November 1999

Canada obliged to report nuclear stash: U.S. expert - Size of plutonium stockpile should not be secret

The Toronto Globe and Mail (Torento), November 23, 1999
By Martin Mittelstaedt, Environment Reporter

[Posted 25/11/1999]

Toronto -- Canada should reveal the size of its plutonium stockpile, says a prominent U.S. nuclear non-proliferation expert who estimates that this country may have enough fissile material to make five nuclear weapons.

Tom Clements, head of the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute, said Canada has conducted extensive studies on the use of plutonium in nuclear reactors and has sent spent reactor fuel that contains plutonium abroad for processing, but that it provides fewer details on these activities than other major countries.

Mr. Clements said Canada could have about 40 kilograms of plutonium. He based that estimate on the amount of spent fuel shipped out of the country and said the location and ownership of the plutonium remaining is not known.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, said eight kilograms of plutonium separated, or removed, from spent fuel is a critical amount for bomb-making purposes.

"To have separated plutonium means you're a de facto nuclear-weapons state," Mr. Clements said. "The mere possession of separated plutonium has nuclear weapons implications with it."

Canada's stocks of material that could be made into nuclear weapons have come under scrutiny after a revelation earlier this month in the British House of Commons that spent Canadian reactor fuel has been sent to England for reprocessing.

Little is known about the size of Canada's stockpile of fissile material because it is kept secret under security regulations.

Other plutonium holders -- including the United States, Russia, Britain, France and Switzerland -- have agreed to comply with the international agency's extensive disclosure and security guidelines on plutonium, but Canada has not.

 "I don't see how Canada can claim leadership in disarmament and non-proliferation when they won't even declare their own plutonium stocks," Mr. Clements said in an interview.

"Most people think Canada doesn't have any plutonium," he said, adding that this view is not correct.

 Sunni Locatelli, spokeswoman at the Atomic Energy Control Board, the federal nuclear watchdog, said she can't reveal how much fissile material Canada has because of regulations designed to foil potential adversaries. "We aren't able to give out that information under our security regulations," she said.

Ms. Locatelli said Canada believes it shouldn't come under the IAEA guidelines because it doesn't operate its own reprocessing facilities.

Mr. Clements called the Canadian position a "lame excuse" for not reporting. Switzerland, Belgium and Germany report this information, even though they do not operate such facilities. He said openness about stocks of fissile material leads to better monitoring.

There are an estimated 1,350 tonnes of plutonium in the world, enough for about 170,000 warheads.

More than 80 per cent of the plutonium was created as an unwanted byproduct in civilian nuclear power plants. Canada has the world's third-largest holding of power-plant plutonium, 97 tonnes, according to figures compiled by the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. The United States, with 304 tonnes, holds the most, followed by Japan, with 120 tonnes.

Reactor plutonium isn't a big worry for nuclear-proliferation purposes because it is contained in spent fuel, where it is protected from terrorists or rogue governments by deadly radiation. But when it is reprocessed, spent nuclear fuel yields fissile plutonium.

 Earlier this month, a written answer to a question raised in the British Commons indicated Canada has a long-term contract with British Nuclear Fuels PLC for reprocessing spent reactor fuel.

"BNFL concluded a contract to reprocess a quantity of Canadian spent fuel in 1970 and that fuel covered by this contract has been delivered to Sellafield," the site of the country's reprocessing facility, said Helen Liddell, Britain's minister for energy and competitiveness.

Ontario Power Generation said it isn't involved.

 Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. won't disclose its stocks of fissile material, citing nuclear-safety regulations. Canada's use of plutonium is under further scrutiny because of the federal government's aggressive push to have surplus Russian and U.S. stocks of the Cold War bomb material used in Ontario nuclear reactors as fuel.

AECL researchers told an international symposium in Vienna earlier this year that the company has created about 3,500 individual fuel elements, weighing nearly 2,300 kilograms, that contain some plutonium. The IAEA plutonium guidelines require special precautions, including reliable systems to protect against unauthorized use for amounts of more than eight kilograms.

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