Canada prepares for “plutonium imports”

Publish date: March 30, 1999

Written by: William Stoichevski

While the Canadian government puts a benevolent face on plutonium imports, Canada's reactors await better business

The Canadian parliament resonated with condemnation from opposition leaders on March 23rd in response to news that the government was preparing to import plutonium derived from American and Russian nuclear weaponry.

The Canadian broadcaster, CTV news, obtained a copy of a 1997 study commissioned by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited and the provincial electricity monopoly, Ontario Hydro, that concluded the best way to import radioactive material was by sea. Leaking the $1.5 million feasibility study sparked a heated environmental debate in Parliament and threw the government’s commitment to transparency on nuclear issues into question.

One of the recommendations made by a Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade to the House of Commons in December 1998 was that Canada not burn the plutonium and reactor fuel mixture known as MOX, in its reactors. It’s recommendation "that the Government of Canada explore additional means of … providing more information to Canadians on civilian uses of nuclear technology" now appears to have been ignored.

Reuters reported Prime Minister Jean Chretien was defensive when questioned about his decision to write Bill Clinton and suggest plutonium disposition as a possible role for Canada in Russia’s post Cold War clean up.

"I wrote a letter, and I said that if it was safe and if it was financially possible, that we would consider it (plutonium imports)," Reuters reported Chretien as saying. Chretien had said publicly in 1996 that he was for plutonium imports. In his letter of March 3 he told Clinton that Canada had yet to determine whether the expected cost and risk associated with importing, burning and storing plutonium would be too much for Canadians.

Plutonium perils
Risks include a range of maritime disaster scenarios that might release the mixed-oxide fuel, MOX, into the sea, while security measures entail preventing the material from falling into terrorist hands.

"One can expect additional risk in all stages of handling, using, and storing this fuel," Irene Kock, of the Canadian Nuclear Awareness Project, said in an interview with Bellona Web.

"Spent fuel is the intended product: the plutonium is not all consumed and new plutonium is formed … the objective is to contaminate the plutonium so it is unapproachable. The same can be achieved with nitrification using liquid high level radioactive waste imbedded with plutonium from warheads and turned into glass or ceramic."

The commercial motive
Burning plutonium in reactors, as the Canadian study envisioned, is described by the idea’s supporters as a way of reducing the worldwide supply of the strategic material, which is the main explosive in nuclear weapons. But its import into Canada is testimony to the durability of the fissile material problem, which, for Canadians, carries with it an underlying irony. The material is produced in reactors and Canada’s export of reactor technology is quite widespread.

AECL, the developer and vendor of CANDU reactor technology, would be responsible for developing the security infrastructure for imported plutonium. But much of the radioactive material at its experimental Chalk River facility – the likely destination of the first import of plutonium later this spring – are barely concealed and await safe disposal. The facility’s inability to safely dispose of low level radioactive material casts a dangerous shadow over the additional handling of newly radioactive plutonium.

"AECL is interested in proving that MOX can be used in CANDU reactors so it can tell its clients that CANDU’s have a flexible fuel cycle," Kock said.

Kock added that Ontario Hydro, whose reactors would begin burning plutonium in 2005, initially saw the concept of importing the mixed fuel as a way of financing and justifying the restart of four of its reactors, but that the utility had changed its priorities.

"They did not make a bid to the U.S. Department of Energy in 1998 to take on some MOX fuel; the whole deal depends on a three-way agreement between (the) U.S., Russia and Canada, which has not yet materialised."

A test quantity of mixed-oxide fuel containing less than a kilogram of plutonium (one or two per cent of the mixture) is expected to be shipped from Los Alamos, New Mexico to Chalk River this spring, Koch said.

Southam News confirmed the information and, on March 24, reported that a shipment of Russian plutonium would arrive later this year for testing "as part of Canada’s contribution to nuclear disarmament."

"The U.S. alone has a 50-tonne stockpile that it must eliminate under conditions of a Russian-American arms-control agreement."