August 2000

Ottawa 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

[Posted 19/08/1999]

Toronto -- 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The records were obtained by The Globe under a federal Access to Information request.

Despite 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.

Any successful effort by Canada to use plutonium as fuel is dependent on reaching a multilateral agreement with the United States and Russia.

That may be unlikely, however, because of the assessment that using Candus for U.S. weapons is not cost-competitive.

The 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, 1996.

The 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."

The 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.

The 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.

It 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.

Despite the poor outlook for the Canadian disposal option, the government was at the time and continues today to be firmly committed to advancing the program.

At 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.

The 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.

AECL 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 Huron.

Although 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.

"The 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.

Mr. Andognini's letter indicated that Ontario Hydro remained open to the plutonium option, but stressed it must have "a sound business case".

No surplus Cold War plutonium has yet been destroyed under the efforts by United States and Russia to dispose of their old weapons.

The 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.

The 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.

Nonetheless, 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 Affairs.

Indeed, 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.

And 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".

The 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.

One document, a draft of a 1996 communications strategy called "media lines", suggests the plutonium plan should be presented as helping world peace.

"Canada 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.

Antinuclear activists responded to release of the federal documents by accusing Ottawa of duplicity.

If 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.

"That 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.

"The agenda that I think underlies all of this is to keep AECL in the plutonium-fuel arena", she said.

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