The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission – highlights of 75 years

1946-1955: Building the framework for nuclear safety in Canada

  • 1946 – On October 12, the Atomic Energy Control Act is proclaimed. Under this act, the Government of Canada establishes the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) as a regulatory agency to provide control and supervision of the development, application and use of atomic energy. The board also plays a role in enabling Canada to participate effectively in measures of international control of atomic energy.
  • 1947 – One year later in July 1947, Canada is ready for the first research reactor to start operating at Chalk River Laboratories. So far, it is the world’s most powerful research reactor, producing isotopes and giving Canada the lead in nuclear medicine.
  • 1952 – With the AECB established as the regulatory agency and reactors running, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) is formed in 1952. AECL’s mandate is to further the peaceful development and research of the Canadian nuclear industry. This Crown Corporation assumes the responsibility of the Chalk River project and others like it. On December 12, a partial meltdown of the NRX reactor core at Chalk River, Ontario, occurs. Although the reactor is damaged, there are no injuries.
  • 1954 – AECL partners with the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario to build Canada’s first nuclear power reactor in Rolphton, Ontario. This Nuclear Power Demonstration (NPD) reactor is the prototype for CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium) reactor technology. A proving ground for research and development, the reactor operated from 1962 until 1987. 

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1956-1965: Creating a path to the peaceful use of nuclear energy

  • 1958 – In September 1958, significant numbers of Canadians oppose the federal government's plans to purchase nuclear-warhead-capable Bomarc missiles from the United States. The controversy continues for a number of years when Prime Minister Lester Pearson announces the purchase of nuclear missiles. However, 10 years later, Canada ratifies the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and nuclear warheads begin to be removed from the country.
  • 1959 – As the public becomes more aware of Canada's nuclear power usage, education becomes a priority. In 1959, the first university-based research reactor in the British Commonwealth opens in Hamilton, Ontario at McMaster University.
  • 1960 – Public opposition to the purchase of nuclear warheads leads to the creation of the Canadian Nuclear Association. The organization is established to represent the nuclear industry in Canada and to promote the development and growth of nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes.
  • 1962 – The Government of Canada further voices the need for nuclear peace when it is reported that missiles are poised to hit targets in North America from a launching pad in Cuba. With this nuclear crisis, Canada makes monumental steps in later years to uphold the peaceful use of nuclear power.

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1966-1975: Bringing nuclear to health care

  • 1966 – The Douglas Point Nuclear Generating Station begins operating. This is Canada’s first commercial-scale nuclear generating station and a prototype for today’s larger nuclear power plants. An interim operating licence is issued to permit the start up and operation of the station.
  • 1969 – As Canada begins to focus on nuclear use in healthcare, the AECB adopts regulations for the transport of radioactive materials.
  • 1972 – Pursuant to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which was signed in 1968 and brought 58 nations together to support the peaceful use of nuclear power, Canada becomes the first country to sign a comprehensive nuclear safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This agreement gives the IAEA the right and obligation to monitor Canada's nuclear-related activities and verify nuclear material inventories and flows in Canada.
  • 1974 – The Royal Commission on the Health and Safety of Workers in Mines, chaired by Dr. James Ham, is established in Ontario. The Commission investigates any health and safety matters related to mining, particularly silicosis and lung cancer, and is a significant first step for workplace health and safety.
  • 1975 – Furthering the development of nuclear use in health care, Canada’s first positron emission tomography (PET) scanner is developed and installed at the Montreal Neurological Institute. PET is a nuclear medicine imaging technique, used particularly in cancer therapy, which produces a 3-D image of functional processes in the body.

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1976-1985: Instilling confidence in Canada’s nuclear regulation and safety

  • 1978 – The Soviet Union launched the Kosmos 954 satellite in 1977. In 1978, a malfunction prevents safe separation of its onboard nuclear reactor. When re-entering the earth's atmosphere the satellite scatters radioactive debris over northern Canada, prompting an extensive cleanup operation. A team of AECB staff is sent to the Northwest Territories on a search-and-recovery mission while Canada and the U.S. lead the cleanup initiative, dubbed Operation Morning Light. The teams work day and night in extreme weather conditions, striving for the same goal – cleaning up the debris scattered across 124,000 km2.
  • 1979 – Near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, equipment failure and human error contribute to an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, the worst in U.S. history. There is major damage to 1 of 2 reactors at the plant, but the plants containment structures ensure radiation exposure to employees and the public is minimal. As the plant is being stabilized, there is an uncoordinated release of information from various authorities through the media. A vacuum of reliable information results in sensationalism and some hysteria. After review, the nuclear industry responds by creating the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). INPO's mission is to promote the highest levels of safety and reliability in the operation of nuclear generating plants. In response, the AECB re-evaluates strategies for public outreach and transparency and communication with the public takes centre stage.
  • 1980 – In Canada, to help counter the fear resulting from the Three Mile Island accident, the AECB enhances its public-communication strategies and increases transparency. Public-access policies and public-consultation programs are revised and the Board establishes 3 advisory committees dealing respectively with radiological protection, nuclear safety and security.
  • 1982 – The AECB shares its first regulatory agenda to the public. It provides information concerning the dates of future AECB meetings and licence renewals, and major regulatory actions requiring decisions in the year ahead. The document intends to encourage public awareness and to facilitate participation by interest groups and individual members of the public in the business of the AECB.
  • 1984 – With all nuclear weapons removed from Canada, the country becomes nuclear weapon-free, marking a major milestone towards world peace.

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1986-1995: Demonstrating leadership on the global stage

  • 1986 – On April 26, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine suffers a catastrophic power increase, leading to explosions in the core. Considered the worst nuclear power plant accident ever, it is the first and only accident to be classified a Level 7 event on the International Atomic Energy Agency's Nuclear Event Scale. In Ontario, the government responds by commissioning a review of nuclear plant operations in the province, while the nuclear industry responds with the creation of the World Association of Nuclear Operators in 1989. The major impact on public perception strengthens the AECB’s commitment to transparency and public outreach. Public access policies, public consultation programs, the publication of regulatory agendas, issuing of policy statements for public comment and the appointment of an access to information and privacy coordinator are put in place.
  • 1992 – An important step in environmental protection, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, is passed. Under this act, the CNSC will conduct environmental assessments on nuclear projects and activities.
  • 1994 – The Convention on Nuclear Safety, adopted in Vienna, provides an important internationally binding set of nuclear safety obligations for the operation of nuclear installations. Canada is one of the first signatories and remains one of the staunchest promoters and supporters of its objectives.
  • 1995 – As Canada advances nuclear safety and performance, the AECB updates the public on the management of nuclear waste and publishes Regulating Nuclear Fuel Waste, a document designed to help the public understand the important aspects of the management and disposal of nuclear fuel waste.

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1996-2005: Enhancing legislation to protect Canadians and the environment

  • 1996 – Not only is it the 50th anniversary of the Atomic Energy Control Act, but on March 21, the Hon. Anne McLellan, Minister of Natural Resources, tables Bill C-23 in the House of Commons. This bill seeks to establish the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and make consequential amendments to other Acts. The new legislation is tabled to replace the Atomic Energy Control Act and in 1997 becomes the Nuclear Safety and Control Act (NSCA) with a focus on the health, safety and environmental impact of using nuclear technologies.
  • 1997 – Ontario Hydro announces that 7 CANDU reactors will be shut down, leading some to predict the end of nuclear power in Canada. AECB indicates that a special oversight process will be required prior to restart of the shutdown reactors. This is the beginning of the current periodic safety reviews that have lead to significant safety improvements in all operating nuclear reactors. 
  • 2001 – With the NSCA coming into force in 2000, the CNSC assumes enhanced regulatory power to protect the environment. Regulatory policy P-223, Protection of the Environment, is established this year.
  • 2001 – Canada becomes one of the first countries to ratify the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. Ratification represented Canada’s commitment to achieving and maintaining a consistently high level of safety in the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste and in ensuring the protection of people and the environment.
  • 2001 – Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, the Commission issues an emergency order to all nuclear reactor facilities to increase their security. The CNSC instructs major nuclear facilities to initiate enhanced security at their sites, including perimeter security and armed guards. The Nuclear Security Regulations are subsequently amended in 2006.
  • 2002 – The Nuclear Fuel Waste Act comes into force in 2002. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization is established under the act to investigate approaches for the long-term management of Canada’s used nuclear fuel.
  • 2003 – Progress continues towards enhanced security with the Packaging and Transport of Nuclear Substances Regulations and Nuclear Security Regulations. The CNSC participates in the development and passage of Bill C-4 to amend the NSCA to change the liability for the cleanup of contaminated land. The bill receives royal assent on February 13. CNSC staff continue to review the NSCA to ensure that the CNSC has been able to respond to security challenges.

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2006-2015: Establishing transparency and gaining clarity on regulatory requirements

  • 2006 – The CNSC implements the National Sealed Source Registry and Sealed Source Tracking System, making Canada the first G7 country with such robust registration and tracking controls for high-risk sealed sources. Together, the registry and the tracking system assure the global community of the safe and secure international transfers of these sources.
  • 2007 – The CNSC initiates research on tritium releases in Canada to study and evaluate tritium processing facilities exercising the best practices around the globe. Since then, the CNSC has undertaken several research projects under the banner of the Tritium Studies Project. The extensive body of research is made available to the public in 2017.
  • 2007 – An extended shutdown of AECL’s NRU reactor causes widespread international concern about the availability of isotopes for medical diagnostics and treatments. AECL requests regulatory approval to operate the NRU for a limited time period. CNSC advises that a complete safety case and request for licence amendment is required. Within days, the Government of Canada issues the Directive to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission Regarding the Health of Canadians instructing the CNSC to consider the health of Canadians who depend on nuclear substances for medical purposes. By December 12, the House of Commons and Senate pass Bill C-38, a law authorizing AECL to operate the NRU reactor for 120 days with certain conditions. The reactor restarts on December 16 and resumes production of medical isotopes within days. 
  • 2009 – In May, the CNSC initiates an Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) mission, a service offered by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The purpose of an IRRS mission is to compare the regulatory practices of a country with international standards and equivalent good practices elsewhere in the world. IRRS peer reviews are opportunities for both regulators and peer reviewers to learn about different approaches to the organization and practices of national regulatory bodies. This IRRS mission at the CNSC confirms the effectiveness of Canada’s nuclear regulatory framework.
  • 2011 – On March 11, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake, followed by a devastating tsunami, struck Japan, causing a severe nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In response, the CNSC took swift action to confirm safety measures at Canadian facilities, striking a task force and creating a 4-year action plan to strengthen reactor defence in depth, to enhance emergency response, to improve regulatory oversight and crisis communication capabilities, and to enhance international collaboration.
  • 2012 The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 is enacted, aiming to minimize or avoid adverse environmental effects and streamline decision-making. With the CNSC as Responsible Authority over environmental assessments, the NSCA is amended to authorize it to establish the Participant Funding program to facilitate participation of the public in Commission proceedings.
  • 2012 – The CNSC launches its Independent Environmental Monitoring Program to complement its compliance activities and provide information to the public around CNSC-regulated nuclear facilities on any potential environmental impacts. This is achieved through independent sampling and analysis by the CNSC.
  • 2013 – To ensure safety of the public, the CNSC completes a groundbreaking health study on populations living near Ontario's 3 nuclear power plants (NPPs). The study uses data from the Canadian and Ontario Cancer Registries and the Census of Canada. It concludes that public radiation doses resulting from the operation of the NPPs are 100 to 1,000 times lower than natural background radiation, and that there is no evidence of childhood leukemia clusters around the 3 Ontario NPPs.

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2016-2021: Growing trust in an era of innovation driven by technology and opportunity

  • 2018 – In January, the CNSC is the first federal regulator in Canada to publish regulatory requirements for managing the fitness for duty of workers in relation to alcohol and drug use at all high-security sites, as defined in the Nuclear Security Regulations. In 2021, the requirements are updated to include the legalization of marijuana.
  • 2019 – The CNSC receives an application from Global First Power for a licence to prepare a site for a micro modular reactor on AECL property at the Chalk River Laboratories location. As the demand for small modular reactors increases, the CNSC and the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission sign a memorandum of cooperation aimed at enhancing and harmonizing technical reviews of advanced reactor and small modular reactor technologies.
  • 2019 – On August 28, the Government of Canada enacted the Impact Assessment Act (IAA). The IAA broadens the scope of assessments to include environmental, health, social and economic effects – both positive and negative – of a proposed project.
  • 2020 – On March 11, the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic. On March 15, the CNSC activates its business continuity plan. Despite the onset of the pandemic, it remains actively engaged throughout year with licensees, and continues to monitor all nuclear facilities to ensure the continued protection of the public and the environment.
  • 2020 – In May, the application for Ontario Power Generation’s Deep Geologic Repository is officially withdrawn following the results of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s community ratification vote.

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