November 1999

Shipping plutonium to Canada rejected Protests persuade U.S. to destroy own waste

The Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 15, 1999
By Martin Mittelstaedt, Environment Reporter

[Posted 17/11/1999]

 Amid rising controversy, the United States has decided to abandon a scheme to export plutonium taken from U.S. nuclear weapons to Canada. Although the U.S. Department of Energy says it reserves the right to reconsider the action, it says it is no longer actively considering the use of Canadian nuclear reactors to burn the surplus plutonium. The destruction plan had been highly touted by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., the federal nuclear company, as a Canadian contribution to removing one of the lingering legacies of the Cold War.

Antinuclear advocates yesterday hailed the U.S. decision, saying the possibility now appears remote that Canada will become the final depository for much of the unneeded plutonium produced by the United States. "It's dead," Steve Shallhorn, campaign director for Greenpeace, said of the proposal to deal with the U.S. material.

However, there is still a possibility -- considered unlikely -- that plutonium from the former Soviet Union could be shipped to Canada.

But the U.S. decision calls into question the need for a test burn of about 200 grams of U.S. and Russian plutonium that AECL plans to undertake at its Chalk River laboratories in Ontario to see whether the bomb material is usable in Canadian-style Candu reactors.

The test, expected to be conducted next year, has prompted opposition from some U.S. areas, such as Michigan, that might be on the transportation routes for the material. Canadian border cities, such as Windsor, have also voiced their opposition. "You really have to wonder why the U.S. is going to send the 132 grams [for the test]," Mr. Shallhorn said.  

For the past five years, Canadian federal officials have engaged in furious lobbying of both the Russians and Americans to use Canada to dispose of their plutonium.

But the U.S. Department of Energy isn't interested in the Canadian offer, saying that more than enough reactor capacity exists in the United States to immobilize all of the 33 tonnes of plutonium it has earmarked for disposal in commercial reactors.

The U.S. Energy Department "determined that adequate reactor capacity is available in the United States to disposition that portion of the U.S. surplus plutonium suitable for MOX fuel and, therefore, while still reserving the Candu option, DOE is no longer actively pursuing it," the department said in a statement issued Friday.

MOX is the technical name for reactor fuel containing plutonium. The department further intends to encase another 17 tonnes of plutonium in a ceramic material, thereby making it hard to reuse in weapons.

All told, the United States is planning to eliminate enough plutonium to make about 5,000 bombs. The Russians have a similar amount of weapons material surplus to its security needs.

The Canadian proposal now is entirely dependent on Russian support, but one analyst said yesterday that it will proceed only if subsidies are made available to help facilitate Russian participation.

Franklyn Griffiths, a University of Toronto political scientist, said the Russian plutonium would require major funding through the Group of Seven or some other body in order to occur.

The Canadian proposal has been battling long odds almost since it was first put forward in 1994, mainly because the U.S. Department of Energy found it to be more costly than plutonium disposal at competing U.S. civilian reactors.

Prof. Griffiths said Canadian authorities "have known the U.S. wasn't interested for quite some time. This is a blow in that now the [Canadian] public knows it."

AECL and federal officials could not be reached yesterday for comment on the U.S. decision, which was released in the Department of Energy's final environmental impact statement on surplus plutonium disposition.

Under the Canadian plan, the federal government proposed that plutonium be burned at reactors owned by Ontario Power Generation Inc. However, the provincially owned utility indicated earlier this year that it wasn't interested in participating.

The U.S. Department of Energy says Canada could still take plutonium based on a bilateral agreement between Russia and Canada, a deal in which the United States wouldn't be involved.

"If Russia and Canada agree to disposition Russian surplus plutonium in Candu reactors in order to augment Russia's disposition capability, shipments of the Russian MOX fuel would take place directly between Russia and Canada," the department said.

 When plutonium is used in reactors, not all of it is destroyed. But the plutonium left over is harder to extract for nuclear weapons production because it is contained in highly dangerous radioactive fuel bundles.

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