THE DISPOSITION OF EXCESS RUSSIAN
AND U.S. WEAPONS PLUTONIUM IN CANADA
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. The Proposition
2. The Alternatives
3. International Security Benefits
4. Direct Benefits and Costs to Canada
5. Conclusions and Recommendations
The CANDU MOX initiative is a Canadian proposal to assist the Russian Federation and the United States in relieving themselves of a combined amount of up to 150 tonnes of weapons plutonium. This material has been rendered excess to the defence needs of the two countries as a result of the end of the Cold War and various nuclear arms reduction agreements.
The proposal originates with the Canadian nuclear industry. It would have Russia and the U.S. each blend some of their weapons plutonium, amounts yet to be determined, in oxide form with uranium oxide, and to send the mixed oxide (MOX) as nuclear reactor fuel to Canada. There it would be irradiated to produce electricity in CANDU reactors at the Bruce nuclear generating station on the shore of Lake Huron about 300 km north of Detroit over a period of up to 25 years, and then held in Ontario in the form of spent reactor fuel for ever.
The CANDU MOX initiative is presented as a swords-into-ploughshares venture that would first convert megatonnes of destructive potential into megawatts of socially useful electricity, and then secure the waste in Canada in perpetuity so that the plutonium remaining in it could never be used again for military purposes by the two principals, or be diverted to potential nuclear-weapons states or terrorist organizations.
The CANDU MOX initiative has the informal backing but not the firm support of the Canadian government. Ottawa is assessing the international and national value of the undertaking before it decides whether or not to commit firmly to the proposal as a means of excess weapons plutonium disposition. Since plutonium, with its immense radioactive longevity and carcinogenic quality can not be ''disposed of,'' the term ''disposition'' is used here with its connotation of moving plutonium from one place to another without ever actually getting rid of it.This study recommends that the Canadian government refuse to give the CANDU MOX initiative its support any longer, and that the proposal be consigned to oblivion.
If implemented, the initiative would impose direct and substantial security, safety, financial, and governance costs on Canadians and on Ontarians in particular. At the same time, the nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament benefits of the initiative, which are presented as its principal advantages, prove to be woefully inadequate. When implementation of the CANDU MOX initiative is not ineffective for purposes of nuclear non-proliferation, it is actually counterproductive.
As to nuclear disarmament, the initiative holds little or no promise of making the world a safer place when the Russian Federation and the United States are determined, as they are, to retain the potential to resurrect their Cold War strategic nuclear arsenals. An undertaking that would produce substantial direct costs to Canadians and would yield no offsetting benefits for international peace and security is not in the public interest.
Giving careful consideration to the interplay of political, technological, and financial considerations among the leading Western states and the Russian Federation over excess weapons plutonium disposition, this study also finds that the CANDU MOX initiative is a viable proposition when viewed solely in terms of its international negotiability. It is viable internationally mainly because Canadian-based reactor disposition offers part of the answer to Russia's lack of nuclear reactors that can be made safe for weapons MOX use.
Not only would implementation of the CANDU MOX initiative be detrimental to the Canadian interest, but the initiative could be taken up by the G-7 and Russia (now the S-8) as early as the end of 1998 , if the United States were to hold to its decision to select from among its disposition options by that time.
Were the Canadian offer to be picked up, Canadians would absorb the direct costs of CANDU MOX implementation, and would make an international contribution not so much to peace and security as to the smooth functioning of the S-8 as an institution. This would not be worth the cost.
If the CANDU MOX initiative is so inept and unfortunate as it stands, might it nevertheless be improved upon? This study concludes that when the Canadian government of the day has seen fit to give its informal backing to a poorly framed venture of the Canadian nuclear industry, there is little likelihood of Ottawa making the abrupt turnabout required to safeguard the initiative against its own inadequacies.
This study therefore recommends that the CANDU MOX initiative be rejected outright by Canadians and rejected forthwith by the Canadian government.
If the Canadian government opts to move forward with the initiative, 21 changes are proposed to reduce the damage that would be done to Canadians and Ontarians, and to strengthen the initiative's potential to make an authentic contribution to international peace and security.
The first few of these suggest that the government distance itself from the reactor preferences of the Canadian nuclear industry, do what it can for the immobilization option, and, if that cannot be fully sustained, incorporate the underlying principles of immobilization into a vigorous effort to resist the further spread of civil plutonium fuel-cycle technology.
The George Ignatieff Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies was established at University College in the University of Toronto in May 1996. Named in honour of a distinguished Canadian diplomat and, later, peace activist, the Chair supports public understanding and research on questions of international peace and security. The holder of the Chair is Franklyn Griffiths, a University of Toronto political scientist with scholarly and policy interests in Russia, arms control, and Arctic affairs.
The first act of the Chair was to arrange for a meeting between Canadian stakeholders in the proposal, announced by the Prime Minister in April 1996, to relieve the Russian Federation and the United States of some of their excess weapons plutonium. This would be done by transporting the plutonium in mixed oxide (MOX) form to Canada, irradiating it as fuel in CANDU reactors at the Bruce nuclear generating station in Ontario on the shore of Lake Huron, and then holding the waste in perpetuity in Canada.
Needless to say, there was plenty of interest in the meeting. It was held as a stakeholders' retreat, October 17-18, 1996, at the Hockley Valley Resort and Conference Centre, outside Toronto. The exchange among about 50 participants was intense, at times impassioned. Everyone present learned from it. Certainly I did. A summary account of the discussion, written by Peter Gizewski and entitled,''The CANDU MOX Initiative: Report on a Stakeholders' Debate,'' is available on request from the Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development, 125 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0G2.
The present study seeks to evaluate the CANDU MOX initiative in its major dimensions as of July 1997. Thanks are owed to Irene Koch of the Nuclear Awareness Project, and to Norm Rubin of Energy Probe, who were kind enough to critique an earlier version of this piece which was also circulated to officials. I however take full responsibility for all errors of commission and omission which may be found here.
Plutonium divides opinion. Occurring only very rarely in nature, it can be produced in large quantities when uranium is transmuted in nuclear reactors. It can then be separated from spent reactor fuel and reused for the generation of electricity, or employed to form the "pit" at the centre of a nuclear weapon.
Not only can plutonium be used for both civil and military purposes, but you can't have the one without inviting some of the other. The more widespread the commercial use of plutonium in the generation of electricity or heat, the greater the risk of some amount falling into the hands of those bent on weapons use. Conversely, the more intensive the weapons application, the better the context for civil use.
In a weapon, plutonium is capable of unleashing instant and all but unimaginable physical destruction. Disseminated into the environment as the result of a weapons detonation or failure of technology and procedures associated with civil use, it is carcinogenic in the extreme when the minutest particle is inhaled. It is also persistent in the extreme: let loose or carefully secured at a disposal site, its isotopes have half-lives averaging in the thousands of years -- actually ranging from 14 to as long as 370,000 years.
Large numbers of people in many countries are understandably horrified at the thought of increased reliance on civil, to say nothing of military, plutonium. From this standpoint, plutonium is indeed "the pits." And yet there are also those, governments included, who view this element as the most economic and environmentally responsible energy source now available when all due safeguards are put in place and maintained.
Following a variety of procedures which are referred to broadly as the closed or plutonium fuel cycle, plutonium is separated from spent uranium reactor fuel in an operation called reprocessing, and then fabricated into new fuel comprised of mixed uranium and plutonium oxides. The mixed oxide (MOX) fuel is then irradiated or burned in a reactor, the spent fuel reprocessed for recovery of plutonium, and additional uranium added to the recovered plutonium to make new MOX, which is then burned over and over again in a cycle. At each step -- irradiation, reprocessing, and renewed irradiation -- nuclear waste is produced. The closed or plutonium fuel cycle, it should be noted, is distinct from a "once-through" cycle in which fresh reactor fuel is irradiated, not reprocessed, and retained in waste form. Use of the plutonium fuel cycle is said to yield cheap and safe energy capable of greatly reducing the volume of greenhouse gasses in an era when the developed countries must lower their emissions if poorer nations are, as seems likely, to increase theirs.
Today, in Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries including Canada, the civil nuclear industry and its supporters are looking to make good on the potential of plutonium fuel-cycle technology. They are doing so in a context of mounting reserves of civil plutonium in Europe, and of steadily diminishing public and investor support for the nuclear energy option in most of the industrial economies.
Meanwhile, events marking the end of the Cold war, most notably the START I and START II nuclear disarmament agreements struck by Moscow and Washington in 1991 and 1993, have served to create large and growing stockpiles of excess weapons plutonium from the pits of retired and dismantled strategic nuclear warheads in the two countries. Until recently, Russia and the United States were thought likely to have assembled at least 50 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium each as of the year 2003, and very likely considerably more on the Russian side, as they followed through on the two START treaties and completed the dismantlement of thousands of nuclear warheads designated as no longer required for defence purposes.
Pits derived from the two countries' strategic nuclear warheads are not however directly governed by treaty. The existing START agreements, the second of which is yet to be ratified by the Russian Duma, specified sweeping destruction of launchers and downloading of warheads from launchers, but left disposition of the excess plutonium for future consideration by the parties.
Whatever the fears and hopes that currently surround reliance on plutonium as a civil energy source, awareness has grown that reliable means must be devised for the safe disposition of the Russian and U.S. weapons plutonium excess. Russia's circumstances being what they are, Western and especially U.S. financial and technical assistance are bound to figure heavily in the Russian Federation's disposition effort. Moscow and Washington are actively considering the matter, as is the G-7 group of leading industrial states following their nuclear safety and security summit meeting of April 1996 in Moscow, which included discussions with the Russian President.
There is general agreement among the G-7, and with the Russians as well in their political or "P-8" and now Summit Eight or "S-8" association with the Seven, that the problem of excess Russian and U.S. weapons plutonium must be resolved without delay. It must be resolved if the benefits of nuclear disarmament are to be "locked in," and if the particular weaknesses of the Russian custodial system are not to result in the diversion of weapons plutonium into the hands of potential nuclear-weapons states and terrorist organizations. Enter Canada.
Speaking at the 1996 Moscow summit meeting, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced that Canada was in principle willing to dispose of the Russian and U.S. excess. As subsequently elaborated, the offer was essentially this: some 100 tonnes of their surplus would be fabricated into MOX fuel at facilities in the Russian Federation and in the United States or possibly in Western Europe, and then transported to Canada where over a period of up to 25 years it would be disposed of in CANDU civil power reactors at Ontario Hydro's Bruce nuclear generating station on the shore of Lake Huron roughly 300 km north of Detroit.
In truth, there is no "disposing of" or "getting rid of" plutonium, what with its extreme toxicity and immense radioactive longevity. Nor can it be safely lifted off the planet or, as yet, transmuted into short-lived isotopes. Hence the use throughout this study of the awkward word "disposition," with its connotation of moving material from one place to another without actually disposing of it. To be precise, then, Canada's idea was and is to subject MOX fuel made from excess Russian and U.S. weapons plutonium to "once-through" reactor irradiation which would serve not only to produce electricity, but to embed the Russian and U.S. excess in radioactive waste which would be secured forever so that no one could ever get at it again.
Though Ontario Hydro would consume weapons MOX and then retain the spent fuel in perpetuity, it would enter into contracts for MOX fuel supply with Russian and U.S. agencies only if the cost were competitive with that for natural uranium fuel normally used in CANDU reactors. As to the Canadian government, it would not subsidize the supply of MOX, whose cost would have to be borne by others, and would insist that approval to proceed in Canada be governed by the full array of nuclear-physics, health, safety, and environmental assessments mandated by federal and provincial law.
The CANDU MOX initiative was framed from its beginnings as a swords-into-ploughshares contribution to international peace and security. As the Prime Minister put it in Moscow,"What is worrying is that [excess weapons plutonium] could still be used in unwanted or undesirable ways.... CANDU is the reactor that could use it in the most efficient and useful way. We should assume our responsibility."
Subsequent statements from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade presented the venture as a safe and efficient means of turning vastly destructive material to productive social and economic use.
Canada was volunteering to ensure that surplus Russian and U.S. military plutonium would never be returned to weapons use by those two states, or turned to weapons use by other states and non-state entities as a consequence of nuclear leakage from Russia in particular. Canada was offering to help convert military into civil plutonium for the benefit of all, provided that others carried all of the financial burden.
There was something odd about this. As a G-7 member, Canada might have undertaken to bear some of the shared cost of disposition unless it were making a sacrifice for the common good. But, as presented, the CANDU MOX initiative entailed no sacrifice to Canadians.
There was also an oddity in the Canadian government's stance on the proposal. Despite the Prime Minister's words of approval and significant behind-the-scenes support for the venture from federal departments, the government did not formally commit itself to the proposal. Instead, Ottawa portrayed it as a promising idea which had been brought to its attention by others and was worthy of international consideration. Canada had thus
The decision to commit or not to commit seemed likely to come after an impending federal election, and after the prospects and pitfalls of the proposal had been more clearly defined. As of July 1997, the election has been held and the Liberal government returned. The time is approaching for Canadians and the Canadian government to decide whether or not to commit formally to the CANDU MOX initiative.
- "agreed in principle,"
- "agreed to study the issues further,"
- "agrees with the need for international attention" to the matter, and
- "believes that a MOX fuel project involving CANDU reactors should be given serious consideration."
This study aims to evaluate the CANDU MOX initiative in its major dimensions.
First, I take a close look at the proposal, the proponents, and the sequence of events that could ensue until well into the next century if the initiative were to be implemented.
The discussion then moves to an assessment of the international alternatives for excess weapons plutonium disposition. From this perspective, which concerns only the negotiability of alternative international means of handling the Russian and U.S. excess, Canadian-based reactor disposition turns out to be a viable, if inevitably an iffy proposition. It is iffy, for one thing, because the Russian-U.S. relationship could be derailed for a time, and with it the continuance of nuclear disarmament. Or the Canadian initiative itself could run afoul of technical difficulties, for example the inability of CANDU reactors to live up to claims made for their capacity to consume large amounts of MOX fuel rapidly. But sooner or later, very preferably sooner, the strategic weapons plutonium problem will have to be dealt with, whatever the difficulties. CANDU MOX disposition will remain a live international option as long as it is left on the table by Canada and not ruled out by political or technical considerations.
Next, I examine the international security benefits to be had from implementation of the Canadian proposal. Likely benefits turn out to be much less than suggested on first impression of the proposal as it stands. Potential costs, which do not figure in statements made on behalf of CANDU MOX disposition, turn out to be significant. Viewed in its entirety, the initiative has far-reaching implications for Canadian approaches to international peace and security, and for internal security and governance within the country. We have a watershed decision in the making.
Finally, I offer conclusions and recommendations which turn on the question with which this study now begins: ought Canadians and the Canadian government to approve the CANDU MOX initiative as is, to amend it to take account of any deficiencies, or to withdraw the proposal altogether?
1. The Proposition
There are 20 CANDU reactors in Ontario, eight of them at the Bruce nuclear generating station with four each at the Bruce A and B sites. MOX would be burned in the Bruce B units, the first of which entered service in 1984 and the last in 1987. With allowances made for normal maintenance and repairs, the four Bruce B reactors can be said to have an operational life of roughly 40 years. They are currently scheduled for end of service in 2028. The total amount of excess weapons plutonium they might consume in MOX form is cited by proponents of the initiative as up to 100 tonnes, which would come in equal portions from Russia and the United States.
The Russian Federation is however thought to possess some 150-170 tonnes of weapons plutonium plus 30 tonnes of weapons-usable separated civil plutonium, whereas the U.S. stockpile is estimated at a little under 100 tonnes. The two governments have moreover stated that disposition "should proceed in parallel, with the goal of reductions to equal levels of military plutonium stockpiles." The United States has declared an excess of approximately 50 tonnes,[9 ] which would leave it with roughly the same amount in a retained stockpile.
Although Russian officials have indicated informally that about 50 tonnes of plutonium could be identified as being in excess of defence needs, the Russian Federation will have to find ways to reduce by up to three times that amount. This they will need to do not only to reach equal levels of retained weapons plutonium, but to satisfy the U.S. Congress, which will appropriate the lion's share of G-7 funding for Russian disposition as well as all costs of the U.S. effort.
Further uncertainties arise from the Russian-U.S. decision, made in March 1997, to postpone completion of the START II reductions from 2003 to the end of 2007, by which time an additional combined reduction of some 2,000 deployed strategic warheads would also have been made under a START III treaty which is now to be negotiated. Although Canadian-based reactor disposition could in principle begin before 2007, the full amount of plutonium pits potentially available for manufacture into CANDU MOX fuel would not be released until the end of 2007, and could add up to more than 100 tonnes.
We will return to these considerations in assessing what might come Canada's way under different variants of the CANDU MOX option. But to start with, let us take 100 tonnes available by 2003 as reference figures for a combined Russian and U.S. disposition of excess weapons plutonium in Canada.
As currently envisaged, the initiative would be implemented with one of two different procedures. Under the first, four reactors would feed on MOX containing 1.52 percent plutonium in oxide form, to consume 4.2 tonnes of weapons plutonium annually. The second, called CANFLEX by the proponents, would be carried out in two continuous phases without shutdown or loss of time. The first stage, lasting five years, would proceed as above but meld into a second phase which would see the use of MOX containing 2.70 percent weapons plutonium. Fuel would however stay in the reactors longer, and there would be no significant change in the rate of disposition, which would be roughly the same as with 1.52 percent plutonium. The difference is that fewer fuel bundles would be used, thereby permitting the plants that supplied the MOX to be smaller in size.
To simplify, again, let us hold to the procedure using four reactors on 1.52 percent weapons plutonium. Studies are said to show that few or no design or engineering modifications would be required at the Bruce site for this procedure, aside from those needed for storage and security of fresh fuel. Four Bruce reactors are thus claimed to be capable of meeting a disposition mission of up to 100 tonnes within 23 years.
CANDU reactors ordinarily irradiate natural uranium fuel in oxide form, which, when spent, is stored as waste at the location unless and until the day comes when a facility for permanent geological burial is cut deep into the Canadian Shield. Irradiation of uranium fuel in a CANDU reactor is accompanied by the conversion of some U-238 into fissile Pu-239, which itself is subject to fission and adds to the production of heat. Roughly half the energy generated by standard CANDU fuel is accounted for by the fission of plutonium. Accordingly, it is fair to say that there is nothing qualitatively new about reactor use of plutonium in Canada. It has been done for years without incident, and plutonium has long been stored in spent fuel at CANDU reactor sites without breach of security.
Though the cost of civil plutonium has rendered it uneconomic relative to natural uranium for CANDU consumption, the availability of weapons plutonium makes MOX use feasible for Ontario Hydro if the material can be supplied at a cost not greater than that presently being met for uranium. If weapons MOX were to be used, CANDU fuel bundles, which are about 100 mm in diameter and 500 mm long, would be supplemented with depleted uranium, which is generated as a byproduct of little economic value from the enrichment of uranium for light-water reactors in Russia and the United States.
1.1. Proposal and Process
The CANDU MOX initiative envisages a very lengthy sequence of political and financial as well as technical events that needs to be kept in mind from one end to the other. Surplus Russian and U.S. weapons plutonium would beThese steps would be taken by government agencies with or without participation of commercial partners in each of the two countries, and possibly with the use of available MOX fuel fabrication capacity in Europe. European interests could join the interplay either if Russian and U.S. MOX manufacture were judged unable to come on stream promptly enough, as seems likely, or if it were decided to assign to a European consortium a continuing role in the making of Russian MOX for CANDU use.
(1) purified and made into plutonium oxide,
(2) combined with depleted uranium in oxide form,
(3) manufactured into fuel pellets, and
(4) assembled into CANDU fuel bundles by the Russian and U.S. governments.
In any event, as 100 tonnes of MOX was made it would be
(5) transported to the Bruce site in shipments, by means yet to be determined, over a period of up to 25 years.
Alternatively, it might be produced as rapidly as possible, shipped to Canada to get it out of American and Russian hands, and held in large quantities at the Bruce station pending its use. On the Lake Huron shore it would be(6) securely stored, and
(7) brought to the spent fuel standard, which signifies a state that renders weapons plutonium "as unattractive and inaccessible for retrieval and weapons use as the residual plutonium in spent fuel from commercial reactors."
Finally, the spent fuel would not be returned to the countries of origin, since by reprocessing they could extract plutonium from it for weapons purposes. Rather, it would be
(8) secured at the Bruce site, and
(9) eventually subjected to permanent disposal "in the planned underground facility for permanent disposal."
All nine steps in the procedure would be governed by international safeguards as warranted by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), and by such additional verification and security measures as might be instituted by the parties. But before any of this even started to happen, the CANDU MOX initiative would have to find its way through an international political labyrinth, to say nothing of any obstacles that might be encountered in the Canadian political process.
As noted, the Russian Federation and the United States, together with other G-7, are already engaged in an assessment of various disposition options. The use of Canadian-based reactors is one of these. But others are starting to take shape, as is interest from the nuclear industry. In December 1996, the United States announced its intention to select from among three options in dealing with its own excess. These are
- reactor disposition in the U.S., in Canada (CANDU MOX), or possibly in both countries simultaneously;
- immobilization in very bulky glass or ceramic blocks, to be corrupted with contaminants of various kinds and held indefinitely in high-security installations; and
- a combination of irradiation and immobilization, referred to as the hybrid option.
Hybrid disposition is the preferred U.S. government choice as of mid-1997. It would see the Department of Energy immobilize roughly a third, or about 17 tonnes, of the declared U.S. weapons plutonium excess of some 50 tonnes. Further, Washington announced that the U.S. selection from among its stated option is to be made by late 1998, though as will be seen it could come later.
Should Canadian-based disposition be favoured, Canada could receive up to two-thirds of the U.S. surplus or roughly 33 tonnes, provided that a portion of the amount suited to reactor use did not also go to U.S. nuclear utilities. If Canada were to be offered something like this amount, Russia, for reasons of national pride, could also be inclined to dispose of less than all of a 50-tonne excess in Canada, preferring to deal with the remainder on Russian soil. These considerations point to a mission of about 66 tonnes which could be accomplished in about 16 years by four Bruce units operating on 1.52 percent weapons plutonium.
The United States, however, may wish to reserve a portion of its excess for disposition by U.S. utilities as well as Ontario Hydro in Canada. Specifically, if about 18 out of 33 tonnes were consigned to domestic reactor use in the United States, and if Russia matched the U.S. remainder of 15 tonnes, a minimum CANDU MOX disposition mission would come to about 30 tonnes. This could be accomplished in roughly seven years. While there is the potential for Russia to assign greatly more to Canada than the United States if equal levels of retained weapons plutonium are to be reached, we now have a minimum CANDU MOX mission of about 30 tonnes.
In contrast to the United States, Russia is embarked on an assessment and decision process that is both without initial time limits and quite susceptible to destabilizing domestic and international developments. The Russian Federation has still to declare how much weapons plutonium is in its possession, and to specify how much is in excess of defence purposes.
Most important, Russian influentials regard their weapons plutonium as a national treasure. They view it as a valuable national resource which cost lives to produce and which ought now to be turned to the benefit of society through the generation of electricity, no matter that its use in a closed fuel cycle would cost more than the use of uranium. Russia heavily prefers the reactor disposition option and tends to be dismissive of immobilization. As stated in a September 1996 joint Russian-U.S. intergovernmental study,
The Russian government has long planned to separate civilian plutonium from spent fuel and use it for its energy value. The Russian government views weapons plutonium disposition largely as an add-on to existing plans for civilian plutonium. The United States, by contrast, abandoned plans for plutonium separation and recycle two decades ago for both proliferation and economic reasons.
Accordingly, the Russian Federation is actively exploring the potential for cooperation on reactor-based weapons plutonium disposition with Europe, where the plutonium fuel cycle is well established. Furthermore, Moscow expects to be paid for its excess weapons plutonium if it is not to be turned to productive use in Russia but sent to Canada in fuel form. Back in 1993, Russia's Minister of Atomic Energy mentioned a price of $2.4-billion for 100 tonnes of weapons plutonium.
Whatever the role of reactors in Russia's choice -- irradiation in Russia, in Canada or, as will be seen, in Ukraine -- the United States and also other G-7 members will have to come up with big money to meet Russian financial and technical needs plus any Russian-related activity performed by governments and subcontracted industry in Europe. This they will do if disposition is to occur.
The international bargaining process that has begun is clearly not one that allows for a choice between Canada, the Russian Federation, and the United States alone if they are to decide in favour of the Canadian offer. On the contrary, the Canadian initiative is one of several alternatives being specified in a process of interdependent assessment and decision that includes Europe and Japan as well as the two surplus weapons-plutonium states and Canada and Ukraine, plus the nuclear industry and the public in each of the countries concerned.
In an effort to structure the process, the United States has announced that it will retain the CANDU MOX option for consideration in its late 1998 disposition decision only "in the event that a multilateral agreement to deploy this option is negotiated among Russia, Canada, and the United States." This is a deft and amusing move. In effect, it instructs Canada to do what it can to bring Russia to the table with the United States if Canada wants to receive any of the U.S. weapons plutonium excess.
The thought of Canada wanting weapons plutonium for reactor disposition, rather than receiving it with regret when all else had failed, is also an odd one. It should be filed away for later consideration.
To continue our survey of the labyrinth, failure to negotiate a trilateral agreement by the end of 1998 need not take CANDU MOX out of the game unless the United States were prepared to proceed unilaterally with the disposition of its own surplus. After all, the failure could stem from Russian-U.S. differences having little or nothing to do with Canada. For example, it is difficult to see how there could be sufficient confidence to carry on with the difficult next steps in the process if a trilateral agreement were not preceded by the Russian Duma's ratification of the START II agreement that is to produce a substantial portion of the weapons plutonium we are talking about. If ratification had not been achieved as of late 1998, Washington would presumably continue to negotiate with Moscow, retaining the CANDU MOX option if it seemed to offer a part of the solution in bringing Russia to a mutually agreeable means of disposition.
Alternatively, Canada itself could at some point judge that a trilateral agreement was not on, and endeavour to associate itself politically with a different international arrangement in which all had a part. The permutations of a possible agreement on disposition seen quite open-ended at this point in our discussion, as does the proportion of the Russian and U.S. surplus that might find its way to Canada if the CANDU MOX initiative were to be acted upon.
Let us simplify the picture by assuming that before the end of 1998 a trilateral deal acceptable in technical, economic, political, and international security terms is negotiated for the disposition in Canada of 30 out of a total of 100 tonnes. Though Canada could in principle begin to seek regulatory approval right away, U.S. congressional authorization and appropriations would now be required. The Russian Duma would also have to ratify the agreement before anyone was in a position to proceed in earnest.
Appropriations and ratification procedures in the two countries could be expected to take the CANDU MOX option well into 1999 and possibly 2000, a U.S. presidential election year. But then there is also a Russian presidential election expected around this time. Only around the turn of the century might a stable set of expectations start to take shape. Commercial negotiations between Ontario Hydro and the MOX fuel suppliers in Russia, the United States, and possibly Europe could therefore start around 2000 or 2001. Once possessed of a firm business proposition, Ontario Hydro would apply for regulatory approval from Canadian federal and provincial authorities who could find it necessary to hold extensive public hearings.
At some point in this sequence, let us say in the year 2001, CANDU MOX fuel fabrication facilities would start to be built outside Canada. There would be an urgent international desire to get on with this, in fact to get a head start on MOX manufacture by starting to build the required facilities as soon as a firm agreement on disposition was in hand, if not earlier by launching a MOX fuel fabrication pilot project in Russia.
But it is difficult to see how the construction or modification of plants designed specifically for purposes of CANDU MOX manufacture could be initiated elsewhere before regulatory approvals of the entire venture had first been obtained in Canada. To do otherwise would be to do serious damage to the integrity of the Canadian regulatory process by conveying to Canadians the unmistakeable impression that the environmental and related impact assessment procedure had a foregone conclusion. Similar considerations would apply to the start of reactor engineering and other modifications required at the Bruce site before MOX use could begin.
Let us assume that a year is required to gain regulatory approval in Canada. Neither engineering work at the Bruce nuclear generating station nor the construction of facilities for CANDU MOX fuel manufacture in Russia and the United States would commence much before the beginning of 2002.
Some suggest that it could take up to ten years for a U.S. MOX fuel manufacturing facility to be up and running fully for reactor supply. This figure could be reduced to seven years if existing European MOX fabrication capacity were commissioned to make fuel assemblies on an interim basis, or it could be extended to as much as 15 years if the licensing of a U.S. facility were contested in court and if it were to undergo testing and demonstration before committing to fabrication.
Somewhat similar uncertainties no doubt apply to the startup of full-scale MOX fuel manufacture in Russia, and to the making of CANDU MOX fuel in both countries. Meanwhile, MOX fuel producers in Europe are united in the view that new capacity would be required if they were to meet the combined needs of weapons plutonium disposition and anticipated commercial demand for MOX.
These many and varied considerations suggest that if the international go-ahead were given for CANDU MOX fuel fabrication in the United States, the Russian Federation, or in Europe only after the Canadian regulatory process had yielded an approval by the end of 2001, excess Russian and U.S. weapons plutonium rendered into MOX would not begin to move to Canada in volume until 2008-2011.
Proponents of the initiative are therefore excessively optimistic in stating that Canadian-based disposition would begin in earnest "a few years after the year 2000." The more realistic date is 2010, if the Canadian regulatory process is to be respected. Given a CANDU MOX disposition mission of 30-66 tonnes at 1.52 percent weapons plutonium fuel content, and no hitches at the Bruce station, the job would be done in from seven to 16 years, or at the outside by 2026 which is about when the Bruce B reactors reach the end of their expected lifetimes. 1.2. Selling Points
Even if the support of the Canadian government for the proposal were greatly increased in the months ahead, the fate of the CANDU MOX initiative will largely be determined by international forces over which Canada has no control. Some of the outcome will nevertheless depend on the skill and cohesion of the Canadian proponents, and on any innate competitive advantages the CANDU MOX solution may possess. There are some advantages.
Though the merits claimed for Canadian-based reactor disposition are neither ranked by the proponents nor compared with alternative means of disposition, we may begin with the promise of reliability in meeting the international need for a means of disposition that is effective, secure, and irreversible in all its aspects. Aside from presenting CANDUs as proven technology that can readily be adapted to MOX use without substantial reactor or operational change, the proponents offer transparent and irreversible disposition with the help of a "trusted third party" that has foresworn nuclear weapons and long striven for nuclear non-proliferation. Thus, in an implicit distinction from other possible locations for MOX disposition, the selection of Canadian reactor use would provide confidence that no plutonium would be returned to weapons use by the host nation , which in this case would also apply full-scope international safeguards against theft or diversion and insist on regulatory approvals as good as or better than could be had in other jurisdictions.
Second, there is timeliness. The concern here is with speed relative to other reactor options not only in completing, but also in commencing disposition. Whereas U.S. and European experience is with light-water and other types of reactor requiring periodic and complete shutdown for refuelling, CANDUs, it is noted, have the advantage of on-line refuelling. Early on, this would allow time savings in MOX fuel testing and qualification for early startup. Subsequently, it would speed the process and bring it to an end more rapidly than could be achieved with other reactor designs.
As well, in contrast to Europe where reactor characteristics are such as to allow only partial loading with MOX fuel, CANDU reactors are said to be capable of full-core MOX loading, thereby accelerating the rate of disposition. CANDU MOX fuel bundles being small and simply handled, they should also be easier and cheaper to fabricate, thereby easing the task of MOX fuel manufacture.
Finally, and this could raise Canadian eyebrows, there is a scheduling advantage claimed in the potential to get a head start on the construction of MOX fuel manufacturing plants by doing so "in parallel with" the licensing process in Canada which, it is implied, should proceed quickly . CANDU reactors at the Bruce generating station are thus being presented as fully tried technology that can be brought into international service with little delay or difficulty, and can then produce rapid rates of disposition once on line.
Symmetry comes next. The thought here is that the cause of disposition is favoured by an arrangement that allows the Russian Federation and the United States to act together in parallel. Disposing of a greater or lesser portion of their combined surplus in Canada would see the two engage in tandem disposition that was transparent in its assurances of what was being done, and reinforced the reality and the appearance of equality between them. As such, I would add, the CANDU MOX initiative could offer a simple focal point solution amongst an array of possibly quite complicated international disposition arrangements that promise to be difficult not only to negotiate but to carry out.
Finally, CANDU MOX can be presented as cost-efficient. Aside from repackaging some of the points already made, there would be the additional advantage of savings to Russia and the United States stemming from the fact that Canada would retain the spent fuel and not return it. Also, and now primarily for Canadian domestic consumption, spent MOX fuel is said to be roughly 15 percent less in volume than the waste produced when natural uranium is burned.
Although there is no commercial experience of CANDU reactor use with MOX fuel, joint testing and demonstration studies are under way with Russia and the United States that could make the CANDU out to be a relatively voracious and reliable consumer of excess weapons plutonium. Taken together, reliability, timeliness, symmetry, and cost-effectiveness could go some of the way in helping to put the Canadian initiative over the top, if that indeed is what Canada is to do.
Nevertheless, the proponents have their work cut out for them. As matters stand, it is not clear that they are cut out for the job.
NEXT: MOX Experience, Part 2
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