Nuclear safety in Canada: Decision by the independent Commission on the Near Surface Disposal Facility Project


The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) regulates the use of nuclear energy and materials to protect health, safety, security and the environment; to implement Canada’s international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy; and to disseminate objective scientific, technical and regulatory information to the public.

The Commission is a quasi-judicial administrative tribunal set up at arm’s length from government, independent from any political, government or private sector influence. It makes decisions with respect to regulating nuclear safety, including licensing decisions, and is also independent of CNSC staff.


Chalk River Laboratories is owned by the federal Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL). As the licensee, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) operates the site under a government-owned, contractor-operated model. The Chalk River Laboratories site includes Class I and Class II nuclear facilities, waste management areas, radioisotope laboratories, support facilities and offices.

In 2017, CNL applied to the CNSC for an amendment to its licence for Chalk River Laboratories, to authorize the construction of a near surface disposal facility (NSDF) at the Chalk River Laboratories site. The proposed NSDF is a new Class IB nuclear facility, per paragraph 19(a) of the General Nuclear Safety and Control Regulations.

NSDF Project

The purpose of the NSDF Project is to provide a permanent disposal solution for up to 1 million cubic metres of solid low-level radioactive waste, such as contaminated personal protective clothing and building materials. The majority of the waste to be placed in the NSDF is currently in storage at the Chalk River Laboratories site or will be generated from environmental remediation, decommissioning, and operational activities at the Chalk River Laboratories site. Approximately 10% of the waste volume will come from other AECL-owned sites or from commercial sources such as Canadian hospitals and universities.

The design of the NSDF Project includes an engineered containment mound, a wastewater treatment plant, and other support facilities.

The NSDF Project location is entirely within the licensed boundary of the Chalk River Laboratories site and is situated 1.1 km from the Ottawa River, on a bedrock ridge that slopes away from the river.


  • On October 23, 2015, CNL notified the CNSC of its intention to apply to construct a radioactive waste disposal facility at the Chalk River Laboratories site.
  • On April 1, 2016, CNL followed this notification with an initial regulatory application to initiate the environmental assessment (EA) process for the NSDF Project.
  • On May 6, 2016, the CNSC issued a notice of commencement of an environmental assessment for the NSDF Project.
  • On March 8, 2017, the Commission decided that the scope of the factors for the EA was to include those mandated in paragraphs 19(1)(a) to (h) of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act 2012 (CEAA 2012), with no additional factors requiring consideration.
  • On March 31, 2017, CNL submitted a licence amendment application to construct the proposed NSDF. On March 26, 2021, CNL submitted an updated application, including updated technical documentation.
  • The Commission held a 2-part public hearing, with Part 1 held virtually on February 22, 2022, and Part 2 held from May 30 to June 3, 2022 in Pembroke, Ontario. The Commission heard evidence and submissions from CNL, CNSC staff and 165 intervenors.
  • On July 5, 2022, the Commission issued a procedural direction announcing that the record would be kept open to allow more time to receive additional information on engagement and consultation efforts, in respect of Kebaowek First Nation (KFN) and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (KZA). Accordingly, the Commission invited additional information from KFN, KZA, AECL, CNL, and CNSC staff.
  • On May 17, 2023, the Commission announced that it had reviewed the additional submissions and that it was satisfied with the information it had received.
  • On August 10, 2023, the Commission held a virtual oral hearing to hear final submissions from Indigenous Nations and communities who made oral submissions during Part 2 of the public hearing, as well as from CNL. 
    • Intervenors who made oral submissions during Part 2 of the public hearing had the opportunity to make written final submissions to summarize their views based on all of the evidence on the record. In the spirit of reconciliation and in recognition of the Indigenous oral tradition for sharing knowledge, Indigenous Nations and communities that made oral interventions during Part 2 of the public hearing were given the option to make their final submissions orally.

Matters for decision

The Commission had to make 2 decisions for the NSDF Project:

  1. An environmental assessment (EA) decision pursuant to CEAA 2012
  2. A licence amendment decision pursuant to paragraphs 24(4)(a) and (b) of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act

An EA is a planning tool used to ensure that projects are considered in a careful and precautionary manner in order to avoid or mitigate possible environmental effects and to enable decision makers to take actions that promote sustainable development. An EA is carried out prior to any licence being granted and considers the entire lifecycle of a project.

While the EA encompasses the entire lifecycle of the proposed NSDF Project, the Commission’s decision on the licence amendment deals only with the construction of the NSDF.

Both the EA and licence amendment decisions engaged the CNSC, as an agent of the Crown contemplating decisions with the potential to impact asserted or established rights, on the duty to consult and, where appropriate, to accommodate Indigenous rights under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Prior to making either decision, the Commission had to determine if this duty had been met.

Commission conclusions

Duty to consult

Based on the information presented, the Commission concluded that the consultation undertaken was adequate to meet its duty to consult. Considering the scope of the obligations upon it and the details of the consultation and the proposed mitigation measures, the Commission is of the view that consultation has been adequate to satisfy the duty to consult, as required by law.

CNL is required to implement the proposed mitigation measures, follow-up monitoring measures, and commitments under the amended licence.

Environmental assessment

The Commission concluded that the NSDF Project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects as described in subsections 5(1) and 5(2) of CEAA 2012, provided that CNL implements all proposed mitigation and follow-up monitoring measures. The Commission considered the factors described in paragraphs 19(1)(a) to 19(1)(h) of CEAA 2012 for the NSDF Project.

In making its EA decision, the Commission concluded that the proposed NSDF site is an acceptable and safe location for the NSDF and that the NSDF Project will not physically impact nor restrict access to the nearby cultural sites of Pointe au Baptême and Oiseau Rock. The Commission found that the site selection and NSDF design are both in alignment with International Atomic Energy Agency standards. The Commission also concluded that the design of the NSDF Project is robust, supported by a strong safety case, able to meet its required design life, and sufficient to withstand severe weather events, seismic activity, and the effects of climate change.

The Commission is satisfied that the NSDF Project will not cause significant adverse effects to the Ottawa River. The NSDF site is located 1.1 km from the Ottawa River, on a sloped bedrock ridge where groundwater flows away from the river. The site is also located above the maximum calculated Ottawa River flood levels for the area. CNL will sample effluent from the NSDF wastewater treatment plant to ensure that it meets effluent discharge targets before release to the environment.

The Commission is satisfied that the NSDF Project is protective of human health, noting that the estimated dose from the NSDF Project to both nuclear energy workers and persons who are not nuclear energy workers are well below regulatory dose limits.

Licence amendment

The Commission concluded that CNL is qualified to carry out the licensed activities under the amended licence; that CNL has adequate programs in place to ensure that the health and safety of workers, the public and the environment will be protected during the construction of the NSDF; and that CNL will continue to maintain measures to provide for the maintenance of national security and to implement international obligations to which Canada has agreed.

The amended licence includes 2 new conditions that require CNL to implement licensing regulatory actions and EA regulatory commitments for the NSDF Project.

The Commission’s decision applies to the construction of the NSDF Project. Authorization to operate the NSDF would be subject to a future Commission licensing hearing and decision, should CNL come forward with a licence application to do so.

Building trust and advancing reconciliation

As Canada’s nuclear regulator, the CNSC is committed to building trust and advancing reconciliation.

As a lifecycle regulator, the CNSC focuses on continuous engagement and consultation with Indigenous Nations before, during and after Commission proceedings for CNSC activities. This includes, for example, collaboratively drafting rights impacts assessments with Indigenous Nations and communities, and consulting on mitigation measures to help minimize any potential impacts of the NSDF project.

Going forward, the CNSC is continuing its work to develop and nurture long-term relationships with the Indigenous Nations and communities that were involved in the regulatory process for the NSDF.

For additional detail on the CNSC’s consultations in the context of the NSDF, information can be found in the Commission member documents that detail CNSC staff’s review of the proposed NSDF.

Related links


Media Relations
Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
Tel: 613-996-6860


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