Managing Nuclear Waste

What is nuclear waste?

Waste products are part of nuclear technology: uranium mining leaves ore behind, reactor parts must be changed from time to time, and protective clothing and cleaning supplies from nuclear facilities must eventually be thrown out. But the item people are most concerned about is used reactor fuel.

All industries create waste products. In the nuclear industry, the waste products are radioactive – some much less than others.

Fortunately, the total volume of nuclear waste products is much smaller than for many industries, because a tiny amount of uranium generates a lot of power. Even so, tough regulations for managing this waste keep nuclear workers, the public, and the environment safe.

Fuel-bundle-hockey-rinks
A fuel bundle. All of Canada’s used nuclear fuel could fit into six hockey rinks up to the boards.

How does Canada manage nuclear waste?

The more radioactive the waste product, the stronger the protection needed. There are three main types of waste.

Low-level waste

Cleaning tools (such as mop heads) and protective clothing are used in nuclear facilities, but they touch radioactive material rarely, if ever. Most of this is safe enough to be handled like regular garbage, but some goes into long-term storage just to make sure it’s safe.

Intermediate-level waste

Reactor parts, such as water filters, have directly contacted radioactive material. After use, these items are held in containers made of materials that block radiation (lead, for example). In storage, the items slowly lose most of their radioactivity. This waste can then be stored in long-term facilities.

High-level waste

When used fuel is removed from a reactor core, it is hot, radioactive, and dangerous to unshielded workers. Reactor operators put used fuel bundles into pools filled with water and cool them for five to ten years. Then operators move the used bundles into secure containers, made from thick concrete and steel, and store them safely onsite.

Used-fuel-bay-at-Bruce-B
Pool for used fuel at the Bruce B facility. Source: Bruce Power.

Other types

Waste from mining and milling, such as unused ore and mill tailings, is also stored according to the level of danger from radioactivity it presents. However, this is usually very low.

Are there permanent solutions?

Canada’s safe storage facilities for nuclear waste will last for decades. Still, centuries must pass before high-level waste is safe, so Canada is searching for permanent ways to store it.

This involves burying the waste hundreds of metres deep, in dry rock that is safe from earthquakes.

There are two proposals for “deep geological repositories” (DGRs) in Canada. One, on the Bruce nuclear site in Tiverton, Ontario would store for low- and intermediate-level waste. The other would store Canada’s used nuclear fuel. Its location is not yet decided. This will depend on public discussions, to ensure that the nearby communities understand, and freely accept, the value and implications of hosting a used-fuel storage site.

DGR
Design of a proposed DGR.

Who makes sure that nuclear waste is secure in Canada?

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) licences all Canadian facilities that handle nuclear waste. The CNSC applies strict regulations to keep workers, the public, and the environment safe. It can suspend or cancel a license if any facility fails to meet its high standards.

Provincial authorities also monitor nuclear facilities, while Health Canada monitors radiation exposure of workers. International regulations also apply.

Canada has a long history of handling nuclear materials safely. Our proven track record leads other countries and international organizations to ask Canada for advice.

Sources: 

Canadian Nuclear Association, https://cna.ca/.