This Web page has been archived on the Web.

1995 May Report of the Auditor General of Canada

Chapter 3—Federal Radioactive Waste Management

Main Points

Introduction

Responsibilities for Radioactive Waste Management

Radioactive Waste Management Is a Significant Federal Issue

The Federal Government Has Its Own Radioactive Waste to Manage

The AECB Provides Assurance That Radioactive Waste in Licensed Facilities Is Stored in a Safe Manner

Long-Term, Cost-Effective Solutions Need to Be Found

Radioactive Waste Management Issues Have Previously Been Brought to Parliament's Attention

Audit Scope, Objectives and Criteria

Audit Scope

Audit Objectives

Audit Criteria

Observations on High-Level Radioactive Waste (HLW)

HLW is safely stored at reactor sites

Canada's inventory of HLW continues to grow

Many research studies have been undertaken with the aim of developing a HLW disposal facility

Since 1978, federal taxpayers have spent approximately $370 million on developing a concept for HLW disposal

Canada's schedule for disposing of its HLW has been extended by 25 years, to 2025

Social and environmental considerations have slowed the Canadian program

Action needs to be taken to ensure that Canada's HLW disposal program moves forward

No funding arrangements are in place to implement a long-term solution for HLW

Required knowledge and expertise must be maintained

Observations on Low-Level Radioactive Waste (LLW)

Operational Low-Level Radioactive Waste

Canada's inventory of operational LLW continues to grow
Owners are working toward solutions for their own waste
AECL is researching technologies for disposing of LLW
Canada does not have an approved disposal technology or any disposal facilities for its LLW

Historic Low-Level Radioactive Waste

Background
The federal government monitors historic waste to ensure that there is no immediate risk to public health
After $21 million and eight years, no disposal site has been found for Port Hope area historic wastes
Canada's historic wastes require further clean-up

Observations on Uranium Tailings

Background

Uranium tailings need to be properly contained and controlled

Pre-1976 uranium mines and tailings sites have not been subjected to the AECB's current regulatory regime

The federal and provincial governments have not assigned residual responsibilities

Different assumptions are being used by Natural Resources Canada and the AECB for decommissioning costs of uranium tailings

Long-term storage for uranium tailings requires institutional care

Financial Implications of the Search for Long-Term Solutions

Conclusions

Assistant Auditor General: Maria Barrados
Responsible Auditor: Ellen Shillabeer

Main Points

3.1 The federal government has a significant role in developing overall policy and federal strategy for radioactive waste management. It has jurisdiction over, and regulatory responsibility for, nuclear energy, including radioactive waste. The government also conducts research on radioactive waste and is an owner of some of this waste.

3.2 Radioactive waste management involves the handling and treating of radioactive waste, as well as its transportation, storage and disposal. Storage involves managing radioactive material in a safe manner with provision for retrieval. Disposal refers to permanent placement of radioactive waste with no intention of retrieval.

3.3 Federal regulatory policy states that the objectives of radioactive waste disposal are to minimize any burden placed on future generations, to protect the environment and to protect human health. Radioactive waste is generally managed in facilities licensed by the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB), which provides assurance that the waste is stored in a safe manner. The AECB considers that the current management of the waste is only an interim measure and that long-term solutions are required to ensure long-term safety. Canada has no disposal facilities for any of its high-level or low-level radioactive waste.

3.4 Since the early 1950s, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) has carried out research on the disposal of high-level radioactive waste, primarily used fuel from nuclear reactors. A major research and development program was initiated in 1978 to find a solution for disposal of this waste. Throughout the program, Canada's target dates for having an operational disposal facility have continually been extended, with 2025 being the current target date for such a facility. Moreover, Canada's program has not kept pace with some other countries. For example, Sweden, which is developing a similar concept, plans to have an operating repository by 2008. Decisions still have to be taken in Canada on whether and how to proceed to a disposal solution. Despite the significant investment, in Canada, of about $538 million in research and development, there has been no consideration of alternative approaches for moving Canada's high-level radioactive waste program forward after March 1997, when current federal funding ends.

3.5 Low-level radioactive waste from ongoing operations of the Canadian nuclear industry is currently stored in AECB-licensed facilities, but a plan needs to be developed for its disposal. Unlike some other countries, Canada does not have an approved disposal technology or any disposal sites or facilities for this operational waste.

3.6 Historic wastes are another type of low-level radioactive waste. They are the responsibility of the federal government and are currently being monitored and managed as an interim measure to protect public health and the environment. Various federal initiatives have been undertaken to find long-term solutions. In particular, once the current Siting Task Force presents its report, decisions will be required by the government on implementing long-term solutions for the Port Hope area historic wastes.

3.7 Uranium tailings, another class of radioactive waste, fall under federal and provincial regulations. The AECB chose not to license uranium mines that had ceased operations prior to 1976. As a result, these pre-1976 sites have not been subjected to the AECB's current regulatory regime and need to be brought under its regulatory control. The federal and provincial governments need to assign residual responsibilities for the rehabilitation and decommissioning of uranium tailings sites in Ontario and Saskatchewan and for the provision of their long-term institutional care.

3.8 The federal share, over the next 70 years, for implementation of disposal solutions for Canada's radioactive waste is approximately $850 million of the at least $10 billion that is the responsibility of Canadian waste producers, in particular the nuclear utilities. The federal share will increase if the government has to assume residual responsibilities for any of the waste producers. To date, none of the potential liabilities have been disclosed in the Notes to the Financial Statements and in the Notes to the Annual Financial Report of the Government of Canada.

3.9 To minimize future federal liabilities and the burden on future generations, Canada must now translate its technical knowledge into implementation of long-term, cost-effective solutions for its radioactive waste. It is also important to ensure that funding arrangements are in place to meet the financial requirements of future solutions. The federal government has an important role to play in making the transition to long-term solutions for used fuel and low-level radioactive waste. In addition to providing policy direction, Natural Resources Canada should work toward establishing an agreement among the major stakeholders on their respective roles and responsibilities and the approaches and plans for implementing solutions.

Introduction

3.10 The term "radioactive waste" covers everything from highly radioactive used reactor fuel to slightly radioactive contaminated clothes from workers at nuclear facilities. The type of radioactive waste is generally determined by its level of radioactivity and by the length of time the material needs to be kept isolated from people and the environment. The federal government groups radioactive wastes into three broad administrative classes: high-level waste (HLW), low-level waste (LLW) and uranium tailings. Different solutions are required for these three waste classes.

3.11 In Canada, HLW normally refers to used fuel that has been discharged from nuclear reactors. Used fuel is sometimes referred to as "nuclear fuel waste". Used fuel remains highly radioactive for at least 500 years, and handling it requires appropriate measures for ensuring protection of humans and the environment over this period. In fact, some elements of used fuel remain hazardous for tens of thousands of years if they escape containment and are then ingested or inhaled.

3.12 There are two types of LLW, historic waste and operational waste. The majority of the existing volume of LLW is historic waste, for which the original producer or owner can no longer reasonably be held responsible. Historic wastes were managed in a manner no longer considered acceptable. This waste generally remains hazardous for over 500 years, since much of the waste contains radium and uranium refinery waste.

3.13 Most operational LLW decays to non-hazardous levels in less than 500 years. The following are examples of operational LLW:

  • non-fuel waste from the ongoing activities of Canada's 22 operating nuclear power reactors and from radioactive waste produced by fuel processing and fabrication facilities, as well as from the medical, research and industrial communities; and
  • radioactive waste from the decommissioning of nuclear facilities when the facilities are retired permanently at the end of their service or operational life.
Non-fuel waste includes used radioisotopes from hospitals and laboratories and contaminated used equipment, materials, cleaning rags and protective clothing.

3.14 Uranium tailings are radioactive waste generated during the mining and milling of uranium ore. In addition to radioactive substances, uranium tailings often contain hazardous chemicals. These tailings may cause health problems if not properly contained and controlled. Although the radioactive material in uranium tailings occurs naturally, the potential for radiation exposure increases when uranium ore is brought to the surface. Most of this radioactive material will pose a radiological hazard for tens of thousands of years, and some of the hazardous chemicals, such as arsenic, will last indefinitely. ( See photograph )

3.15 A radioactive gas, radon, will continue to be released into the atmosphere from poorly designed or maintained uranium tailings sites. Radon gas from the tailings is a concern if people reside close to the site or if tailings are used in construction. In addition, uranium tailings, like other mine tailings, may contain materials such as acid-producing rock, which can create environmental and health risks from acid seepage.

3.16 Radioactive waste management comprises all of the planning, administrative and operational activities that are involved in the handling and treating of radioactive waste, as well as its transportation, storage and disposal.

3.17 Storage involves managing radioactive material in a safe manner with provision for retrieval. Active institutional controls are required to monitor and maintain the storage facility and to control access to ensure safety.

3.18 Disposal refers to permanent placement of radioactive waste with no intention of retrieval. Ideally, disposal involves techniques and designs that do not rely for their success on long-term institutional controls beyond a "reasonable period of time".

3.19 Choosing long-term solutions for managing radioactive waste hinges on finding cost-effective ways to protect people and the natural environment from the material and to prevent accidental access to or use of the material. The chosen solutions may be either monitored long-term storage or disposal.

Responsibilities for Radioactive Waste Management

3.20 Federal responsibility for managing Canada's radioactive waste and resolving the issues related to high-level and low-level radioactive waste and uranium tailings is divided among many players. Exhibit 3.1 illustrates the key federal responsibilities as they pertain to this audit.

3.21 Besides federal departments and agencies, other entities are involved in the management of Canada's radioactive waste. These include the electrical utilities that operate nuclear power reactors, uranium mining companies and the provincial ministries responsible for the environment, health, labour and mines.

3.22 The Atomic Energy Control (AEC) Act gave the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) responsibility in 1946 for the regulation of the nuclear industry in Canada. In 1988, following federal-provincial discussions concerning the sharing of jurisdictions for certain types of radioactive materials, the AEC Regulations were amended to clarify existing practices. The amendment excluded any naturally occurring radioactive material not related to the development, application or use of nuclear energy. Therefore, many radioactive industrial materials are not covered by the current AEC Regulations . These materials include, for example, incidental wastes from phosphate fertilizer producers, and pipe scales and sludges from oil and gas exploration.

3.23 Despite the fact that incidental wastes are now excluded from AECB regulatory control, some of them still require special handling, storage and disposal methods, similar to those used for historic wastes. The AECB considers that regulatory responsibility for incidental wastes rests with the provincial and territorial governments. We have been advised by Natural Resources Canada that some of the provinces are now moving toward the development of formal guidelines on the control of incidental wastes.

Radioactive Waste Management Is a Significant Federal Issue

3.24 Under the Atomic Energy Control Act , the AECB has had responsibility for the control and supervision of the development, application and use of nuclear energy since 1946. The AECB's regulatory activities cover all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. This cycle includes the mining, milling and refining of uranium, the generation of nuclear power, the production and use of radioisotopes and the management of radioactive waste.

3.25 The federal government and the province of Ontario have a long history of working together in the development of the nuclear industry. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), the federal Crown corporation that designed Canada's nuclear power reactors, has worked closely with Ontario Hydro since the early 1950s. This partnership supported the development of the CANDU technology and the construction and operation of the first Canadian nuclear power reactors.

The Federal Government Has Its Own Radioactive Waste to Manage

3.26 The federal approach to radioactive waste management is based on the concept that the producer of the waste is responsible for its management. This concept is commonly referred to as "producer pays". However, situations exist where the original producer of the waste, or the current owner, can no longer reasonably be held responsible, or is unable or unwilling to pay. In some of these situations, the federal government has assumed "residual responsibility" for the waste, as manager of last resort. For example, the federal government has accepted responsibility for disposal of about one million cubic metres of historic wastes, in the form of contaminated soil, in the Port Hope and Scarborough areas of Ontario.

3.27 AECL owns some HLW, historic wastes and operational LLW for which it must find long-term solutions.

The AECB Provides Assurance That Radioactive Waste in Licensed Facilities Is Stored in a Safe Manner

3.28 Radioactive waste in Canada is generally managed in AECB-licensed facilities in a manner based on the principles of containment and isolation from people and the environment. Through its licensing and inspection system, the AECB provides assurance that its regulatory requirements are being met and that the radioactive waste in licensed facilities does not pose undue risk to health, safety, security and the environment.

3.29 There are 21 AECB licences currently in effect, covering 27 major waste management storage sites in Canada. The AECB has also issued about 3,700 licences to users of prescribed substances and radioisotopes in the medical, research and industrial communities, many of which possess radioactive waste. Although providing safe storage today in facilities that it has licensed, the AECB regards the current management of the waste as an interim measure, with long-term solutions required to ensure long-term safety.

Long-Term, Cost-Effective Solutions Need to Be Found

3.30 A regulatory policy of the AECB states that, taking into account social and economic factors, the objectives of radioactive waste disposal are:

  • to minimize any burden placed on future generations,
  • to protect the environment, and
  • to protect human health.
3.31 According to these objectives, the generations that receive the primary benefits of the current use of nuclear energy should bear the responsibility for managing the resulting waste. Thus the present generation would need to develop the technology and construct and operate facilities for long-term solutions, and also arrange funding to implement the solutions. The present generation would be responsible for ensuring that mechanisms and funding are in place to provide sufficient controls over containment and isolation of the waste from people and the environment.

3.32 According to AECB regulatory policy, the preferred option for long-term management of radioactive waste is disposal. However, long-term storage is a viable option that the regulator is prepared to consider for some radioactive waste. In either case, long-term, cost-effective solutions are required.

3.33 Finding such solutions has proved to be a difficult, lengthy process that poses technical, social and economic challenges. Canada's environmental assessment and review process requires broadly based consultation with the stakeholders as part of the decision-making process. The review process must also deal with public concern about the location of a waste disposal facility, a problem commonly referred to as the "not in my back yard" syndrome.

3.34 As yet, there is no decision in Canada on how to accomplish the transition from storage to disposal, how quickly to make the transition and whether long-term storage is acceptable in some cases. Canada has no disposal facilities for any of its high-level or low-level radioactive waste.

Radioactive Waste Management Issues Have Previously Been Brought to Parliament's Attention

3.35 There are many complex issues related to radioactive waste management in Canada. These issues have resulted in a considerable amount of study, with only very slow movement toward long-term solutions. Many of these issues have been brought to Parliament's attention by parliamentary committees, prior audit work of this Office and other sources, as shown in Exhibit 3.2 .

Audit Scope, Objectives and Criteria

Audit Scope

3.36 In our 1994 chapter on the AECB, we noted that many players were involved in dealing with nuclear (radioactive) waste. In that chapter, we indicated our intention to audit further the broader issue of federal management of radioactive waste. This chapter reports the results of our audit work in this area. Chapter 2 in this Report deals with Environment Canada's management of other hazardous wastes.

3.37 We reviewed the federal government's discharge of its responsibilities for dealing with high-level and low-level radioactive waste and uranium tailings. The review included federal initiatives to find long-term solutions for existing radioactive waste, as well as for radioactive waste produced through ongoing operations. The responsibilities of the federal departments and agencies involved are summarized in Exhibit 3.1 .

3.38 We did not audit the management of incidental waste or the day-to-day operations of AECL's radioactive waste management facilities. We also did not conduct a technical review of Canada's research and development programs related to radioactive waste.

3.39 The quantitative information in this chapter has been drawn from the various government sources indicated in the text. Although this quantitative information has been checked for reasonableness, it has not been audited.

Audit Objectives

3.40 The objectives of our audit of the federal management of radioactive waste were:

  • to assess whether the duties related to responsible management have been clearly defined and assigned;
  • to report on all federal government initiatives undertaken and the costs incurred to date; and
  • to assess the progress made by Canada.

Audit Criteria

3.41 The following general audit criteria were used:

  • Roles and responsibilities should be clearly assigned for dealing with radioactive waste in Canada.
  • The federal government should identify the problems of managing used fuel, low-level radioactive waste (LLW) and uranium tailings in Canada, develop a strategy for their management and ensure that plans and budgets are in place to address their management, including their disposal.
  • Appropriate and timely action should be initiated by the federal government to deal with all classes of radioactive waste in Canada.
  • Federal initiatives dealing with radioactive waste in Canada should be cost-effective and should include reporting to Parliament on the costs and results of these initiatives.
  • The government should protect the federal taxpayer from potential liabilities as a result of radioactive waste.
  • Any issues that remain unresolved in finding a long-term solution to radioactive waste should be disclosed to Parliament.

Observations on High-Level Radioactive Waste (HLW)

HLW is safely stored at reactor sites
3.42 When used fuel is removed from a reactor, it generates high levels of heat and is highly radioactive. As a result, the used fuel requires cooling and shielding. This is accomplished by storing it in water-filled pools at the reactor sites. After about five years, the reduction in heat output and in the level of radioactivity allows the used fuel to be placed in a dry storage system using concrete canisters. Current research indicates that both types of AECB-licensed storage facilities, if properly maintained, are expected to last for at least 50 years. ( See photographs )

Canada's inventory of HLW continues to grow
3.43 AECL documentation indicates that, on 31 December 1992, the accumulated inventory of used fuel in Canada was about 900,000 bundles - each bundle being about the size of a fireplace log. The total volume would fill approximately one and a half Olympic-size swimming pools. About 87 percent of this used fuel was produced by

Ontario Hydro, 6 percent by New Brunswick Power, 4 percent by Hydro-Quebec and 3 percent by AECL.

3.44 Canada's 22 operating nuclear power reactors are generally expected to have a 40-year life. It is anticipated that these reactors will produce a total of over four million bundles of used fuel by the end of 2033. This volume would be equivalent in size to about seven Olympic-size swimming pools.

Many research studies have been undertaken with the aim of developing a HLW disposal facility
3.45 Although both wet and dry storage are acceptable interim methods for storing HLW, it has been recognized by the Canadian government, operators, experts in the field and regulators in other countries that a long-term solution is necessary. Such a solution is required because some of the radioactive material in used fuel remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years.

3.46 Many studies have been undertaken in Canada and internationally to research the development of a disposal solution for HLW. In 1977, an independent expert group commissioned by the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources issued a report entitled The Management of Canada's Nuclear Wastes . The report concluded that Canada "needs a consolidated plan for the management of radioactive wastes now." It considered underground disposal in geological formations to be the most promising option within Canada. This report was studied by the Standing Committee on National Resources and Public Works. The Committee, after receiving presentations from many sources, recommended in 1978 that "an intensive research and development program into all facets of nuclear waste management be pursued on an urgent basis."

Since 1978, federal taxpayers have spent approximately $370 million on developing a concept for HLW disposal
3.47 Since the late 1950s, AECL has been researching methods for storing and disposing of HLW. A major research and development program to find a solution for disposing of HLW was initiated in 1978. This program, the Canadian Nuclear Fuel Waste Management Program, involves a partnership between AECL and Ontario Hydro. According to AECL, about $538 million has been spent, from 1978 to March 1995, on researching and developing the concept of deep geological disposal in hard rock. Of this amount, about $370 million was federal funding to AECL, about $133 million was provided by Ontario Hydro, and the balance came from other sources, primarily foreign waste management research agencies. Until 1987, most of the research and development was funded by AECL. Since then, Ontario Hydro has been increasing its share of the funding for this program. ( See photograph )

3.48 In October 1994, based on the research program, AECL submitted an Environmental Impact Statement for the HLW disposal concept to a federal environmental assessment and review panel.

Canada's schedule for disposing of its HLW has been extended by 25 years, to 2025
3.49 Many countries with nuclear power programs are searching for a disposal solution for their HLW. There has been an exchange of information and collaboration with respect to research and development among these countries.

3.50 We believe that it is important to have some form of benchmark to assess progress of the Canadian HLW program. At the recommendation of experts in the nuclear industry, we visited Sweden, Finland and France to discuss their radioactive waste management programs. The experts viewed these countries as having made progress in finding solutions for their high-level as well as their low-level radioactive waste. Our analysis compared the progress made in these countries with the progress made in Canada. However, Natural Resources Canada believes that comparisons should be made with a broader range of countries, rather than just the three countries visited.

3.51 Features of the programs of the countries visited are described in Exhibit 3.3 , Exhibit 3.4 and Exhibit 3.5 . Like Canada, Sweden and Finland have conducted research and development on placing HLW in repositories in hard rock. Sweden's program, which is similar to Canada's, began about the same time.

3.52 Sweden started major work on the long-term management of HLW in 1977 as a result of a legal requirement to find a solution before fuelling any new reactors. A technical concept for deep disposal in hard rock was developed by the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company in the late 1970s and was presented for approval in 1983. The Swedish nuclear regulatory agency accepted the concept in 1984. Since that time, the process of searching for potential sites has continued, and further research and development on these sites is being carried out. In 2008, Sweden plans to have an operating repository that, in its initial stage, will receive 5 to 10 percent of the country's used fuel.

3.53 Canada's initial schedule, developed in 1978, anticipated that a disposal demonstration program would commence in 1985, with a full-scale facility being operational by 2000. However, there have been many delays in the Canadian program. A waste disposal concept has not yet been approved and siting has not started. The Environmental Impact Statement does not forecast a fully operational HLW disposal facility before 2025, which would mean an extension of 25 years beyond the date initially scheduled.

Social and environmental considerations have slowed the Canadian program
3.54 There are many reasons for the delay in finding a solution for HLW in Canada. After the launch of the Canadian Nuclear Fuel Waste Management Program in 1978, problems in finding a potential site for a HLW disposal facility became apparent. Many communities that were approached for permission to carry out local geological studies were opposed to such investigations. To address their concerns, the federal and Ontario governments announced in 1981 that a waste disposal concept would be developed and accepted before a site would be chosen. Public hearings were expected to be held as part of an environmental review, with acceptance or rejection of the concept targeted for 1990.

3.55 In September 1988, the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources referred the disposal concept to the Minister of the Environment for a public review by an independent environmental assessment panel, in accordance with the Federal Environmental Assessment and Review Process Guidelines Order. In May 1989, AECL expected the review and approval of the concept by 1993.

3.56 The Minister of the Environment appointed a Federal Environmental Assessment and Review Panel in October 1989 to review the concept being developed by AECL. The terms of reference for the review were made public. In March 1992, after consultation with various stakeholders, the Panel finalized guidelines for the preparation of the Environmental Impact Statement.

3.57 On the basis of the Panel guidelines, AECL prepared the Environmental Impact Statement on the concept for disposal of HLW and submitted it in October 1994. The Panel's review of the Environmental Impact Statement will include public input and technical reviews to ensure conformity with the guidelines. The Panel is expected to make its recommendations to the federal ministers of the Environment and of Natural Resources in late 1996. This is three years later than anticipated in 1989 and six years later than the target date set by the governments in 1981.

3.58 The Panel's recommendations are expected to address the safety and acceptability of AECL's HLW disposal concept and to provide some advice on the future steps to be taken in the management of nuclear fuel waste. The federal government, in co-operation with the Ontario government, would then make a final decision on whether and how to proceed with the implementation of the concept.

Action needs to be taken to ensure that Canada's HLW disposal program moves forward
3.59 Natural Resources Canada has not assessed alternative institutional frameworks (including roles and responsibilities) or funding arrangements that could be used to implement an approved HLW disposal concept. Some other countries have already adopted an approach for implementing their HLW disposal concept. As these countries have their own unique institutional structure, it is difficult to make direct comparisons to Canada. However, we believe that it is important to have information on the alternative approaches adopted by other countries.

3.60 Sweden, Finland and France each set out a clear national approach that established objectives for HLW management and assigned roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders. Each country took a different approach, but outlined what was to be achieved and how it was to be financed. In all three countries, the national approach was promulgated in legislation.

3.61 Sweden's four utilities established a single agency to dispose of their HLW. In Finland, the two utilities are responsible for disposing of their own HLW and are currently developing their plans. Both countries are now conducting operationally related research and development for HLW disposal. France has assigned responsibility for waste management and final disposal to a national agency independent of producers. France has also set up a national research program to identify other technical solutions for the reduction of high-activity and long-lived waste.

3.62 Canada has experienced several delays in its HLW disposal program. It has also not kept pace with the Swedish and Finnish programs, which are developing similar HLW disposal concepts and have set out a national approach.

3.63 To assist the federal government in making its decision after it receives the Panel's recommendations, Natural Resources Canada must be in a position to provide advice on alternative approaches for moving the HLW program forward. In our opinion, Canada must take action to ensure that its HLW disposal program does not fall further behind its current schedule and that of some other countries.

3.64 Natural Resources Canada should, as soon as possible, develop alternative approaches to move Canada's high-level waste program forward. These approaches should be developed in consultation with other federal and provincial departments and agencies, utilities with nuclear power reactors and other major stakeholders.

Department's response: Agreed. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) Panel on the Nuclear Fuel Waste Management and Disposal Concept is expected to make its recommendations to the Minister of Natural Resources and the Minister of the Environment in late 1996. The CEAA Panel recommendations will address the safety and acceptability of the disposal concept and the next steps regarding the safe, long-term management of nuclear fuel waste in Canada.

The federal government has directed Natural Resources Canada to develop, in consultation with major stakeholders, an overall strategy with options, which would address the implementation of disposal of all radioactive waste in Canada, namely, nuclear fuel waste, low-level radioactive waste and uranium mine tailings. The options developed in the strategy will assist the government in responding to the Panel's recommendations.

No funding arrangements are in place to implement a long-term solution for HLW
3.65 To date, the federal and Ontario governments have jointly funded the Canadian Nuclear Fuel Waste Management Program for the research and development of a concept for HLW disposal. The funding levels are determined by negotiation between the two levels of government. Funding for the Ontario portion is provided through Ontario Hydro and for the federal portion through AECL. The federal funding for AECL's research and development under this program expires on 31 March 1997.

3.66 AECL has estimated, based on the results of this program, that the cost of finding a site and constructing, operating and closing a HLW disposal facility for five million bundles of used fuel is about $9 billion (in 1991 dollars). This estimate includes ongoing research and development on potential sites but excludes costs of monitoring the environment around the facility.

3.67 The three utilities with nuclear power reactors include a charge for radioactive waste disposal in their electrical rates. They also have made provisions in their financial statements to recognize a liability associated with the cost of disposing of their used fuel. To date, these provisions total in excess of $800 million.

3.68 Many assumptions are required to estimate the future cost of a long-term solution for HLW. These include such factors as the actual volume of used fuel, the type of long-term solution, the date the facility will be operational, the transportation distance to the facility, and the interest rates and inflation rates during the entire period. Since there has been no agreement on an approach, the assumptions underlying the current provisions may change and will need to be reviewed.

3.69 There are no arrangements in place to ensure that when the federal funding for the current research program ends, other funds will be available, when needed, to conduct further research and development and to implement the long-term solution.

Required knowledge and expertise must be maintained
3.70 Canada's significant investment in time, money and effort in researching and developing the deep geological disposal concept has resulted in specialized knowledge and technical expertise. Some of this knowledge and expertise is required to proceed with implementation of the disposal concept for HLW. However, the federal government's funding of AECL's research and development for HLW extends only to 31 March 1997. There is no agreement on the application and maintenance of this knowledge and expertise.

3.71 Once a decision has been made to proceed with implementation of a long-term solution for Canada's high-level waste (HLW), Natural Resources Canada should reach an agreement with the major stakeholders on the best approach for implementation. The approach should include:

  • a common vision and purpose, and a basic set of principles for HLW management in Canada;
  • federal policy direction on all key aspects of the management of HLW;
  • an appropriate institutional framework outlining the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders and providing a basis for commitment and accountability;
  • target dates for the transition to the long-term solution;
  • arrangements to ensure that funding will be adequate and available, when needed, to conduct further research and development and to implement the solution; and
  • maintenance of the core knowledge and expertise required for implementing the solution.
Department's response: Agreed. As stated in our response to the first recommendation, Natural Resources Canada is consulting with major stakeholders on a policy framework, including institutional and financial options, for a comprehensive approach to the disposal of radioactive waste in Canada, including nuclear fuel waste. The policy framework will address the issues of timing, progress, and responsible implementing organization. In consultation with the Atomic Energy Control Board, financial arrangements will be addressed to ensure that funds are in place for the disposal of the nuclear fuel waste.

The federal government has made a significant financial investment in developing the core knowledge and expertise related to the development of the disposal concept for nuclear fuel waste in Canada. The federal government recognizes the importance of ensuring that the required knowledge and expertise be available to facilitate the timely implementation of the disposal concept. This issue will be addressed in the development of the federal policy framework.

Observations on Low-Level Radioactive Waste (LLW)

3.72 The audit findings on LLW are presented separately for wastes from current operations and for historic wastes. LLW from current operations and decommissioning is the responsibility of the producers or owners. In the case of historic wastes, the government has accepted residual responsibility. The different types of LLW also require different technological approaches to their long-term management.

3.73 The 1992 federal inventory of LLW indicates that Canada is currently storing small volumes of LLW from decommissioning activities. As future nuclear facilities are retired, the volume of LLW from decommissioning will increase. Appropriate long-term solutions for this LLW are expected to be similar to those for operational waste.

Operational Low-Level Radioactive Waste

3.74 Various radioactive elements can be found in operational LLW. Most operational LLW decays to non-hazardous levels in 500 years. Technology is being developed in Canada to find long-term solutions for this waste. However, some radioactive elements in LLW are long-lived and may have to be segregated and managed in a manner consistent with HLW. Therefore, a complete solution for all operational LLW may depend on finding a solution for HLW.

Canada's inventory of operational LLW continues to grow
3.75 The 1992 federal inventory of LLW indicates that the total accumulation of operational LLW was about 150,000 cubic metres. Today, AECL is storing over 100,000 cubic metres, which is about two thirds of Canada's total operational LLW. This waste has been accumulating at an average annual rate of about 6,000 cubic metres. About 60 percent of this annual accumulation is owned by Ontario Hydro.

3.76 Operational LLW is currently stored at 18 AECB-licensed sites. Through its licensing and inspection activities, the AECB provides assurance that the waste at each of these sites is safely stored. One of these sites includes Canada's only commercial LLW storage facility, which is operated by AECL. ( See photographs )

Owners are working toward solutions for their own waste
3.77 In Canada, Ontario Hydro, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office and AECL are working toward finding long-term solutions for operational LLW. The other two nuclear utilities have indicated that they are monitoring regulatory policy, the development of technology and the availability of disposal facilities before deciding on a strategy to dispose of their own LLW.

3.78 Ontario Hydro, a major producer of LLW, published a plan that outlines possible approaches for disposal of its own LLW. These approaches include developing an independent Ontario Hydro LLW disposal facility, or working with other waste producers to develop a joint multi-user disposal facility. Ontario Hydro intends to have some form of LLW disposal facility in operation by 2015.

3.79 The federal government issued a policy in 1986 on the management of LLW. This policy defines the responsibilities of the federal government, including its residual responsibility to develop LLW disposal facilities for small producers, such as hospitals, which are not in a position to develop their own facility.

3.80 The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office, currently funded by Natural Resources Canada and operated by AECL, was formed in 1982 with the mandate to establish, as required, a user-pay service for the disposal of LLW that is produced on an ongoing basis. The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office is also mandated to resolve historic waste problems that are a federal responsibility. Other than the preparation of an inventory of operational LLW in Canada and the completion of a number of studies on topical LLW management issues, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office has made little progress in establishing a user-pay service. Its priority has been on cleaning up historic wastes.

3.81 Studies completed under the direction of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office have indicated that the most cost-effective approach for developing a user-pay service would have to involve at least one of the major producers. The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office wishes to avoid establishing a facility dedicated solely to the needs of the small producers. Thus, collaboration with major producers will be required to develop such a facility.

3.82 A commercial LLW storage facility is currently available for small producers to transfer their radioactive waste to AECL. However, AECL will eventually have to dispose of this waste. For all operational LLW that it possesses, AECL has developed a draft strategic plan to make the transition from interim storage to long-term solutions.

AECL is researching technologies for disposing of LLW
3.83 AECL has spent more than 15 years and $53 million researching and developing technologies for disposing of LLW. For example, it has carried out research on waste characterization and migration of different types of LLW.

3.84 One of the technologies being developed is a concept known as IRUS (Intrusion Resistant Underground Structure). The IRUS concept is a series of underground concrete vaults designed to contain LLW for 500 years. After that time, the waste will no longer be hazardous. An IRUS prototype, which will contain LLW from AECL's own operations as well as waste from its commercial storage facility, is scheduled for operation by 1998-99. AECL has submitted its technical studies on the prototype to the AECB for review. The AECB has raised technical issues to be addressed before approval of the IRUS concept. ( See photograph )

Canada does not have an approved disposal technology or any disposal facilities for its LLW
3.85 Today, all operational LLW in Canada is being placed in interim storage facilities. Interim storage adds to the ultimate cost of disposing of this waste. Until a disposal facility is available, expenditures will be incurred to manage the stored material and to build additional storage facilities as needed. Once a disposal facility is available, additional expenditures will be incurred to recover the waste and transfer it to the disposal facility, and to decommission the old storage facilities. Moreover, handling of the waste during retrieval and transfer to the disposal facility can result in additional exposure of workers to radiation.

3.86 The expense of storage and the unnecessary exposure to radiation could be avoided or reduced if disposal facilities for LLW were available. Long-term solutions for Canada's operational LLW need to be implemented to reduce the lifetime costs and radiation hazards, to ensure that the producer pays and to minimize the burden on future generations.

3.87 Sweden, Finland and France have characterized their LLW in terms of life span and level of radioactivity and have moved from storage to disposal for shorter-lived (up to 500 years) waste. Permanent LLW disposal facilities are in operation in Sweden (1988), Finland (1992) and France (1992). A French facility that opened in 1969 reached its capacity in 1994 and is entering the closure and institutional control phase. More information on these countries is provided in Exhibit 3.3 , Exhibit 3.4 and Exhibit 3.5.

3.88 Canada does not have an approved disposal technology or any disposal sites for its LLW. It has not yet determined what will be needed in the way of disposal services and facilities. In addition, there is no co-ordinated plan or timetable for disposing of Canada's operational LLW.

3.89 Natural Resources Canada should obtain agreement with the major stakeholders on roles and responsibilities, a plan, a timetable and funding arrangements for disposing of Canada's operational low-level waste. This plan should be co-ordinated with the approach for high-level waste.

Department's response: Agreed. As highlighted in our response to the first recommendation, Natural Resources Canada is proceeding to develop a policy framework, including institutional and financial options, for a comprehensive approach to the disposal of radioactive waste in Canada, including operational low-level waste. Consultation with the major stakeholders is an important step in the development of an agreed-upon strategy and timetable for the disposal of all low-level radioactive waste.

Historic Low-Level Radioactive Waste

Background
3.90 Historic wastes are low-level radioactive wastes for which the original producer or owner can no longer reasonably be held responsible. These wastes were managed in a manner no longer considered acceptable. The federal government has accepted residual responsibility for these wastes. The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office was established by the federal government to carry out its responsibilities for LLW management in Canada. Under the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office's historic wastes program, clean-up and interim remedial work is performed at historic waste sites.

3.91 Historic wastes differ from most operational LLW in that they contain long-lived radioactive elements as well as hazardous chemicals similar to uranium tailings. This waste generally remains hazardous for over 500 years, since much of it contains radium and uranium refinery waste. In addition, some of the hazardous chemicals last indefinitely.

3.92 Today, historic wastes constitute the largest volume of Canada's low-level radioactive waste inventory. The inventory of historic wastes was estimated by the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office in 1992 to be about 1.2 million cubic metres. This waste is largely the result of the radium industry and the early years of uranium production.

3.93 The majority of the historic wastes was produced at the refinery owned by Eldorado Nuclear Limited, in Port Hope, Ontario. The refinery waste was initially deposited at several sites in Port Hope; over time, contamination spread to other locations. Later, Eldorado Nuclear established the Welcome and Port Granby waste management storage sites at nearby communities. The federal government has accepted residual responsibility for locating a permanent site and finding a long-term solution for all of the historic wastes found in the Port Hope area.

3.94 Other historic wastes are located in Scarborough, Ontario, in Surrey, British Columbia, and in various areas in Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office has separate projects to clean up these sites and manage the radioactive wastes.

The federal government monitors historic waste to ensure that there is no immediate risk to public health
3.95 The AECB licenses seven waste management storage sites containing historic wastes. Four of these sites are located in Port Hope and one is located in Scarborough. These five sites are managed by the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office, under licences held by AECL. The other two licences are held by the current owner of the Port Hope refinery, Cameco Corporation, for its Welcome and Port Granby sites. In addition, both AECL and the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office store some historic wastes at AECL's Chalk River site, which is licensed by the AECB. Through its licensing and inspection activities, the AECB provides assurance that the waste at each of these sites is safely stored. ( See photograph )

3.96 There are also nine major unlicensed and unremediated sites containing historic wastes in Port Hope. The management and monitoring of these sites are the responsibility of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office. In April 1994, a report was prepared by Natural Resources Canada in co-operation with the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office and the Secretariat to the Siting Task Force on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management and corroborated by officials from both Health Canada and the AECB. The report concluded that the current situation at these sites does not pose an immediate risk to public health.

3.97 However, the federal government is still concerned that wastes that do not pose a risk to public health or the environment at the present time might pose a risk in the future. This could occur, for example, through a breakdown in physical containment or a lapse in management of the wastes.

After $21 million and eight years, no disposal site has been found for Port Hope area historic wastes
3.98 Since the early 1980s, unsuccessful attempts have been made to find a disposal site for Port Hope area waste. Following requests from the AECB in 1980, Eldorado Nuclear Limited attempted to establish a disposal site for its LLW in the Port Hope area. These attempts failed, in part because of public opposition to the proposed locations and the methods being used to select the sites.

3.99 In December 1986, the federal government set up a siting process to find a permanent solution for the Port Hope area waste. To date, this process has involved three consecutive task forces. The first task force recommended a siting approach requiring community agreement on a potential site. This recommendation was accepted by the federal government in 1987 on the basis that it was more co-operative and less confrontational than previous approaches. Based on this approach, subsequent task forces were set up to identify possible communities and sites.

3.100 The current task force is to make recommendations on the long-term management options and to identify possible sites for a disposal facility for this historic waste. The report of the task force was originally expected by 31 March 1995, but has been delayed until 30 September 1995.

3.101 In our view, at the outset of this siting process, we would have expected to find a plan that could be implemented in the event that no sites were found. We did not find such a plan. In the last eight years, Natural Resources Canada has spent approximately $21 million on the siting process. At this time, no agreement has yet been reached with a community on a disposal site.

3.102 The federal government is also incurring costs for the management of historic wastes at the Welcome and Port Granby sites. These wastes were produced by Eldorado Nuclear Limited, a federal Crown corporation. The total amount of the expenditure will depend on how long it takes to find a long-term solution and on the need for remediation work in the interim. Cameco Corporation assumed ownership of these historic wastes for management purposes under the terms of the 1988 purchase agreement that transferred assets from Eldorado Nuclear to Cameco. Under that agreement, Cameco agreed to keep these historic wastes segregated. Under the agreement's joint cost-sharing formula, the federal government retains primary financial liability for the ultimate cost of storage and disposal of these historic wastes. Cameco assumed some financial responsibility under the formula, with its liability limited to $25 million.

3.103 Once a site has been found for the Port Hope area waste, the federal government will incur significant costs, estimated by the current task force to be between $185 million and $309 million. These estimates include the design and construction of a disposal facility, as well as transportation of waste to the facility. The estimates do not include any potential benefit compensation package for the community accepting the facility. The facility is expected to contain the Port Hope area and Scarborough historic wastes.

3.104 For the Port Hope area historic wastes, we expected to find a federal strategy for the identification of suitable sites and preferred technologies. We also expected to find a plan for the implementation of a long-term solution, including target dates and estimates of costs. Such a plan would provide a basis for commitment and accountability. The siting process addresses the identification of suitable sites and preferred technologies, estimates costs and proposes a management mechanism to oversee the final design, construction and operation of the facility. It does not address the target dates for making critical decisions leading to a solution.

3.105 Once the current Siting Task Force makes its recommendations, Natural Resources Canada should establish a plan, with target dates, for implementing a long-term solution for the Port Hope area historic wastes.

Department's response: The federal government will respond, as appropriate, to the recommendations of the independent Siting Task Force on Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management in Ontario. This may involve establishing a plan, with target dates, for implementing a solution to the long-term management of the historic low-level radioactive waste, taking into consideration the recommendations of the Siting Task Force, which are expected on 1 October 1995. The Siting Task Force has a mandate to find a site for the Port Hope area wastes, using a co-operative, consultative and community-based process. It is presently in the final phases of the siting process.

Canada's historic wastes require further clean-up
3.106 For over a decade, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office has carried out projects to clean up radioactive contamination from historic waste sites across Canada, including the Port Hope area, at a total cost to date of about $9 million.

3.107 Historic wastes from the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office's clean-up projects have been segregated on the basis of their radiological hazard. Material that is more highly contaminated is now stored at AECB-licensed sites, pending its removal to a permanent disposal site. In some cases, the remaining mildly contaminated soil has been consolidated and stored near the source until it too can be moved to a permanent disposal site. Other mildly contaminated soil, classified as industrial waste, has been disposed of at a local landfill site. The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office believes that new findings of historic wastes in Canada will likely continue, but no large sites are expected to be found.

3.108 The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office estimates that, over the next five years, approximately $25 million in additional federal funding will be required to complete the clean-up and to find long-term solutions for identified historic waste sites, excluding major sites in Port Hope. The current funding of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office expired on 31 March 1995. Lack of continued effort to clean up historic wastes will create a gap in federal management of these wastes.

3.109 Natural Resources Canada should seek continuity in federal responsibilities for the management of Canada's historic low-level radioactive wastes.

Department's response: Agreed. The federal government has extended the mandate of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office, the federal agent designated for cleaning up historic low-level radioactive waste.

Observations on Uranium Tailings

Background
3.110 The creation of uranium tailings through mining and milling of uranium ore began with the removal of radium for medical purposes in the early 1930s, prior to the establishment of the AECB. Over the years, this activity has taken place in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and Saskatchewan. In the early 1950s, the demand for uranium increased dramatically to supply foreign nuclear weapons programs. Between 1955 and 1958, 16 new mines were opened in the Elliot Lake and Bancroft areas in Ontario to meet the requirements of foreign defence contracts. By the end of 1964, with the winding down of these contracts, all but three mines in Canada had closed. ( See photograph )

3.111 With the introduction of the first Canadian nuclear power reactors later in the 1960s, uranium production in Canada became almost exclusively devoted to peaceful uses of nuclear power. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, uranium mining activity of low-grade ore resumed in the Elliot Lake area when additional nuclear power reactors came on-stream globally and when uranium prices increased. During the 1980s, the substantial decline in uranium prices, coupled with the development of high-grade uranium mines in northern Saskatchewan, led to the closure of most uranium mines in the Elliot Lake area.

3.112 The one remaining mine in the Elliot Lake area, under contract to Ontario Hydro, is expected to cease operation in 1996. Today, no uranium mine is in production in the Northwest Territories. Three mines are operating in northern Saskatchewan. Six new or expanded mining facilities have also been proposed for Saskatchewan.

3.113 Uranium tailings, much like tailings from other mines, are typically concentrated in surface containment areas near the mine-mill complex. About 200 million tonnes of uranium tailings have accumulated to date, representing approximately three percent of all mine tailings in Canada.

3.114 In 1982, the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources (EMR) initiated a five-year National Uranium Tailings Program to research long-term management strategies for the protection of the public and the environment. In 1988, the Mine Environmental Neutral Drainage Program was initiated by the Department to analyze site-specific information on acid drainage and tailings management scenarios for all types of mine tailings. To date, Natural Resources Canada reports that approximately $10 million has been spent under these two programs on researching long-term solutions for uranium tailings.

Uranium tailings need to be properly contained and controlled
3.115 In addition to containing radioactive substances, hazardous chemicals are often found in uranium tailings. These tailings pose a potential hazard to the public and the environment if improperly contained. Also, uncontrolled access to mines and tailings sites could result in intrusion and, over time, habitation of the sites or misuse of the tailings as construction material. ( See photograph )

3.116 The provinces have constitutional jurisdiction over mining. However, the Atomic Energy Control Act gave the AECB the responsibility, in 1946, for regulating the Canadian nuclear industry, including uranium mining.

3.117 For security purposes, the AECB initially issued permits to uranium mining companies to control the extraction of material. The single AECB requirement for health and safety in uranium mines was that permit holders comply with applicable provincial regulations. In 1976, the AECB decided to explore measures to expand its regulatory control over uranium mining. A decision was made to introduce a licensing system.

3.118 From 1978, the AECB licences subjected the mining companies to additional federal regulatory control in the area of radiation protection for the mine workers, public health and environmental protection. Compliance with all relevant provincial regulations remained a condition of the licence. The AECB decided to issue licences only for those mines still in operation and for new uranium mines.

3.119 In 1988, the AECB's Uranium and Thorium Mining Regulations were enacted to require uranium producers to develop decommissioning plans for their mines and tailings management areas and to submit them to the AECB for approval. In 1994, the AECB amended these regulations to introduce the requirement for financial assurances for current and future AECB-licensed uranium mine sites. However, as the AECB guidelines for the implementation of these amendments have not yet been completed, no financial assurances have been provided to the AECB for any licensed sites.

Pre-1976 uranium mines and tailings sites have not been subjected to the AECB's current regulatory regime
3.120 Ten uranium mines with tailings sites ceased operations prior to 1976 and were never subject to AECB's current regulatory regime. Consequently, the AECB does not formally inspect or otherwise monitor these sites to assess their impact on the environment or to ensure that there are no undue risks to health and safety.

3.121 Most of these unlicensed sites are in the Elliot Lake and Bancroft areas of Ontario, but there are other more remote sites in Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. The federal and provincial governments recognize that these pre-1976 sites have to be rehabilitated and decommissioned to current standards.

3.122 Until these unlicensed sites are brought under its regulatory control, the AECB cannot assure the public that the pre-1976 sites are being safely maintained.

3.123 The Atomic Energy Control Board should ensure that the pre-1976 tailings sites of unlicensed uranium mines are brought under its regulatory control.

AECB's response: Agreed. The AECB has committed to bring these tailings under AECB regulatory control. In December 1994, the AECB initiated discussions with known owners of the sites.

The federal and provincial governments have not assigned residual responsibilities
3.124 In accordance with the "producer pays" concept, the federal government's position is that the primary responsibility for the management and long-term institutional care of uranium tailings rests with the producer or owner. However, where a producer does not exist, or the owner is unable or unwilling to pay, the federal and/or provincial governments, as the managers of last resort, will have to assume residual responsibility. Negotiated agreements between the federal and provincial governments are a prerequisite to the orderly assignment of these residual responsibilities.

3.125 The closure of several uranium mines and the existence of unregulated uranium tailings sites raised concerns at the federal level about the need to ensure that funds would be available to decommission these sites adequately. This situation prompted the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources to begin negotiations with the Ontario government on these and other concerns related to uranium tailings.

3.126 Federal and Ontario officials have spent over a decade attempting to determine their respective roles and to assign residual responsibilities for rehabilitating and decommissioning uranium tailings sites. Although some agreement has been reached by the officials as to how roles and responsibilities are to be assigned, the federal government has not yet formally approved this agreement. Similar discussions with the Saskatchewan government have yet to begin.

Different assumptions are being used by Natural Resources Canada and the AECB for decommissioning costs of uranium tailings
3.127 Natural Resources Canada has compiled details on volumes of uranium tailings and cost estimates for decommissioning tailings sites. This information is required to develop federal policy and to support negotiations with the provinces on roles and responsibilities for tailings management. The AECB maintains similar information for regulatory purposes.

3.128 The estimates for decommissioning costs for individual sites, and in some cases volume estimates, vary significantly between these two federal organizations. These variances are due, in part, to differences in the assumptions used in the calculations, as well as to the difficulty in estimating decommissioning costs without approved clean-up strategies in place. Nonetheless, Natural Resources Canada and the AECB have not attempted to reconcile such differences.

3.129 Natural Resources Canada estimates that the total cost for decommissioning uranium tailings sites in Canada may exceed $400 million (in 1994 dollars). In comparison, the AECB's total estimate for the same sites, based on different assumptions, is less than half of this amount. Although these costs are generally expected to be paid by the producers or owners of the waste, Natural Resources Canada also estimates that the federal government's potential liabilities to meet its residual responsibilities could be in the tens of millions of dollars.

3.130 Natural Resources Canada and the Atomic Energy Control Board should reconcile their current information on volumes and costs for decommissioning uranium tailings sites.

Natural Resources Canada and the Atomic Energy Control Board's response: Agreed. Natural Resources Canada and the Atomic Energy Control Board will work together to ensure that there is a common understanding about the underlying assumptions that resulted in differences in estimates of the volumes and costs. These differences do not have any operational impact on plans for the decommissioning of the uranium tailings sites.

Long-term storage for uranium tailings requires institutional care
3.131 In Canada, a "walk-away" solution is not realistic for decommissioning most uranium tailings sites. Long-term storage requires long-term institutional care to monitor and maintain the containment structures and to control access to, and use of, the land. It is expected that the owners will eventually seek permission from the AECB to abandon their uranium tailings sites. Presently, there are no financial assurances that the funds required for long-term care will be available as needed.

3.132 No decision has been reached by the federal and provincial governments to assign residual responsibility for providing institutional care. Federal and Ontario officials have spent over a decade attempting to assign such roles and responsibilities.

3.133 In the case of the decommissioned site at Agnew Lake, Ontario, remedial work was carried out by the owner in the late 1980s. Following a request in 1990, the AECB granted the owner permission to abandon this site. No financial assurances were sought from the owner for long-term institutional care of the site. Ownership of this site has reverted to the Province of Ontario. According to Natural Resources Canada officials, the long-term institutional care of this site has been a matter of discussion with Ontario officials as part of the negotiations on the assignment of residual roles and responsibilities.

3.134 Natural Resources Canada should move toward finalizing an agreement with the Ontario government to assign residual roles and responsibilities for rehabilitation and decommissioning of uranium tailings sites and for the provision of long-term institutional care of all sites in the province. Natural Resources Canada should pursue similar discussions with the Saskatchewan government.

Department's response: Agreed. In fact, the governments of both Canada and Ontario have already supported the development of a Memorandum of Agreement based on an agreed-upon framework.

Natural Resources Canada will continue to be the federal lead for developing an agreement with Ontario on shared responsibility for the decommissioning and perpetual care of abandoned uranium mine sites. In addition, Natural Resources Canada has held preliminary discussions with Saskatchewan with a view to clarifying similar responsibilities.

Financial Implications of the Search for Long-Term Solutions

3.135 Since the 1970s, the federal government, including AECL, has spent approximately $450 million on the search for long-term solutions for radioactive waste. This figure includes the following expenditures:

  • approximately $370 million, reported by AECL, on researching and developing a concept for disposal of high-level waste (HLW);
  • approximately $53 million, reported by AECL, on research and development for disposal of low-level waste (LLW);
  • approximately $21 million, reported by Natural Resources Canada, in trying to find a disposal site for the Port Hope area historic waste; and
  • approximately $10 million, estimated by Natural Resources Canada, on researching long-term solutions for uranium tailings.
3.136 Federal documentation indicates that over the next 70 years, at least $10 billion will be needed to find and implement disposal solutions for Canada's radioactive waste. Almost all of the money is expected to come from the waste producers. Using various federal documents, we estimate the federal share, including AECL's portion, to be approximately $850 million. It will be more if the federal government has to assume residual responsibility for other waste producers.

3.137 To date, none of the potential federal liabilities of approximately $850 million have been disclosed in the Notes to the Financial Statements and in the Notes to the Annual Financial Report of the Government of Canada. Given the fact that these potential liabilities could affect the deficit, we believe that they should be disclosed.

3.138 The government should disclose, in the Notes to the Financial Statements and in the Notes to the Annual Financial Report, those potential federal liabilities related to radioactive waste that it can determine and reasonably estimate.

Treasury Board Secretariat's response: The government is aware that generally accepted accounting principles, as issued by the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants, call for recognizing environmental and site restoration costs and liabilities in financial statements. While some forecasts of costs may be available within the Government of Canada for the clean-up of specific items such as radioactive waste and site contamination, this is not the case for other environmental liabilities that the government is committed to address. The cost to the government of all these commitments is not determinable at this time, and until reasonable estimates of these costs can be made, the government should not change its accounting policies to record partial costs. The determination of these costs, which are subject to and dependent upon evolving public policy, legislation and regulation, is currently under study. Where feasible, the note disclosure in the government's summary financial statements for fiscal year 1994-1995 will be enhanced to include those potential liabilities that can be determined and reasonably estimated.

Conclusions

3.139 Federal responsibility for managing Canada's radioactive waste, including the search for long-term solutions, is divided among many players. With the exception of the assignment of residual responsibilities for uranium tailings, current federal responsibilities for radioactive waste regulation, storage and research are clearly defined and assigned. However, roles and responsibilities for implementing long-term solutions for high-level and low-level wastes are not clearly defined and assigned.

3.140 While the various federal players understand their responsibilities, they are not always working together with other non-federal players on a common vision and agenda for disposing of Canada's radioactive wastes. The federal government, in consultation with major stakeholders, needs to develop this common vision and agenda.

3.141 We also identified the following areas requiring improvement in the discharge of federal responsibilities for radioactive waste management:

  • Natural Resources Canada needs to develop federal policies to cover all classes of radioactive waste. Only one formal federal policy has been documented, the 1986 policy on low-level waste (LLW) management.
  • The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office needs to pursue its mandate of establishing a user-pay service for disposing of LLW.
  • The AECB needs to bring the pre-1976 uranium tailings sites under its current regulatory regime.
3.142 Canada has made progress in studying ways to resolve the problems associated with radioactive waste from a scientific and technological perspective. It has also made progress in cleaning up historic wastes. These efforts have been supported by significant taxpayer dollars. The federal government has spent approximately $370 million to research and develop a disposal concept for high-level waste (HLW). Over $80 million has been spent by the federal government on LLW research and development, clean-up of historic wastes and the search for a disposal site for the Port Hope area waste. The federal government has also spent approximately $10 million on uranium tailings research.

3.143 The various efforts of the many federal players involved have not yet resulted in a timely resolution of the difficult national problem of disposing of our HLW and LLW. Today, Canada has no disposal facilities for any of its high-level or low-level radioactive waste. Canada has not kept pace with some other countries in moving toward the implementation of a long-term solution for HLW or in developing operational LLW disposal facilities.

3.144 The potential future costs of finding and implementing disposal solutions for Canada's radioactive waste are large - at least $10 billion over the next 70 years. Almost all the money is expected to come from the waste producers, with the federal government incurring only a small portion of these expenditures. We estimated this portion to be approximately $850 million. However, the government has not disclosed in the Notes to the Financial Statements and in the Notes to the Annual Financial Report of the Government of Canada those potential federal liabilities related to radioactive waste that it can determine and reasonably estimate.

3.145 To ensure that the producer pays and to minimize the burden on future generations, the transition from interim storage to long-term solutions for high-level and low-level radioactive waste requires the following:

  • agreement among the stakeholders on an approach for implementing a long-term solution for Canada's HLW;
  • agreement among the stakeholders on roles and responsibilities, a plan, a timetable and funding arrangements for disposing of Canada's operational LLW;
  • a federal plan, with target dates, for implementing a long-term solution for the Port Hope area historic wastes; and
  • continuity in federal responsibilities for the management of all of Canada's historic low-level radioactive waste.
Audit Team


Ian Campbell
John Cathcart
Murray Duncan
David Nobbs
Robert Pelland
Jerry Rosinski
Nihal Wijay

For further information, please contact Ellen Shillabeer, the responsible auditor.