by Ole Hendrickson, Ph.D. CCRCA researcher
April 20, 2023
Canada’s Policy for Radioactive Waste Management and Decommissioning
Background: In 2017, civil society groups were trying to understand how three irresponsible radioactive waste projects (the giant Chalk River mound and two legacy reactor entombments), could be undergoing environmental assessment in Canada. The lack of a substantive federal radioactive waste policy was noted as a serious problem that had allowed the projects to proceed. The policy vacuum was brought to the attention of the IAEA, the Prime Minister, the Auditor General and many other Canadian officials. In September 2019, an international peer review team from IAEA flagged Canada’s lack of a radioactive waste policy as a serious problem. In response, Natural Resources Canada began a review process which took place from 2020 to 2023. The review included extensive involvement from civil society groups and concerned individuals across Canada. The new policy, released in March 2023, is a huge disappointment to many people who, in good faith, worked hard to provide many valuable suggestions only to find their input virtually ignored by the captured bodies (CNSC and NRCan) that developed the policy. In the words of our Quebec colleagues at Ralliement contre la pollution radioactive, the policy is “a fiasco and a slap in the face to democracy.” What follows is a detailed analysis of the many serious failings of Canada’s new “modernized” radioactive waste policy.
Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) uses “ensure” in its various forms 28 times in the final version of its new radioactive waste policy, up from 14 times in the draft.
Use of “ensure” in a policy context represents an empty promise – a promise that is not associated with any specific action and that lacks a verifiable, measurable, time-bound target. Reliance on such language indicates an intent to avoid further discussion.
For example, NRCan’s claim that Canada could “ensure nuclear non-proliferation” if plutonium reprocessing were to be allowed (and plutonium-fueled reactors were to be exported to other countries) demonstrates the policy’s superficial and specious nature.
The closest thing to a target in the policy is found in one of the “vision” statements:
By 2050, key elements of Canada’s radioactive waste disposal infrastructure are in place, and planning is well under way for the remaining facilities necessary to accommodate all of Canada’s current and future radioactive wastes.
This begs the questions, “What are those “key elements?” and “What are the remaining facilities?” To achieve this rather weak and vague vision:
The federal government accordingly ensures… that responsibility for maintaining institutional controls over the long term, including the preservation of records and knowledge management of radioactive wastes, is assigned, in an open and transparent manner, to an appropriate entity.
It appears that the federal government is unprepared to accept responsibility at this time for managing radioactive waste, even the waste that it has generated. The federal government created the nuclear industry and generated a massive (~ $16 billion) waste liability through R&D work carried out by the crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) over the past 75 years. AECL continues to receive annual appropriations exceeding a billion dollars.
The policy only promises that at some indefinite time in the future the government will “ensure” that an “appropriate entity” is created to maintain institutional controls over the long term. This side-steps the key issue of governance. A public entity to oversee radioactive waste management is urgently needed. Hundreds of submissions on the draft policy called for the government to establish an independent oversight body now.
Although the policy gives the nuclear industry free rein in managing its waste, with no oversight, it assigns no real responsibility to the industry, either. It calls upon the industry to develop “conceptual approaches” and to submit an “Integrated Strategy for Canada’s radioactive waste to the federal government for review and consideration.”
An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report prompted the government to undertake a radioactive waste policy review. The IAEA specifically recommended that the government “enhance” the principles contained in its previous Radioactive Waste Policy Framework. The most important principle was “polluter pays”:
The waste producers and owners are responsible, in accordance with the principle of “polluter pays”, for the funding, organization, management and operation of disposal and other facilities required for their wastes.
Rather than being enhanced, this principle was deleted from the new policy. This opens the door to subsidies from the federal government for management of radioactive wastes produced by non-federal entities.
The policy lacks acceptable language regarding assessment of radioactive waste management facilities. NRCan rejected the following civil society proposal:
Amend the Physical Activities Regulations under the Impact Assessment Act to include construction and operation of new nuclear reactors, decommissioning of nuclear reactors, and all phases in the development, operation and closure of long-term waste management facilities.
Instead, NRCan said:
The Policy recognizes and is aligned with federal legislation, particularly the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, the Impact Assessment Act and the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, as well as other legislation, associated regulations, and other policy tools that further support radioactive waste management,
These policy tools are regularly reviewed and updated by the federal government, as required, to ensure they remain relevant and effective.
This is a dubious claim, given that the government had not reviewed or updated the previous waste policy “framework” for 27 years, and has not reviewed or updated the Nuclear Safety and Control Act for 26 years.
Stating that the new policy “is aligned with” the Impact Assessment Act fails to mention that the Physical Activities Regulations under this Act exempt decommissioning of reactors and other nuclear facilities, new radioactive waste storage facilities, fuel waste reprocessing facilities with an annual production capacity of less than 100 tonnes of plutonium per year, and construction and operation of small modular reactors (and management of their wastes).
Hence, nearly all major nuclear activities are exempted from assessment.
Most current nuclear decommissioning activities are occurring on federal lands owned by AECL. In theory, impact assessment is required for all projects occurring on federal lands under section 82 of the Impact Assessment Act.
AECL, despite being a federal authority under the Act, ignores decommissioning projects, and delegates the determination of the significance of other waste-related activities (such as a new intermediate-level waste storage facility) to its private contractor, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. This is not allowed under the Act.
With regard to health, safety and environmental aspects of radioactive waste management, NRCan rejected the following civil society suggestions on the policy draft:
Radioactive waste will be contained and monitored to ensure it remains isolated from the accessible biosphere for the time frame relevant to the category of waste;” and “Prioritize the health, safety and security of people and the environment by requiring that radioactive wastes are kept contained and isolated from the biosphere.”
These suggestions were based on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safety standard for radioactive waste disposal. The IAEA says:
The specific aims of disposal are:
(a) To contain the waste;
(b) To isolate the waste from the accessible biosphere and to reduce substantially the likelihood of, and all possible consequences of, inadvertent human intrusion into the waste;
(c) To inhibit, reduce and delay the migration of radionuclides at any time from the waste to the accessible biosphere;
(d) To ensure that the amounts of radionuclides reaching the accessible biosphere due to any migration from the disposal facility are such that possible radiological consequences are acceptably low at all times.
The new policy does not contain the words “biosphere”, “isolation”, “migration” or “intrusion”, instead substituting vague phrases such as “ensure protection of the environment”. The policy’s failure to commit to isolating waste from the biosphere allows the nuclear industry to use the environment – particularly water bodies – as a way of diluting and disposing of its radioactive waste.
The policy’s failure to commit to isolating waste from the biosphere allows the nuclear industry to use the environment – particularly water bodies – as a way of diluting and disposing of its radioactive waste.
Dilution is the strategy employed by the “NSDF project”, announced by a consortium of multinational companies immediately after the Harper government contracted them to deal with the 75-year accumulation of radioactive waste at AECL’s nuclear sites across Canada. The NSDF would be Canada’s first permanent disposal facility for radioactive waste from nuclear reactors – a million-cubic-meter mound of waste next to the Ottawa River, including a pipeline that would discharge partially-treated leachate from the mound into a lake that drains into the river. It would set a terrible precedent for future facilities.
First Nations have expressed serious concerns about the NSDF project and two other permanent disposal projects that involve entombing AECL prototype reactors in concrete and grout and abandoning them next to the Ottawa and Winnipeg Rivers.
After the public comment period on the draft policy, a new section was added entitled “Canada’s commitment towards building partnerships and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.” It calls for “early, continuous and meaningful engagement” in future radioactive waste projects. However, the policy is silent on the question of whether the current disposal projects – announced without that early engagement – could be approved without the free, prior and informed consent of First Nations. Nor does the new policy commit to First Nations “consent” for future projects.
Another new section, entitled “Scope of the Policy,” adds confusion about reprocessing and fails to address Canada’s experimental work with plutonium fuels. The language on reprocessing says:
Reprocessing, the purpose of which would be to extract fissile material from nuclear fuel waste for further use, is not presently employed in Canada, and so is outside the scope of this Policy.
However, the federally-owned Recycle Fuel Fabrication Laboratories have been conducting plutonium fuel research for many years. Furthermore the government has given a private company $50.5 million to develop a commercial reprocessing facility under the guise of waste “recycling”.
Despite thousands of letters requesting a ban on plutonium reprocessing in the policy and noting the dangers of this technology for nuclear weapons proliferation, the word “plutonium” appears nowhere. Claiming that reprocessing is “outside the scope” of a radioactive waste policy is irresponsible. Furthermore, a new phrase in section 1.7 of the final policy encourages “recycling and reuse of materials.” This could be read as promoting “recycling” of used fuel to extract plutonium.
Also highly problematic is the following phrase in the new policy:
The government of Canada remains deeply committed to the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which remains the only legally binding global treaty promoting nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into force on 22 January 2021. State Parties to this treaty “undertake never under any circumstances to… Develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”
While Canada may refuse to acknowledge the existence of the TPNW, this does not alter the fact that the international community has acted to ban nuclear weapons.
The section on “Scope of the Policy” also contains contradictory and confusing wording on naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). The IAEA says NORM is “Radioactive material containing no significant amounts of radionuclides other than naturally occurring radionuclides.” The IAEA definition explicitly includes “Material in which the activity concentrations of the naturally occurring radionuclides have been changed by a process.”
In contrast, the new policy defines NORM as “material found in the environment that contains radioactive elements of natural origin.” This would appear to exclude from the policy the waste that is created when NORM is extracted from the environment and then processed.
The CNSC regulates many facilities that process NORM (using the internationally agreed definition): uranium mines, Cameco’s processing facilities in Blind River and Port Hope, fuel fabrication facilities, etc. The new policy also says:
“this Policy does not address NORM other than those associated with the development, production or use of nuclear energy or technologies and those associated with the transport and import/export of nuclear substances.”
This statement is both grammatically incorrect (NORM refers to “material”, not “materials”) and does not adequately address the contradiction inherent in defining NORM in a manner that excludes the many processing activities occurring in Canada, and the wastes they generate.
The terms “process” and “processing” appear nowhere in the policy. Even the word “uranium” is absent from the policy, further illustrating the superficial nature of the new policy.
Also problematic is the reference to “an independent nuclear regulator that makes decisions using inclusive, open, and transparent public hearings.” Self-serving promotion of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission does not belong in a radioactive waste policy. Claims of transparency and openness do not match reality. The real issue is that the CNSC invariably dismisses public input in making its decisions.
Public input has also been dismissed in this new policy. It reads as if it was written by the CNSC, which may be true. The CNSC is widely considered to be completely “captured” by the nuclear industry, with a revolving door between CNSC, the nuclear industry, and Natural Resources Canada.
The policy rejects the demand by civil society organizations for a ban on imports of radioactive waste from other countries. It says that the federal government:
is committed to the principle that radioactive waste generated in other countries are [sic] not to be disposed of in Canada and radioactive waste generated in Canada will be disposed of in Canada, with the exception of certain radioactive wastes subject to return arrangements.
The policy lists as exceptions the “repatriation of disused sources to Canada.” It adds that “radioactive sources that were not from Canada may be brought to Canada.”
This is a clear admission that Canada is importing radioactive waste from other countries and intends to continue doing so. The ownership of this waste is eventually transferred to the Government of Canada, and the waste is stored at the federally owned Chalk River Laboratories of AECL.
The financial arrangements involved in these waste transfers are completely non-transparent. In this way, the waste imports could be adding to the liabilities recorded in the Public Accounts of Canada. Canadian taxpayers may be subsidizing not only Canada’s own nuclear industry, but the nuclear industry of foreign nations as well.