A first-of-its-kind strategy in Canada aims to fill gaps identified in waste disposal planning for radioactive waste from electricity generation and the production of medical isotopes.
Earlier in October, Natural Resources Canada endorsed the Integrated Strategy for Radioactive Waste, which took two years of engagement for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to develop.
The strategy recommends that high-level waste that doesn’t originate from nuclear fuel, such as waste from the production of radioactive isotopes for medical applications, be disposed of in a deep geological repository. This waste generates a significant amount of heat and radioactivity that requires containment and isolation for hundreds of thousands of years, says the NWMO.
“As part of realizing this goal, Canada must continue to lead the way in radioactive waste management,” announced Minister of Natural Energy and Resources, Jonathan Wilkinson, in a statement. “While radioactive waste considerations are important, they pale in comparison to the pollution produced by unabated high-carbon power production. The existential threat posed by climate change requires that we be open to all non-emitting options,” he added.
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As a next step, the NWMO will begin developing a consent-based siting process plan for an intermediate-level and non-fuel high-level waste repository. The process is expected to take 18 months, after which time the NWMO will report back to Natural Resources Canada on its approach.
The other key recommendation in the new strategy is that low-level waste be disposed of in multiple, near-surface disposal facilities that are managed by waste generators and owners. Low-level waste mostly comes from power plants and medical, academic, industrial and other commercial uses of radioactive materials, such as cleaning. These items have no heat and contain radioactive levels that require containment and isolation for up to a few hundred years, says the NWMO.
The new strategy includes several principles to support its implementation. Notably, it suggests that the design of facilities should prioritize the protection of water, in that waste disposal sites should not be built near sources of drinking water, and that long-term management of waste should be established for disposal facilities.
The NMWO says an estimated 84% of radioactive waste in Canada has long-term disposal plans. Federal officials modernized the 1996 radioactive waste management framework in March 2023 through a revised Policy for Radioactive Waste Management and Decommissioning. The policy aligns with international standards and best practices, federal officials said.
The NWMO says its new strategy was informed by engagement with Canadians, Indigenous peoples, waste generators and owners, as well as detailed studies of both technical considerations and international best practices.