, for which the Government of Canada assumes responsibility.
  • Sweden and Finland also have initiatives underway to develop geological repositories for used nuclear fuel.
  • Canada’s nuclear power program has produced over 2.8 million used fuel bundles over the past half-century. If these bundles were stacked end to end, they would fit into a space the size of seven hockey rinks stacked to the top of the boards.

How can the public participate in the licensing of geologic repositories?

Licensing and EA processes for geologic repositories
Figure 1: Both the licensing and EA processes allow for ongoing public involvement

The CNSC is committed to transparency. Engaging stakeholders, Indigenous peoples and the public, through a variety of consultation opportunities – set early and well in advance of any submissions for new nuclear projects – ensures effective dialogue and information sharing.

Once a licence application has been received, the review process begins. This process allows opportunities for the public and Indigenous peoples to participate. The CNSC has a duty to consult when Aboriginal and/or treaty rights could be adversely impacted, and recognizes the importance of consulting and building relationships with First Nations and Métis peoples in Canada.

The Commission also holds formal public hearings. Members of the public and Indigenous peoples are welcome to observe these hearings or to actively participate as intervenors.

What is the technical assessment process for licence applications?

CNSC experts and technical specialists conduct a thorough technical assessment of any information submitted by applicants in support of their applications. This assessment is usually carried out with input from other federal, provincial and territorial government departments and agencies responsible for regulating health and safety, environmental protection, emergency preparedness and the transportation of dangerous goods.

The technical assessment focuses on determining whether the proposed design and safety analysis (along with any other required information) complies with regulatory requirements. This review demands rigorous engineering and scientific analyses, taking into consideration the CNSC’s experience and knowledge of best practices in radioactive waste management from existing facilities in Canada and around the world.

As is the case for other nuclear facilities, the licensing of geological repositories in Canada must address the requirements and regulations made under the NSCA – the cornerstone of the CNSC regulatory framework. Licensing must also address the CNSC’s commitment to international standards and best practices, including those of the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Canadians can be assured that any geological repository built in Canada will meet the highest standards for health, safety, security and environmental protection.

What kind of research does the CNSC conduct on geologic repositories?

Since 1978, the CNSC has been involved in independent and internationally collaborative research focusing on long-term safety issues related to the disposal of radioactive waste and used nuclear fuel in both crystalline and sedimentary rock formations.

This research program consists of independent scientific research conducted by CNSC staff in collaboration with national and international institutions such as Canadian universities, the BGR (German Geological Survey), the IRSN (Institut de Radioprotection et Sûreté Nucléaire, France) and CANMET (Canada Centre for Mineral and Energy Technology). This collaboration has provided CNSC staff with invaluable experimental data obtained from laboratory and field tests that are used in the development and validation of mathematical models.

The research program also includes the monitoring and critical review of state-of-the-art scientific advancements and staff participation in international fora to exchange information about geological repositories. The program helps in the development and update of regulatory documents that form the basis for CNSC staff recommendations to the Commission on geological repositories for radioactive waste.

How does the CNSC verify compliance at radioactive waste management facilities?

Did you know?

  • The CNSC’s commitment to international standards and best practices ensures that the management of radioactive waste in Canada meets the highest requirements for health, safety, security and environmental protection.
  • Through participation in international forums, the CNSC stays informed of best practices in radioactive waste management.
  • The CNSC ensures that proper security measures are in place for nuclear facilities and that the health of nuclear sector workers is protected.

Once the CNSC issues a licence, the licensee must comply with the requirements of the NSCA and its associated regulations, as well as with the specific conditions of their licence. The CNSC has compliance programs for all regulated nuclear facilities in Canada (including any future deep geological repositories) to ensure that these requirements are respected.

CNSC staff conduct regular site inspections of radioactive waste management facilities to make sure that radioactive waste containment systems remain appropriate and safe, and to ensure that licensees’ radioactive waste-related activities and inventory statistics are properly reported.

Inspectors also perform radiation monitoring and take environmental samples of air quality and liquid effluent in order to verify that facilities operate within the limits established in their licence. The CNSC also performs unannounced inspections.

In conjunction with the CNSC, the IAEA monitors Canada’s used nuclear fuel storage facilities to verify that these facilities comply with Canada’s obligations under the Canada/IAEA safeguards agreements stemming from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. These agreements give the IAEA the right and obligation to monitor Canada’s nuclear-related activities, and to verify nuclear material inventories and transactions.

The CNSC works with its licensees to inform them about regulatory expectations and licence requirements. When necessary, the CNSC uses a graded series of enforcement actions to ensure compliance and to protect workers, the public and the environment, and to respect Canada’s international agreements.

How does the CNSC ensure that radioactive waste is transported safely to waste management facilities?

The responsibility for regulating the safe transport of nuclear substances, including radioactive waste, is jointly shared between the CNSC and Transport Canada. Transport Canada’s Transportation of Dangerous Goods Regulations (TDGR) deal with the transport of all classes of dangerous goods, while the CNSC’s Packaging and Transport of Nuclear Substances Regulations (PTNSR) are primarily concerned with the health, safety and security of the public, and the protection of the environment related to the special characteristics of radioactive materials. Both the TDGR and PTNSR apply to all persons who handle, offer for transport, transport or receive nuclear substances.

The basic philosophy guiding the development of the PTNSR is that safety relies heavily on the design of the transport package. Package designs are combined with additional regulatory controls (including labelling, placarding, quality assurance and maintenance records) and allow for radioactive material to be carried safely using any mode of transport, such as road, rail, air and sea transportation.

All nuclear substances are transported in packages selected according to the nature, form and quantity or activity of the substance. General design requirements apply to all package types in order to ensure that they can be handled safely and easily, are secured properly, and are able to withstand routine conditions of transport.

For further information on how the CNSC ensures the safe transport of nuclear substances in Canada, refer to the CNSC fact sheet titled Regulating the Packaging and Transport of Nuclear Substances in Canada.

What are the CNSC’s international responsibilities for radioactive waste?

As long-term strategies and solutions for the safe management of used nuclear fuel and 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 three years, the Government of Canada issues the Canadian 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.

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