viewed plutonium plan as doomed to fail: PM's 'swords-into-plowshares"pet project seen as not economical as early as 1996
The Globe and Mail, August5,1999
By Martin Mittelstaedt
-- A high-profile Canadian "swords-into-plowshares" offer to burn surplus
Cold War plutonium at Ontario nuclear reactors was viewed within the
federal government as doomed to failure as early as 1996, according
to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.
controversial plan has been a pet project of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien
and one of Canada's most significant international policy initiatives
in the 1990s, but the documents suggest it is not economically feasible.
records also indicate that federal officials developed what they called
a "media line" for convincing the public that the plutonium plan would
be an altruistic service that Canada could provide for world peace.
Meanwhile, senior federal officials were privately focused on the commercial
aspects of winning the project.
records were obtained by The Globe under a federal Access to
the financial concerns, the government has pushed ahead with the plutonium
plan, and preparations are now under way for a test burn of Russian
and U.S. material at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the federal company
that promotes Canadian nuclear technology.
successful effort by Canada to use plutonium as fuel is dependent on
reaching a multilateral agreement with the United States and Russia.
may be unlikely, however, because of the assessment that using Candus
for U.S. weapons is not cost-competitive.
doubts about the commercial viability of the plan to fuel Candu reactors
with plutonium were contained in a confidential cable that staff at
the Canadian embassy in Washington sent to superiors in Ottawa in November,
cable, which appears to be heavily censored, concluded "there are reasons
to expect that Candu will not be selected as the preferred alternative
for a program to dispose of only U.S. plutonium." The record was approved
by Brian Morrisey, then a diplomat at the embassy and now director-general
of the economic-policy bureau of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
It indicated a mood of near-despair among Canadian bureaucrats that
a program Mr. Chrétien frequently touted, purportedly for disarmament
reasons, was unlikely to succeed. "What can we do?" the cable asked.
"If we are correct in assessing that [the U.S. Department of Energy]
is leaning to other options, we are at a loss, in view of the estimated
difference in cost, to suggest arguments that would convince DOE that
Candu should be its preferred alternative."
problem for the Canadian proposal, according to the cable, was that
there was "a wide cost differential" between using Candu reactors, and
using cheaper methods of dealing with the plutonium -- such as burning
it at U.S. power reactors or encasing it in glass.
portion of the cable outlining the actual cost disadvantage was deleted
from the records obtained by The Globe. But estimates provided
in other parts of the documents indicate the Candu option was about
50 per cent more expensive than burning the plutonium in U.S. reactors.
appears the document was written after embassy staff were tipped off
about the poor prognosis for the Candu option by a member of the U.S.
Department of Energy staff.
the poor outlook for the Canadian disposal option, the government was
at the time and continues today to be firmly committed to advancing
almost the same time in 1996 that the embassy officials were playing
down the chances of getting the plutonium, the government -- through
the Canadian International Development Agency -- funded a $1.65-million
study carried out by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., to assess using Russian
bomb material as reactor fuel.
documents also indicate that the government has been developing since
at least 1996 the media strategy for explaining the test burn currently
being planned by AECL at its Chalk River laboratory.
developed a partnership in 1994 with Ontario Hydro to seek a contract
to burn the plutonium at the utility's Bruce A atomic plant on Lake
Ontario Hydro was an enthusiastic initial backer of the proposal, another
record held by the Privy Council Office in Ottawa indicates that Ontario
Hydro has been getting cold feet.
initiative to dispose of U.S. and Russian excess weapons plutonium is
a long-term international program which faces diplomatic, logistical
and financial challenges", Carl Andognini, Ontario Hydro's chief nuclear
officer, wrote to the federal government in October, 1997.
Andognini's letter indicated that Ontario Hydro remained open to the
plutonium option, but stressed it must have "a sound business case".
surplus Cold War plutonium has yet been destroyed under the efforts
by United States and Russia to dispose of their old weapons.
two countries have agreed to reduce their arsenals of nuclear bombs
by nearly 75 per cent. It is expected that approximately 40,000 warheads
will have been dismantled by 2003 and each country will have more than
50 tonnes of surplus weapons-grade plutonium.
Globe received more than 800 pages of records under the federal
right-to-know law, but the government censored dozens of them, asserting
that release might, among other things, undermine Canada's conduct of
international affairs, jeopardize national defence, undermine Canadian
weapons-development programs, undermine federal-provincial affairs,
reveal advice to the government, and disclose cabinet information.
the records indicate that top civil servants closely tied to Mr. Chrétien
have been intimately involved in tracking the controversial plutonium
plan, which is officially being directed by Natural Resources
Canada and Foreign
the Privy Council Office seems to be kept abreast of all aspects of
the plan, from the content of government media plans to correspondence
by ministers about it.
Mr. Chrétien is personally notified about important developments
on the plutonium front, according to at least two of the records. In
one document, the contents of which were almost completely censored,
a hand-written message instructs staff that when plutonium for the Chalk
River test run is sent to Canada, "the PM will need a heads up note".
records also show the Privy Council Office closely tracked media accounts
about the leaking to the press earlier this year of a letter from Mr.
Chrétien to U.S. President Bill Clinton on the plutonium plan.
document, a draft of a 1996 communications strategy called "media lines",
suggests the plutonium plan should be presented as helping world peace.
has always stood for the elimination of nuclear weapons and in this
regard is discussing with the Russians and United States governments
ways in which Canada could assist the process", it said.
activists responded to release of the federal documents by accusing
Ottawa of duplicity.
Canada's real reason for wanting to burn the plutonium has been an altruistic
desire for disarmament, they say, it shouldn't matter if the Russians
and Americans choose the most cost-effective disposal procedure and
ignore the Candu option.
is what really suggests to us that there is a hidden agenda on the part
of the federal government", said Irene Kock, a spokeswoman for Nuclear
Awareness Project, an Ontario group opposed to plutonium use.
agenda that I think underlies all of this is to keep AECL in the plutonium-fuel
arena", she said.