Last updated 10/18/2016
One fuel bundle can provide enough electricity to power one home for 100 years or about 1,100 megawatt-hours (MWh).
A fuel bundle stays in a nuclear reactor for 12 to 20 months, depending on where it is located in the reactor core. Over time, the amount of Uranium-235 (U-235) in the fuel bundle decreases until it is no longer possible to sustain a nuclear reaction that creates enough heat to generate electricity. U-235 is the primary isotope of uranium that is used to generate electricity.
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Used nuclear fuel is safely stored on an interim basis in licensed facilities located at reactor sites where it is produced.
These facilities are located at nuclear reactor sites in Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick, and at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited's sites in Manitoba and Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario.
After a fuel bundle is removed from a reactor, it is first placed in a water-filled pool for about 10 years where its heat and radioactivity decrease. Afterwards, used fuel bundles are typically placed in dry storage containers, silos or vaults.
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is a not-for-profit organization established in 2002 by Canada's nuclear electricity producers (Ontario Power Generation, New Brunswick Power and Hydro-Québec) as directed by the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act (NFWA), which came into force November 15, 2002.
We were created with a mandate to develop an approach for the long-term care of Canada’s used nuclear fuel and to implement it after the approach was approved by the federal government. We developed this approach, called Adaptive Phased Management (APM) through an innovative and wide-ranging program of dialogue with scientists, experts in a wide range of disciplines, and interested Canadians across the country.
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Used Nuclear Fuel
When used fuel is removed from the reactor, it is highly radioactive and requires careful management.
This radioactivity naturally decreases with time. Initially, the radioactivity decreases very rapidly. However, the residual radioactivity (together with chemical toxicity) persists, and the used fuel remains a potential health risk for a very long period of time.
It will take about one million years for the radioactivity level to reach that of an equivalent amount of natural uranium.
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Used Nuclear Fuel
The types of radiation emitted by used nuclear fuel are the same as those emitted by natural sources.
All radiation takes the form of either electromagnetic waves or high-speed particles. Electromagnetic waves have energy, but no mass, and include such things as microwaves, radio waves, visible light, X-rays and gamma rays. High-speed particles, on the other hand, have both energy and mass. This type of radiation includes neutrons, alpha particles and beta particles.
Used nuclear fuel emits both types of radiation, in the form of gamma rays, alpha particles and beta particles, and to a lesser extent, neutrons.
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There are three types of radioactive waste produced by nuclear generating stations – low-, intermediate- and high-level waste.
Low-level waste consists of industrial items (such as mops, rags, cloths, paper towels, clothing and floor sweepings) that have become contaminated with low levels of radioactivity during routine cleanup and maintenance activities at nuclear generating stations. Low-level waste contains mostly short-lived radioactivity and can be handled safely with simple precautions.
Intermediate-level waste is more highly radioactive and consists primarily of used reactor core components and resins and filters used to purify reactor water systems.
High-level waste is the used nuclear fuel. When used fuel bundles are removed from the reactor, they are highly radioactive, contain long-lived radioactivity and generate significant heat. High-level waste requires careful management over the very long term.
Under the federal Radioactive Waste Policy Framework, waste owners such as OPG, NB Power, Hydro-Québec and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories are accountable for the low- and intermediate-level waste they create. They are also responsible for the interim storage and management of used nuclear fuel. Under the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, the NWMO was created by the waste owners and is responsible for the long-term management of used fuel, with federal government oversight.
Last updated 4/9/2019
In the future, decisions regarding nuclear power generation made by provincial governments, nuclear plant operators and regulators may result in different types of used fuel.
Canada’s plan for the long-term management of used nuclear fuel has sufficient flexibility to manage different types of used fuel if necessary. If power plant operators, governments and regulators make the decision to use different fuel, we would review our design and safety case and update our plans in consultation with interested parties.
The specific amount and type of used fuel to be placed in the repository for long-term management will be agreed with the community using an open and transparent engagement process. This process will use the best information available at the time. It will involve surrounding communities and others who are interested and potentially affected.
Regulatory review processes and approvals will be based on a specific fuel inventory as well. These processes will also involve an open and transparent consultation process.
More about APM,
Used Nuclear Fuel
Future decisions about nuclear power generation made by provincial governments, nuclear plant operators and regulators may result in a larger inventory of used nuclear fuel. For instance, the lives of existing reactors might be extended through additional refurbishment. Provincial governments may also decide to build new nuclear plants.
The specific amount of used fuel to be placed in the repository for long-term management will be agreed with the community using the best information available at the time, and through an open and transparent engagement process involving surrounding communities and others who are interested and potentially affected.
Regulatory review processes and approvals, which are required by law before the facility can be constructed and operated, will be based on a specific fuel inventory and will also involve an open and transparent consultation process.
It is not our intent to advocate one energy source over another. Used fuel exists and must be managed. Energy policy decisions are made by governments, utilities and regulators.
Adaptive Phased Management addresses the need of Canadians for safety, security and protection of the environment. We are committed to protecting both this and future generations in this regard.
The safety of the repository does not rely on human institutions and intervention after the repository is closed. In the event the NWMO ceased to exist, the waste would be safely managed by the repository's multiple-barrier system in what is called a passive management system.
Canada's plan for the safe, long-term management of used nuclear fuel involves the construction of a deep geological repository and associated facilities. Any site selected for the repository must be able to safely contain and isolate the used fuel for many hundreds of thousands of years, basically indefinitely. Working together, man-made and natural barriers in the geology will ensure the safety of the environment and public.
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Environment, Safety and Security
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