Waste Programs

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) has more than sixty years of experience as a responsible steward of waste. We continue to ensure that our activities are performed in a manner that protects the workers, the public, and the environment, and are in compliance with licensing and associated provincial and federal standards and policies. To enable meeting these requirements, the Waste Management provides guidance and services to all CNL waste generators and for all types of waste (both radioactive and non-radioactive), from generation to disposal.

On behalf of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), a federal Crown corporation, CNL manages AECL’s sites across Canada under a Government-owned, Contractor-operated arrangement. 

AECL and the Government of Canada are investing more than $1.2 billion to revitalize the Chalk River Laboratories and build new and renewed, world-class science facilities and site support infrastructure. By demolishing old buildings which have reached – and sometimes exceeded – their useful life at the Chalk River site, CNL’s Decommissioning and Waste Management organization enables the growth and construction of these new science facilities.


What is "waste"?

The Canadian Standards Association defines waste as: residual material generated as a result of a process, operation or activity that has no further use in that process, operation or activity, and is declared for reuse, recycling or disposal.

What environmental measures is CNL taking?

CNL strives to prevent and minimize waste at every stage of the waste lifecycle, beginning with planning, which occurs before waste is even produced. CNL’s Waste Hierarchy (figure below) is applied to minimize waste volumes and enhance resource recovery.


CNL has a comprehensive framework to apply the waste hierarchy, which is integral to waste minimization, in accordance with Canadian Standards Association standards ISO 14001. The framework includes waste prevention, reduction, segregation and recycling, with a special emphasis on radioactive and hazardous waste.

Waste minimization is part of CNL’s Environment Policy, specifically reducing the generation and disposal of all wastes at CNL sites.

One of the many goals for CNL is to construct healthy, safe and environmentally-friendly facilities. To support this goal, new facilities are being built with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) in mind. For example, Building 350 laboratory complex, opened in 2017, was designed to meet LEED silver standards.

What types of waste do we manage?

CNL manages all types of waste at sites across Canada. This includes solid and liquid waste, of all waste classifications, including radioactive and non-radioactive (hazardous and “clean”) waste. The waste we generate is classified into categories in order to specify the needs for the safe management.

Overall, Low-Level Radioactive Waste comprises the vast majority of the radioactive waste in storage at the CNL sites, approximately 5% is Intermediate-Level Radioactive Waste, and less than 1% is High-Level Radioactive waste.


Clean Waste

Non-hazardous material that is declared to be non-radioactive by its history, location and use or radiological monitoring.

An example of “clean” waste includes some building debris.

Hazardous Waste

Hazardous waste is materials that are potentially hazardous to human health and/or the environment due to their nature and quantity and that require special handling and storage techniques. Non-nuclear hazardous components can include heavy metals, reactive, acidic, and caustic compounds, biologicals, biohazards, compressed gases, flammables, toxics, and oxidizers.

An example of Hazardous waste is laboratory solutions.

Mixed Waste

Mixed waste is radioactive waste that also contains hazardous substances.

There are many examples of mixed waste, which are currently encountered through operational, Research and Development, Decommissioning and Environmental Remediation activities.

Radioactive Waste

Radioactive waste represents the lowest amount of waste produced by CNL. For example, in 2016 the amount of radioactive waste generated was 6 percent of the total waste and recyclables produced at the Chalk River site.

The illustration below represents the general distribution of waste and recyclables.


Radioactive waste is identified in one of three categories: Low Level, Intermediate Level, and High Level. The following sections further describe each category.

Low-Level Radioactive Waste

Low-level waste contains material with limited amounts of long-lived activity. Low-level waste requires isolation and containment for up to a few hundred years. For more information on Low-level waste, see the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission webpage on Radioactive Waste.

An example of Low-level Radioactive Waste is soil contaminated by historical activities.

Intermediate-level Radioactive Waste

Intermediate–level waste typically exhibits levels of penetrating radiation and contains significant quantities of long-lived radionuclides. For more information on Intermediate-level waste, see the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission webpage on Radioactive Waste.

An example of Intermediate-level Radioactive Waste is waste generated in hot cells (depicted above) from isotope production processes.

High-level Radioactive Waste

High-level waste (HLW) includes used nuclear fuel and other wastes (e.g., fuel reprocessing wastes) that have been declared as radioactive waste that generate significant heat via radioactive decay. Used nuclear fuel is associated with penetrating radiation and contains significant quantities of long-lived radionuclides. For more information on High-level waste, see the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission webpage on Radioactive Waste.

What is the Waste Management Lifecycle?

The Waste Management Lifecycle describes the steps waste will go through during its lifetime. It should be noted that the waste lifecycle is rarely linear; processing, storage and transportation stages can happen multiple times and some waste may not be subject to all steps. There are six steps to the lifecycle:

1. Planning

Waste Management is an integral part to the initial planning stages of any activity and is critical for hazard reduction, process optimization and ensures that waste is sufficiently and safely managed throughout its lifecycle. Part of waste planning at CNL includes assessment of waste by identifying the waste type and volume, developing a waste minimization approach and waste management plans. 

The most holistic and comprehensive planning tool currently is the Integrated Waste Strategy. This is a live document which provides our current strategic position for waste management and will be updated as required.

2. Generation

All waste produced at sites managed by CNL are managed by CNL, whether it is “clean” waste, such as a granola bar wrapper, or radioactive waste produced in hot cells. 

3. Transportation

Waste is transferred within specific CNL locations, between CNL locations and to other third party sites for management. Transportation may take place at any stage during the waste management process. Transportation activities are subject to all federal and provincial transportation rules and regulatory requirements. 

4. Processing 

Processing is any operation that changes the characteristics of waste, including pre-treatment, treatment, and conditioning. Pre-treatment includes: waste characterization, decontamination and deactivation processes; treatment examples include: compaction and thermal treatment; and conditioning examples include: solidification and immobilization. 

5. Storage 

Storage is the short or long-term management of radioactive waste in a facility that provides for containment with the possibility for retrieval where institutional controls and maintenance are required. 

6. Disposal 

Disposal is the emplacement of waste in an appropriate facility without the intention of retrieval. Clean waste is sent either to on-site or off-site landfills and hazardous waste is transferred off-site for disposal. Presently there is no disposal pathway for radioactive waste. Low, intermediate and high level waste is characterized and safely stored until a future suitable disposal pathway is identified. The Near Surface Disposal Facility is CNL’s proposed solution for LLW.

What is the Integrated Waste Strategy?

The Integrated Waste Strategy describes the strategies for managing the various types of waste. CNL’s IWS has been developed in accordance with government policies, regulatory requirements, and company environment and health & safety policies with regard to waste management. The Integrated Waste Strategy supports CNL’s plans to integrate the on-going enduring missions of Science and Technology, Capital, and Decommissioning and Waste Management.

The purpose of the IWS is to ensure the integration of the management of waste across CNL, and better define pathways for all CNL managed wastes from generation to disposal. The IWS places emphasis on three main areas: where we are today; where do we want get to and why; and what actions are needed to get there?

Where/How is radioactive waste stored?

At present, radioactive waste is safely managed throughout Canada at interim/long-term management facilities. Examples of interim/long-term management facilities at Chalk River Laboratories include: Modular Above Ground Storage (MAGS), Shielded Modular Above Ground Storage (SMAGS), bunkers, Fuel & Packaging Storage (FPS) and tile holes.

Historic, Low-Level Radioactive Waste, such as contaminated soil, may be stored in-situ pending remediation.

SMAGS at Chalk River Laboratories

Where is radioactive waste disposed?

No disposal facilities currently exist for Canada’s radioactive waste. The Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF) is CNL’s proposed solution for LLW. Presently all radioactive waste is safely stored.

For additional information outside of wastes, check out Environmental Protection.

CNL is proud of its Waste Management Program; if you wish more information, please contact .