Tag Archives: waste


What is Nuclear Waste?

When people hear about nuclear waste, they usually think about spent fuel – the uranium that has powered nuclear reactors. Spent fuel is highly radioactive, but it makes up only three percent of the volume of nuclear waste worldwide. The remaining 97 percent is much less radioactive. Even so, all waste needs to be treated with care.

Waste types

There are three main types of nuclear waste:

  • Low-level waste: Every nuclear facility uses cleaning tools (such as mop heads) and protective clothing. These items almost never touch radioactive material, but they’re still treated as nuclear waste.
  • Intermediate-level waste: These are reactor parts, such as water filters, that have been irradiated and become radioactive.
  • High-level waste: This is spent fuel. When fuel is removed from a reactor, it is very hot, and still radioactive. Its radioactivity will slowly decline over time.

Storage todaypickering-container-d4

Canada’s nuclear energy facilities store different types of waste in different ways, depending on how hazardous they are:

  • Most low-level waste is no more dangerous than regular garbage, but it goes into long-term storage as a precaution.
  • Intermediate-level waste is kept in containers made of materials that block radiation (for example, lead). In storage, the radioactivity of these items slowly declines.
  • High-level waste is placed in a pool of water for five to ten years, which allows it to cool. Then it goes into special storage containers made of thick concrete and steel. Over time, the level of radiation declines, but the fuel will remain too radioactive to be safe for direct exposure to people and the environment for many years.

Storage for the future

Storing waste on-site, above ground is safe, but requires ongoing monitoring and security. An alternative way to keep nuclear waste safe is to bury it deep in the ground, in dry rock that is safe from earthquakes.

A federal government panel has recommended that the government approve a plan to bury low- and intermediate-level waste at a site near Kincardine, Ontario. As well, the government has approved a nuclear industry plan to find a site to store spent fuel. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization is reviewing sites that have both the right geology and a willing host community.

Environment Nuclear Safety Waste Management

The Deep Geologic Repository and Canadian Nuclear Safety

By Dr. John Barrett
President and CEO
Canadian Nuclear Association

Now that it has closed the record on its extensive public hearings, the Joint Review Panel appointed to examine OPG’s Deep Geologic Repository (DGR) can get on with the final phase of its work – developing recommendations.

The panel faces a difficult task. Should it recommend that the project proceed? Or should it prefer that low- and intermediate-level waste remain stored in concrete trenches and warehouses above ground?

It’s not an easy choice, because either approach yields the same result – safe, secure storage of radioactive materials.

In two appearances before the review panel, the Canadian Nuclear Association expressed confidence in OPG’s proposed repository. The company has developed a credible case for moving its waste underground – a plan developed with input from many specialists from a wide variety of disciplines.

OPG concluded—and I have seen no persuasive evidence otherwise—that the repository will likely not cause significant adverse environmental effects.

It’s significant that three federal departments, as well as the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), all reached the same conclusion upon reviewing OPG’s case.  In short, OPG has more than satisfied the need to assess properly the risks posed by the DGR.

There exist four waste-management options. Two require storage above ground, and two below ground. A review by a panel of independent experts has shown all four options, including the proposed DGR, can be carried out safely and securely. Any one of them would do. The real question is whether any option is inherently better than the others.

The answer finds its roots in our sense of moral responsibility. My generation, and yours, benefitted from the use of nuclear-generated electricity. We also bear responsibility for the waste. We should manage it. The DGR provides a way to do so safely and securely. In the end, the joint panel will assess whether the repository provides a responsible improvement on current practice.

Observers should not fail to note the broader issue – that the nuclear industry, alone in the energy sector, takes full responsibility for managing its waste. We do so safely and securely, using ample detection and alert systems to ensure public and environmental safety.

Could we do better? Certainly. We can always improve safety. At the same time, let us recognize that the Canadian nuclear industry enjoys an impressive safety record.

In fact, the nuclear regulator recently concluded that no fatalities related to radiation safety have ever occurred in the Canadian nuclear industry. How many industrial activities of any kind–let alone of nuclear’s scale and complexity–have this kind of record?