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Plutonium hot potato to Canada

US may ship fuel rods beginning Dec. 2. Activists oppose Ottawa's hope

To its defenders, the Parallex project - an experiment to dispose of plutonium from Russian and American warheads - is a "swords into plowshares" initiative in the noblest peacemaking traditions of Canadian foreign policy.

As early as Thursday, the first small sample of weapons-grade plutonium is allowed to leave Michigan for the Chalk River research reactor in Ontario for a three-year "test burn."

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This test could open the door for Canadian commercial nuclear power plants to be running, within about 10 years, off excess military plutonium.

But to critics, the attempt risks bringing Canada into the dangerous plutonium trade and turning the country into a dumping ground for the world's nuclear waste. And the prospect of even the test shipments has caused alarm.

"What I find most perplexing is that our government is promoting this as a nonproliferation measure," says Kristin Ostling, national director for the Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout in Ottawa. She calls the project "about the worst thing Canada can do to promote nonproliferation."

Environmentalists, citizens' groups, the police and firefighters' associations, and others have protested the shipment. The Mohawk Indians have threatened to block the route.

Disposal problem

At the heart of the controversy is disagreement over how best to deal with excess weapons-grade plutonium. The US can easily dispose of its own inventory in commercial reactors, but will ship its sample to Chalk River to help keep the Canadian option open for Russia. Russia, meanwhile, with its limited reactor capacity, could take 25 years to dispose of its excess on its own.

No date has been made public for the shipment of the US sample, but it could occur as early as Dec. 2. The Russian shipment is seen as likely to occur in the spring.

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The Canadian scenario involves mixing the plutonium with natural uranium into so-called mixed-oxide fuel pellets, or MOX. These pellets are a sort of higher-octane nuclear fuel than natural uranium, which Candu reactors, designed and marketed by the Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), of Mississauga, Ont., normally run on. Hence the need for the Chalk River test.

But opponents of the MOX project argue that a better solution is vitrification, encasing the plutonium in a sort of glass log, or keeping it buried under military guard.

Critics of that option counter that vitrified plutonium can be made back into nuclear weapons, unlike plutonium put into MOX pellets. "Vitrification does not destroy plutonium," AECL spokesman Larry Shewchuk says.

He adds, "There is no risk to the public in the transport of this material," which will travel in 45-gallon drums, by truck and by freight container. It will be so solidly packaged that "no accident scenario" is credible.

"The worst thing you can do with plutonium is make it part of international commerce," says Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. Any time nuclear materials travel from one point to another, particularly internationally, there is opportunity for what is delicately known as "diversion."

Why is Ottawa persisting with a project so unpopular with at least a very vocal part of the public?

Prime Minister Jean Chrtien is widely seen as a prime cheerleader for the Canadian nuclear industry. Even on tour in earthquake-ravaged Turkey recently, he continued to talk up the AECL's bid to build a reactor there, insisting it would be "perfectly safe."

Moreover, critics say AECL sees the Parallex project as an opportunity to demonstrate the capacity of CANDU reactors to run on other fuels, a marketing plus.

Who would profit

Mr. Shewchuk, of the AECL, dismisses this argument. "What makes them attractive is that they run on natural uranium, which is a cheap source of fuel - in line with coal." Nor is there much money in all this for AECL, he adds. "It would be the utilities" that would benefit from any large-scale MOX imports.

The US is expected to chip in a few billion dollars up front to help with the cost of handling Russian plutonium. "But in the long haul, the Russians and the G-7 [the group of seven major industrialized nations] will have to work it out," says Franklyn Griffiths, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. "The US won't pay for everything." But the Russians are insisting on a full market price for this "national treasure."

"If you really want to contain nuclear proliferation, you should do something to strengthen Russia's materials-controlling capacity," Professor Griffiths says. This means such basics as "better perimeter fences" at nuclear sites, "locks on doors, things like that."

Meanwhile, Canada's own security standards have been called into question. Tom Clements of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington has released a statement criticizing lax security procedures he observed while touring the Chalk River site. "It would be easy ... to carry a weapon or explosive device onto the ... site."

"I don't know anyone in their right mind who would be against destroying nuclear weapons," says Shewchuk. He says that after holding open houses along the transport routes to inform the public about the Parallex project, "9 out of 10 of the people who walked up to us afterward said, 'I think this is important research.... Keep going.... We support you.' "

He adds that the scientist preparing the Russian test sample in Moscow is one who earlier in his career helped develop the nuclear arsenal of what was then the USSR. "His entire research life has come full circle."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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