November 1999

Ontario rejects use of surplus plutonium Document says nuclear-bomb material too costly to burn in province's reactors

The Globe and Mail (Torento), Ocober 21,1999
By Martin Mittelstaedt, Environment Reporter

[Posted 08/11/1999]

Toronto Ontario Power Generation and the province vehemently oppose the federal government's plans to burn weapon-grade plutonium from Cold War nuclear arsenals at Ontario nuclear reactors, according to a document obtained by The Globe and Mail. The document, released under the Freedom of Information Act, indicates high-level and unusually blunt opposition within Ontario Power to plutonium fuel, as well as an unwillingness on the part of the province to spend anything on the controversial proposal.

Ontario Power, one of the companies set up by the province to take over the operations of Ontario Hydro, doesn't want to burn the plutonium because it fears the plan is a "distraction", a "nuisance" and a poor business decision with the ready availability of inexpensive uranium fuel.

Despite the opposition in the province, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the federally owned nuclear company, is planning a test burn of plutonium at its Chalk River research laboratories.

But the documents are the strongest indications yet that the plutonium project has next to no support in a province whose participation in the plan would be crucial for its success.

Burning plutonium, also known as mixed oxide fuel or MOX, is a pet project of Prime Minister Jean Chretien and is backed by AECL.

The federal government says it has pursued the idea of using the plutonium as a replacement fuel for uranium as a "swords to plowshares" venture that would help world peace.

Ontario Power was supposed to make its reactors available for the plan, but the document, written in March by Warren Peabody, then the utility's chief nuclear engineer, casts extreme doubt on the company's commitment, first made in 1994, to explore using plutonium.

"My position is simple, the [Ontario Power] business unit cannot afford MOX," Mr. Peabody wrote to his boss, Carl Andognini, the utility's executive vice-president. "The ratepayers can't afford MOX. A generating company that is troubled doesn't need MOX. It's a distraction. We have plenty of CHEAP uranium. We just don't need this nuisance/political football. I think I have been clear."

Mr. Peabody, who is now a consultant to Ontario Power, also said the provincial government is not interested in the project.

The document was prepared a week before federal officials were to meet with the province and Ontario Power to discuss Ontario's policy on the project.

Another document indicates Ontario Power has no staff on the plutonium project, and hasn't done any work on it for two years.

The Globe requested all the utility's records since 1995 on the plutonium project. The company agreed to divulge about a third of its records, but is refusing to make public the rest, saying their release would prejudice the conduct of intergovernmental relations, reveal confidential information from other governments, and harm the Ontario government's financial interests.

Although AECL continues to push ahead with the project, Ontario Power has notified the federal government of its lack of interest, according to other documents.

A letter sent in April by Ontario Power president Ronald Osborne to Jean McCloskey, deputy minister of Natural Resources Canada, said the utility's board has other priorities.

He told Natural Resources, one of the lead federal departments on the plutonium project, that the "number one focus" of the utility's nuclear power division "is the recovery program for our nuclear stations."

He said any plan to burn plutonium "would clearly be predicated on two essential criteria -- safety (both public and employee) and commercial viability."

Mr. Osborne sent Ms. McCloskey a March 26 internal memo distributed to the utility's staff written by Mr. Andognini and sent to staff that said "there is no work currently being done to study this option in [Ontario Power], nor has there been any work in this area since I arrived here two years ago."

Mr. Andognini told staff that the utility's focus should be on nuclear improvement "and we must not be distracted from this."

Other documents estimated the licensing and safety work for the plutonium project would require at least 100 people working full time.

The United States and Russia have about 100 tonnes of leftover plutonium because of steps taken toward disarmament since the end of the Cold War.

The documents also reveal Ontario Power was seeking what it called a "plutonium disposition fee" for taking the nuclear bomb material from Russia and the United States.

The utility expected the U.S. to pay $10-million (U.S.) for every tonne of plutonium accepted as fuel.

For using the utility's Bruce A reactor on Lake Huron, the utility estimated it would earn an extra $40-million (Canadian) each year.

Energy of Canada Ltd.

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