July 1999


Canada facing opposition in plan to burn plutonium

Boston Globe, Ottawa, 12 July 1999
By Colin Nickerson

[Posted 23/07/1999]

It seemed a high-minded if impetuous offer, the sort of sweeping international gesture for which Canada has become famous.

At a 1996 disarmament summit in Moscow, Canada's prime minister, Jean Chretien, volunteered his country's nuclear reactors for the task of turning "nuclear swords into plowshares" by destroying plutonium from Russian and American nuclear missiles. But as the country prepares for its first "test burn" of weapons-grade plutonium, as early as this month, the government is facing intense opposition, not only from environmentalists but also from peace activists, mainstream politicians, transportation officials, small-town mayors, and even a national association of firefighters.

"Why is Canada risking its own environment?" demanded Alexa McDonough, who represents a Nova Scotia district in Canada's Parliament. "Why should Canada be cleaning up the nuclear mess made by Americans and Russians?"

At best, scoffers say, Canada's scheme to transform warheads into electricity is a symbolic exercise that will barely dent nuclear weapons stockpiles, but might very well turn Canada into a target for terrorists or agents of renegade regimes seeking to steal plutonium to make their own nuclear devices.

At worst, harsher critics say, the proposal represents a cynical ploy by Ottawa to rejuvenate Canada's ailing nuclear power industry by using weapons plutonium as fuel, thereby justifying the continued existence of trouble-prone reactors, most of them in Ontario, that are facing possible closure. The uproar is surprising given that Canadians are usually quick to rally around efforts to make the world a safer place, and take real pride in their country's reputation as a superpower in the push for peace. It was Canada that created the concept of United Nations peacekeeping forces, and that more recently led the crusade for an international ban on land mines.

Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who is thought to have been the "almost" contender for the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize because of his leadership in the land mine effort, has sought to make pursuit of peace the defining goal of Canada's foreign policy.

But Axworthy's own image is taking a drubbing on the plutonium issue, as many Canadians are deeply suspicious of a government plan still veiled in secrecy. Part of the suspicion is grounded in the fact that the proposal is also championed by the country's nuclear power industry. Axworthy insists that Canada is determined to test the feasibility of using weapons plutonium as nuclear fuel in an experimental burn at the Chalk River reactor in Ontario, as early as this month. He said Canada is going ahead, at least with the test phase, because it wants "to be a prime leader in nuclear disarmament." He argues that Canada has a moral duty to do whatever it can to help rid the world of nuclear weapons.

It is irrelevant, he says, that the plutonium is a product of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, a race Canada resolutely refused to join despite its close military alliance with Washington.

"We live in a dangerous nuclear world, and we all share responsibility," Axworthy said. "We have to be very careful that nuclear materials do not end up in the wrong hands, that they don't get proliferated. One way ... is to burn them."

But opponents say the government in Ottawa is less interested in promoting world peace than in propping up Canada's tottering nuclear industry, which is already heavily subsidized.

In recent years, a third of Canada's 21 reactors have been shuttered because of concerns over safety, cost overruns, or spectacular mismanagement, including technicians drunk on the job. For Ontario Hydro - North America's largest utility and operator of all but two of Canada's nuclear-powered power plants - and the federally owned corporation Atomic Energy Canada Ltd., the plutonium-to-fuel plan might prove a godsend.

Some nuclear scientists believe that so-called mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel bundles, made from weapons plutonium and uranium oxide, will make an ideal fuel for Canada's unique Candu reactors, which the country vigorously seeks to sell abroad.

Aside from producing power, the public relations spinoff could be enormous, with a much-maligned industry suddenly able to boast of converting weapons of doom into electricity for the baby-room night lights, coffee machines, and personal computers of peace-loving Canadians.

That prospect, almost as much as the practical issues of using warheads for fuel, has opponents of the nuclear power industry in a dither.

"This is a red herring concocted by Canada's nuclear mafia," said Steve Shallhorn, the Canadian campaign director for Greenpeace.

"This is about protecting the nuclear industry, not containing risks posed by surplus plutonium." Greenpeace is joined by opponents that include some disarmament specialists as well as professional firefighters and alarmed citizens along potential routes that the plutonium will travel to reach Ontario's reactors.

Bill Robinson, program associate at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Waterloo, Ontario, said: "This is going down the wrong path. This is not a serious step toward nuclear disarmament."

Sean McManus, Canadian director for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said: "We fear for the public safety in the event of an accident involving plutonium."

Mike Bradley, mayor of Sarnia, Ontario, on the Michigan border along the most likely trucking route of the plutonium for this summer's test burn, said: "Why is Canada taking on this risk? Didn't the US and Russia create these huge stockpiles? Now they want other countries to clean the mess." The plan has divided disarmament experts and peace activists, and has its proponents.

"People want a perfect solution, but this is not a perfect world," said Tariq Rauf, an arms control specialist at California's Monterey Institute.

"The criticisms are valid, the concerns are real, but at the end of the day we still have warheads. Sanity dictates we should make them less dangerous," Rauf said. "For all the controversy, this is still a workable plan for turning nuclear warheads into a material that could not so easily be converted to weapons. Canada's plan would reduce the risk of nuclear war in a real way."

Plutonium, a manmade element produced from uranium, is tricky stuff. Radiation from plutonium can be safely blocked by thin barriers; even a paper shield is sufficient for small amounts. But a microscopic speck, if inhaled, is not only sufficient but almost certain to cause cancer - making it a nightmare in the event of a bad accident, although special protective transport canisters have been designed to withstand major crashes.

But the true horror of the stuff is that just a few pounds is sufficient to make a powerful nuclear device, even without extensive atomic facilities. Indeed, the greatest risk of transporting plutonium according to most experts, is that it might be seized by terrorists. For security reasons, no date has been announced for the Chalk River test burn. But it is expected to occur in the next few months, after the first batch of plutonium arrives overland from the United States nuclear weapons facility in Los Alamos, N.M. The initial test at Chalk River will involve minuscule amounts of plutonium, just 300 grams encapsulated in mixed-oxide fuel.

Canada's long-range vision, however, is to use 100 tons of weapons plutonium, 50 each from the United States and Russia, over 20 years as fuel for Ontario Hydro's Bruce Nuclear Power Station, near Port Elgin on Lake Huron. The Chalk River research reactor lies 90 miles northwest of Ottawa. The plutonium would be converted into mixed oxide fuel bundles in the United States and Russia before shipment to Canada.

Critics complain that even after burning in nuclear reactors, MOX fuel still contains a form of plutonium that might be retrieved and converted back to weapons grade, although with great difficulty. Under treaties, the United States and Russia are to dismantle 40,000 warheads over the next several years, and dispose of tons of plutonium. The weapons material that might be burned in Canadian reactors would come from existing stockpiles.

The Canadian proposal has generated little controversy in the United States, even though the plutonium fuel bundle shipments would have to be trucked through a number of American states.

The first samples of fuel will come from New Mexico, but long-range plans call for a fuel fabrication plant in South Carolina to mix surplus plutonium with depleted uranium oxides.

The Russian plutonium would come from the Bochvar nuclear laboratories near Moscow, and probably would travel to Canada in cargo ships, entering the country through Halifax or Montreal.

If the test burn is successful, Canada has pledged to hold hearings and conduct rigorous environmental and safety reviews.

No final decision will be made until calculation is made on environment, safety, transportation, and the availability of a user reactor, Axworthy said.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/12/99.

Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company

Back to contents