Managing nuclear waste and materials

We take full responsibility for the entire lifecycle of the waste in our care, and work within regulations set by federal and international regulators. That level of responsibility is unique to the nuclear industry. This commitment is on display in every decision we make, and every solution we find.

Radioactive materials are an assortment of objects produced from the nuclear generating cycle that can either be reused, recycled or volume reduced. Examples of nuclear materials include items brought into OPG reactors such as small tools, gloves and hardhats. These items can be incinerated or decontaminated and reused.

In contrast, waste is any item that cannot be reused, or further volume-reduced, such as the ash that is produced from the incineration process or used-fuel.

In Canada, there are three nuclear waste classifications:

Low-Level: Lightly contaminated materials such as garments or small tools. Through OPG’s innovations in sorting & recycling, volume reduction of low-level material by up to 50% should be achieved over the next 10 years, leaving ash as the remaining waste to be disposed of.

Intermediate-Level: Resins, filters or other items used in the reactors. OPG’s commitment to innovations in volume reduction is unwavering which is why, in collaboration with industry partners, they are continuously working on ways to re-utilize resin within the industry and are working with NWMO to ensure safe, permanent storage of materials that cannot be reused or recycled.

High-Level/Used Fuel: Used nuclear fuel, taken from our reactors, is cooled in large water bays for 10 years before being carefully placed into a dry-storage container for interim storage. Overall volumes of used nuclear fuel are very low. In fact, if all of Canada’s used nuclear fuel was stacked one on top of another, there would only be enough fuel to fill 9 NHL sized hockey rinks from ice surface to the top of the boards. For over 50 years of reliable operations, this volume is small compared to the abundance of clean energy provided to the province.

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Waste facts

of Canada’s nuclear waste overall volume is classified as very-low or low-level

volume reduction of low-level waste over 10+ years with innovations in sorting/segregating

Dry Storage Containers are currently stored in OPG facilities

NHL sized rinks (surface to top of boards) could store all of Canada's spent fuel

tonnes is the approximate weight of a fully loaded Dry Storage Container

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How waste is managed

Nuclear Sustainability Services (NSS) Facilities

OPG’s nuclear waste and radioactive materials are managed at three NSS sites. The NSS Western Waste Management Facility (NSS-WWMF) in Bruce County receives and manages the low-and intermediate-level materials from the Darlington, Pickering, and Bruce Power nuclear stations. In addition, OPG’s NSS-WWMF provides Bruce Power with nuclear waste management services to support the operations of their facilities in Bruce County. OPG safely and securely accepts and provides interim storage for Bruce Power’s low-level, intermediate-level and used fuel waste.

The low-level and intermediate-level radioactive materials generated are safely transported and stored on an interim basis at the NSS-WWMF. Through research and innovative technologies, OPG is continuing to reduce the waste volumes from our operations to minimize our environmental footprint.

How types of waste and materials are handled

Each classification of nuclear waste is treated differently to ensure safe handling and disposal. Explore the different types of waste and the processes they undergo to ensure they are handled safely in the short and long term.

Minimally radioactive materials such as cleaning supplies, floor sweepings, and protective clothing used during routine operation may contain low levels of radioactivity and must be safely handled and disposed of.

The vast majority of nuclear waste (about 90% of total volume) is composed of these lightly contaminated items, which do not require shielding and are packed in plastic bags. They are shipped to OPG’s NSS-WWMF in CNSC-licensed steel containers for processing and storage.

These materials are compacted or incinerated whenever possible to reduce their volume so that the concrete warehouses used to store them can be designed with smaller environmental footprints.

A pie chart showing the comparison of volumes of low-level waste stored at OPG's NSS-WWMF. OPG operations account for approximately two thirds of the volume, while Bruce Power operations account for the remaining third.

This includes used reactor components, as well as the resins and filters used to keep reactor water systems clean, and items that have come into close contact with the reactor core or related components.

These items are carefully handled and loaded into specially reinforced and shielded transportation packages licensed by the CNSC for shipment to OPG’s NSS-WWMF in Bruce County.

There, the waste is stored in steel-lined, in-ground storage structures where its radioactivity can safely decay.

A pie chart showing the comparison of volumes of intermediate-level waste stored at OPG's NSS-WWMF. OPG operations account for approximately two-thirds of the volume, while Bruce Power operations account for the remaining third.

Nuclear used-fuel is placed in dry storage containers and managed at our facilities located in Pickering, Clarington (Darlington) and Tiverton (Bruce).

For CANDU (CANadian Deuterium Uranium) reactors, the nuclear fuel used is uranium dioxide processed into ceramic pellets that are then sealed in tubes. The tubes are welded together to form fuel bundles.

Heat generated by splitting of the uranium atoms (fissioning) turns water into steam, which runs turbines to create electricity.

When a fuel bundle no longer contains enough fissionable uranium to heat water efficiently, it gets removed from the reactor and replaced by a new fuel bundle. Typically, this occurs after two years. 

Used nuclear fuel accounts for only about 3% of the total volume of waste from nuclear operations, but contains about 95% of the total radioactivity. Because of this radioactivity, this high-level waste needs to be handled carefully and safely stored for the long term, beginning with water storage before moving to dry storage containers and, eventually, sustainable long-term storage in a deep geologic repository.

A pie chart showing the volumes of high-level waste Uused-fuel) stored at each of OPG’s NSS - WMFs. Somewhat less than one half is stored at the NSS-WWMF or "Bruce Site", while more than a quarter is stored at NSS-PWMF and less than a quarter is stored at NSS-DWMF.

The used-fuel bundle, still emitting heat and radioactivity, is removed from the reactor by remote control and deposited into a water-filled bay built of reinforced concrete, lined to prevent leaks, and designed to withstand earthquakes.

The water in the bay cools and shields the bundles as the heat and radioactivity gradually decline. Used-fuel is stored in water for 10 years or more. The water shields the radioactivity, making it safe for people to work nearby.

After fuel bundles  are sufficiently cooled by the water, they are transferred to CNSC-licensed dry storage containers made of concrete and steel, which are welded closed, and affixed with International Atomic Energy Agency seals to verify compliance with the International Non-Proliferation Treaty.

When loaded, these containers weigh about 79 tonnes and have a design life of 50 years. Studies indicate that ongoing maintenance and inspection can support safe use of the containers for a much longer time. The containers are stored in a secure OPG facility while they await long-term storage.

In 2002, the Canadian government required a proposal for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel from representatives of Canada’s nuclear utilities, through the new Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO).

The NWMO conducted a survey of more than 18,000 people to understand what Canadians believe is important in managing used nuclear fuel over the long term.

Input from the public, 500 specialists, and 2,500 Indigenous people helped shape the proposal, submitted to the Minister of Natural Resources in November 2005 and approved by the Government of Canada in June 2007. 

The approved Adaptive Phased Management plan calls for Canada’s spent nuclear fuel to be isolated and contained in a central facility deep underground in a stable rock formation, in a technique known as a Deep Geological Repository (DGR). Following decades of international research and development and cooperation, there is a clear scientific consensus that DGRs offer the best solution for the safe long-term management of used nuclear fuel. 

In a DGR, the used fuel is contained by engineered barriers and by the surrounding geology. The fuel is constantly monitored and remains retrievable indefinitely, if necessary.

Importantly, Adaptive Phased Management is flexible. Throughout the plan’s implementation, Canadians will be engaged in a voluntary, transparent process, invited to make their views known at key decision points, and have genuine opportunities to influence progress and outcomes.

In 2010, the NWMO began the process to identify an informed and willing host for Canada’s own repository, and opened it to all interested communities. Twenty-two communities in Saskatchewan and Ontario expressed an interest in learning more about the project.

After years of consultation, the NWMO has narrowed its focus to two of the communities and expects to identify a preferred site by 2024.

Removed reactor components from Darlington Nuclear GS are safely stored at the new Re-tube and Waste Processing Building.

Integrated strategy for radioactive waste

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) has developed a strategy aimed to address gaps in waste disposal planning, from electricity generation to the production of medical isotopes. OPG endorses the NWMO’s strategy and supports the goal of providing long-term solutions for all radioactive waste in Canada.

Licensed, regulated, and safe

Nuclear power production is subject to levels of regulatory oversight that are matched by no other power source.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) regulates all OPG nuclear sites, including the use of nuclear energy and materials to safeguard health and the environment, to ensure safety and security, and to respect Canada’s international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Per the ISRW, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) oversees the planning and implementation for the safe disposal of intermediate-level waste and used-fuel.

And OPG’s Nuclear Sustainability Services (NSS) makes sure OPG’s nuclear waste and radioactive materials are safely managed every step of the way.

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