J u l y    1 9 9 7

Part 2

Franklyn Griffiths

George Ignatieff Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies
University College, University of Toronto
15 King's College Circle
Toronto, Ontario M5S 3H7

tel (416) 978-7417 fax (416) 971-2027

. . . back to Table of Contents

1.3. Proponents

The CANDU MOX team is divided into designated "proponents" and others who may be termed good officers. The proponents are not the government of Canada and its ministries, but Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), Ontario Hydroelectric Corporation Limited (Ontario Hydro), and Zircatec Precision Industries Ltd. AECL is the lead agency in the "assessment" stage of the CANDU MOX option. Ontario Hydro would lead in the implementation of any international agreement that took the option up.[35] The federal government -- specifically the Prime Minister, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), and Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN) -- and also the government of Ontario, have chosen to cast themselves in the role of providing good offices for the proponents' initiative, to which they have agreed in principle owing to the potential benefits for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. A Canadian international proposal framed as a swords-into-ploughshares contribution to peace is thus being driven more by industry than by government.

The privatization of foreign policy could be an idea whose time has come. Be this as it may, DFAIT and NRCAN are working quietly to make the most of the Canadian offer internationally. DFAIT, however, has tasked only three persons to the job and they have other responsibilities as well. Meanwhile, at a more basic level, the nuclear industry may be driving the initiative with the warm regard of the Prime Minister and the Premier of Ontario, but the federal government has interests of its own which serve to create space between it and the proponents. Not only is Ottawa to be spared any cost in the implementation of the initiative, but the proponents or their commercial partners are to cover the expense of all regulatory and licensing assessments of the health, safety, and environmental effects in Canada.[36] This may be small potatoes, but the fact is that the government of Canada cannot be wholly at one with the proponents if it is to meet its responsibility to "ensure the initiative's safety and security."[37] Before long, however, Ottawa will have to hold public hearings on the venture if it is to move ahead with the larger public interest clearly in mind.

As to the Government of Ontario, it is barely evident in the interplay. As of October 1996, I could find no one in the Premier's Office who had the issue on their radar screen. The same was true as of early July 1997. Such Ontario business as is being done with federal departments and the proponents on the initiative is being handled by the Environment and Energy Ministry. DFAIT is nevertheless able to report that Ontario "supports the possible contribution to world disarmament using Canadian technology and agrees to continue partnership with the federal government to the next phase of feasibility studies."[38] The thought of a government of Ontario making a contribution to world disarmament is as original as it is laudable. It may also be said to require further study and assimilation by Ontario policy-makers and the Ontario public, particularly when it comes to the establishment of a long-term relationship with the Russian Federation as a MOX fuel supplier to Ontario Hydro and the province's consumers of electricity.

Turning to the proponents, we find Zircatec nowhere to be seen, AECL doing most of the running, and Ontario Hydro distracted by endemic deficiencies in its nuclear operations. Zircatec Precision Industries Ltd is located in Port Hope, Ontario, where it operates the largest CANDU fuel fabrication facility anywhere and also makes fuel and reactor components.[39]

AECL was set up in 1952 as a commercial Crown Corporation with a degree of autonomy from the government of Canada. Reporting to Parliament through the Minister of Natural Resources, it conducts research and development operations, and sells and builds CANDU power stations nationally and internationally. Where the CANDU MOX option is concerned, AECL is currently conducting fuel test studies with Russian and U.S. agencies.[40] More to the point, it has led a consortium of firms including British Nuclear Fuels plc and Bechtel National Inc. as well as Ontario Hydro and Zircatec in lobbying the U.S. Department of Energy on behalf of the CANDU MOX option. Though the United States eventually chose itself to own any MOX fuel fabrication facility built in the U.S., the "Team CANDU" consortium led by AECL also sought the privatization and ownership of an unutilized U.S. government MOX fuel manufacturing plant to produce not only CANDU MOX but also MOX for American pressurized- and light-water reactors.[41] AECL may therefore be taken to have a declared interest not only in Canadian-based CANDU MOX reactor burnup, but in MOX fuel fabrication elsewhere.

In South Korea, AECL is also promoting the development of a closed fuel cycle which would allow the use of spent reactor fuel, without reprocessing, in CANDU reactors there.[42] Recently, in an arrangement that would see AECL and Ontario Hydro continue in a joint operator's role, the federal government sold AECL's Whiteshell laboratory in Manitoba to a consortium led by the U.S. subsidiary of British Nuclear Fuels.[43] The Whiteshell lab has specialized in research and development on geological burial of nuclear waste in the Canadian Shield. Commercial interest and indeed the remarks of an AECL vice-president on national television hint at downstream potential for the construction of an international nuclear waste disposal site in Canada.[44] Meanwhile, together with Ontario Hydro, AECL runs the Canadian Fuel Fusion Technology Project which is the Canadian participant in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) effort to achieve controlled hydrogen fusion as an electricity source. AECL and Ontario Hydro aim to locate an ITER power plant at the site of the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station,[45] although the Darlington station may now be the front-runner.

With Ontario Hydro in tow, AECL is therefore interested in exploring a full range of technologies from standard CANDU, through MOX fuel fabrication abroad and on to CANDU weapons MOX disposition plus closed fuel-cycle development in South Korea and hydrogen fusion at the Bruce site, and out to geological disposal of nuclear waste at what could one day become an international repository in Canada. All of this is being ventured on what may be termed a commercial basis with public subsidy.

AECL has created economic activity in Canada and business elsewhere since its formation in 1952, but this has been done at a cumulative cost to the taxpayer that runs to some $15-billion in 1997 dollars, some would say much more.[46] Relative to advanced light-water reactors, CANDU technology has not been competitive except in the Canadian and now the industrializing Third World market where it will sell "only through political influence and financial subsidies that are directly absorbed on the account of some federal agency or program."[47 ] As for Ontario Hydro, the less heard about it, the better it would be for the CANDU MOX initiative.

Ontario Hydro is among the world's larger nuclear utilities and owns 20 CANDU reactors of which the operative units account for more than 60 percent of Ontario's electricity supply.[48] A provincial crown corporation, it reports to the provincial Legislature through the Minister of Environment and Energy. Deeply troubled, this is the entity that would enter into lengthy contracts for MOX fuel supply when today its operating plants are running at 70 percent of capacity owing to declining electricity demand, extensive outages, inadequate safety, and poor management.[49] Its current plan is moreover to reduce the proportion of electricity produced by nuclear generation to 11 percent by 2030.[50] Having written off $3.6-billion of its equity in 1993, a further $2.5-billion was added in 1996, which brought Ontario Hydro's estimated equity down to less than $3-billion. Given a debt of $32-billion, and saying nothing of monies yet to be spent on permanent nuclear waste disposal, the utility's debt-equity ratio is currently estimated at 90 percent[.51] To turn things around, it has been necessary for Ontario Hydro to bring in a team of U.S. nuclear utility managers, an act described by Hydro's president as both "a humbling experience" and "a wake-up call."[52 ] It happens that one of the team has significant experience in commercial planning for weapons plutonium disposition.[53]

Where the Bruce nuclear station is concerned, one of the four A unit reactors has been closed down because of insufficient electricity demand, and another is out of commission owing to a lead blanket having been left in a boiler by a worker when it was being repaired. A further reactor in the A unit has been mothballed in a decision not to renew its tubing (replacement of pressure tubes containing fuel bundles) so as to allow it to operate past 2000.[54] Whereas Bruce A was initially proposed as the site for CANDU MOX use, DFAIT now refers generically to the Bruce nuclear generating station as the proposed location, meaning Bruce B reactors in effect. These reactors themselves all require retubing some 25-30 years after startup, by around 2015, which would add to the expense as well as the time required for implementation of the CANDU MOX initiative. The report of unexpected corrosion of pipes carrying radioactive heavy water from heating elements to the boilers in CANDU reactors of a type operating in Argentina, South Korea, and Romania[55] could, if confirmed, take away further from the cost-effectiveness claim made by proponents of the CANDU MOX option.

Putting all of this together, a U.S. Government that is in earnest about reliability and safety in the disposition of excess weapons plutonium will surely look twice before turning to AECL's CANDU and to Ontario Hydro. Similarly, while the Russian Federation may be less driven by efficiency and safety requirements than is the U.S., Canadians are bound to ask how much safer and more economical it would be to irradiate Russian and U.S. weapons plutonium in Ontario, as opposed to consigning it to immobilization in glass or ceramics in the countries of origin, or even subjecting it to irradiation there despite real dangers of diversion and theft in Russia in particular.

Having only just begun to assess the CANDU MOX initiative and its implications, I come away with misgivings. Some might already say it's a disaster in the making, and go no further. Others may regard the discussion thus far as biased against the initiative. But I hold to misgivings at this point. However it is done, the disposition of excess weapons plutonium is an undertaking of vast and indeed historic proportions. We are contemplating an extended sequence of extremely complex, time-consuming, and expensive steps which, if done right, will help to rid the world of some nuclear weapons, and to prevent some who are now without them from gaining possession of them. This is surely a cause worth considering. And yet, implementation of the CANDU MOX initiative would not likely begin until around 2010 and, depending on the mission, could carry on into the 'twenties of the next century or beyond. Through to the end of the next decade, CANDU MOX disposition would in itself do little to address the challenges of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament beyond giving confidence that something would be done in due course. After about 2010, Canada would begin to draw down a portion of the combined Russian and U.S. excess, which would continue to sit there in diminishing quantity. All the while, a nuclear weapon can be made with less than 10 kg of diverted or seized plutonium. The nuclear non-proliferation case for CANDU MOX disposition seems to be leaky. If anything, we appear to be contemplating a worthy Canadian contribution to nuclear disarmament which would be achieved over many years, with great difficulty, and no doubt some cost to Canadians. But even here, as will be seen, there is less benefit in the CANDU MOX initiative than meets the eye.

On the matter of cost, the Canadian government's press line stresses the potential international security benefits of the CANDU MOX initiative, and says nothing about cost except to refuse to share the burden of finance. If the CANDU MOX initiative offers an effective international solution to the problem of disposition, and if there are no costs to Canadians, why isn't Canada "assuming its responsibility" and offering to pay a share? The answer is surely that there are costs to Canadians in the initiative, and that the government and the proponents prefer not to advertise them. Further, if the costs to Canadians are significant, and if the Russian Federation and the United States were to retain some of their excess weapons plutonium for domestic disposition and ship only a portion of the total to Canada for burnup, we would have to ask whether the international benefits and the costs to Canadians make it worth Canada's while to do only part of the job. Similarly, if Russia and the United States were able to deal with a portion of their excess strategic plutonium themselves, why shouldn't they be asked by Canadians to deal with it all? My misgiving on this point is that accepting only a modest portion of the excess may not be worth it, depending on how the cost to Canadians shapes up -- a discussion for later in this study. On the other hand, if the CANDU MOX initiative were somehow to assist the Russian Federation to the disproportionate disposition required to bring Russia and the United States to retained weapons plutonium parity -- a tall order and one that flies in the face of the proponents' symmetry claim -- Canadians could prove willing to accept costs.

Beyond this, a concern has surfaced here over the origins, technical-economic base, and political leadership of the CANDU MOX option. The option is too heavily marked by the nuclear industry to breed confidence that it is in the wider public interest. The industry itself is in bad shape, and yet would have to be relied upon at least until the second decade of the coming century. Although CANDU technology is unimpressive by world standards, it could be suited to the untried task of weapons plutonium disposition if allowance were made for the outages[56] and repairs customary in CANDU and Ontario Hydro operations. But then we have the incoherence of an international security venture being led by an industry with an agenda of its own. The whole effort fails to impress. It does not seem up to the opportunities that have been claimed for it. Nor may it be equal to the risks that have already been accepted in placing a Canadian-based disposition option on the table. Risks and opportunities alike start to come into focus when we turn to a consideration of the alternatives for international disposition of the Russian and U.S. weapons plutonium excess.

2. The Alternatives

Stripped to its essentials, the choice among alternative means of disposition comes down to the grotesque question of who pays for what done where and when by whom. Even if all the key players had clearly specified preferences on all these matters, which they do not, there is far more in this statement of the problem than can be handled here. Let me therefore consider the alternatives in terms of how the principal players' technological capabilities and political and industrial preferences might bear on the process of devising a solution. We are referring to new technology here, new in the sense of being untested and unproven for Canada, Russia, and the United States, although not for Europe.

In devising a means of disposition, the parties, Canada included, will prefer to spread the risk and not rely heavily on any one technology which could prove problematic. If they succeed in this, Canadian-based disposition could figure as a minor contribution to a larger and possibly quite complex arrangement in which a variety of technical capabilities were brought to bear in constructing a generally acceptable solution. In this scenario, the inevitable political as well as technological hitches would be worked out in a more or less continuous process of negotiation that produced broad multilateral agreement. The Canadian government would accept whatever it was offered, perhaps only 30 tonnes or so of the Russian and U.S. excess. Alternatively, preferences could be such that a widely held agreement began to elude the principals. They could therefore consider assigning a larger share of the solution to Canadian-based reactor disposition. Whereas Canada could have expected to figure as a supporting actor in the elaboration of a broad multilateral agreement, it could now be invited to take on more prominent role. It could also find that its capacity to set conditions on its participation had increased. As of mid-1997, the modest part seems the more likely. Nevertheless, to allow for surprise, I will endeavour to specify a number of options for Canadian participation in what follows.

Setting aside failure to act, we can identify four main international outcomes and therefore alternatives for disposition. They are largely keyed to the Russian side of things, which is where the larger part of the difficulty lies.

The first alternative may be referred to as Immobilization-Only. It would see the excess weapons plutonium of the Russian Federation and the United States vitrified or sealed in ceramic form, and then held permanently in each country.

Next is the S-8 Hybrid solution. Here the United States would rely on a combination of domestic irradiation and immobilization, while the Russian excess would be very largely or wholly given over to reactor disposition in Russia with U.S. and substantial European assistance, and with or without U.S. participation in the immobilization of a small portion. As will be seen, there is some scope for the use of Canadian-based reactors here.

Third, the CANDU MOX option could figure more prominently in a Trilateral Hybrid outcome. Smaller Canadian contributions to disposition under a Trilateral agreement could themselves form part of an S-8 Hybrid outcome or, given an impasse in the S-8 negotiation, a larger Canadian role could be secured in a stand-alone Trilateral solution. Under this kind of arrangement, the Russian Federation and the United States would each select as they saw fit from among (1) domestic immobilization of a portion of their excess, and (2) asymmetrical CANDU MOX disposition of the entire remainder with Russia consigning more to Canada than the United States, or symmetrical reactor disposition to Canada with Russia relying on Europe in disposing of the remaining amount required to reach retained weapons plutonium parity with the United States.

There is no great prospect for a fourth possible outcome, Bilateral Hybrid disposition, in which Russia and the United States would deal with their weapons plutonium excess without resorting to the assistance of other parties. Aside from the likely need to rely on Europe for MOX fuel fabrication, Russian-U.S. differences are too great and the task of reactor disposition in Russia is too large for the United States to handle alone. Indeed, much the same -- no great prospect -- may currently be said of the Immobilization-Only solution. It is considered here largely, but not wholly, as a way of broaching certain questions of principle in the disposition of weapons plutonium.

No less than ten options come to light when these four basic alternatives are assessed in terms of the reference disposition mission of 100 tonnes, and of a 150-tonne mission required to reach equal levels of retained weapons plutonium. The options are laid out in Table 1. In discussing Immobilization-Only to begin with, I will lay in some technical and contextual detail that should shorten consideration of the S-8 and Trilateral Hybrid options, which is where the action lies. Of all the options, it is cell 4 in Table 1 which may best represent the aspirations of the parties. If they are unable to converge on agreement here, their interaction could move in the direction of a free-standing Trilateral Hybrid accommodation.

TABLE 1. International Options for Excess Weapons Plutonium Disposition


100 ta
150 tb

50 t US to immob in US

50 t RF to immob in RF


50 t US to immob in US

100 t RF to immob in RF

S-8 Hybrid

17 t US to immob in US

33 t US to reactor in US,
or in US or Canada

<50 t RF to reactor in RF,
or in RF and Ukrainec


17 t US to immob in US

33 t US to reactor in US,
or in US and Canada

<100 t RF to reactor in RF,
or in RF and Canada or Ukrainec

Trilateral Hybrid

a) Symmetrical CANDU


17 t US to immob in US

18 t US to reactor in US

15 t US to CANDU

15 t RF to CANDU

<35 t RF to reactor in RF


17 t US to immob in US

18 t US to reactor in US

15 t US to CANDU

15 t RF to CANDU

<85 t RF to reactor in RF,
or in RF and Ukrainec

b) Asymmetrical CANDU

17 t US to immob in US

18 t US to reactor in US

15 t US to CANDU

<50 t RF to CANDU


17 t US to immob in US

18 t US to reactor in US

15 t US to CANDU

<100 t RF to CANDUc

Bilateral Hybridd

17 t US to immob in US

33 t US to reactor in US

<50 t RF to reactor in RF


17 t US to immob in US

33 t US to reactor in US

<100 t RF to reactor in RF

    a Reference amount for current Russian-U.S. assessment.

    b Amount required to bring RF and US to equal levels of retained weapons plutonium. Calculation, estimated amounts: US WPu stockpile 100 t, RF 150 t; US to reduce by 50 t, of which 17 t is deemed unsuited to reactor use, to 50 t retained WPu; RF to reduce by 100 t, of which some 45 t may be unsuited to reactor use without purification, to 50 t retained WPu; combined reduction approximately 150 t. Source for estimate of RF WPu unsuited to reactor use without purification, Cochran, "Progress in U.S./Russian Transparency," fn 8. This source is fully cited in note 7 of the present study.

    c The Russian preference is to purify, not immobilize, all but a small volume of WPu scraps, residue, and irradiated fuel, for reactor use. Joint Study, CS-1, which is fully cited in note 8 of the present study. There would however be an amount left over for immobilization.

    d Amounts are similar for the S-8 and Bilateral Hybrid options. Aside from the exclusion of third parties from reactor use and MOX fuel manufacture, the principal difference is that the United States alone would meet the financial requirements of Russian disposition.


2.1. Immobilization-Only

Attitudes toward immobilization are inseparable from attitudes toward the spread of plutonium fuel-cycle technology. For twenty years, the United States has lived with a ban of its own on the burning of MOX fuel, and on the reprocessing of plutonium from spent U.S. civil reactor waste. This self-denying ordinance was enacted by the Carter Administration in 1977 in an effort to check the spread of nuclear weapons by checking the ever greater availability of plutonium for weapons purposes that would come with global spread of reliance on plutonium as a civil energy source. In my view, continued opposition to the spread of the plutonium fuel cycle is of critical importance in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. The United States has been on the side of the angels here. It follows that civil reactor disposition of excess Russian and U.S. strategic weapons plutonium is not the best way to go if nuclear non-proliferation is to be held high as a priority for international security into the next century. Immobilization, however, is entirely consistent with the maintenance of barriers to ever more widespread reliance on variants of the closed fuel cycle.

To be sure, immobilization would leave weapons plutonium in weapons-grade form (not degraded by irradiation), making it relatively accessible to recovery for military purposes. It therefore represents a less than perfect solution from the standpoint of nuclear disarmament. But there are no perfect solutions in these matters. In the event of reactor disposition separately in each country, plutonium would still be available for recovery from spent fuel, aside from also being very much more in circulation than would be the case under an immobilization regime. And even with CANDU MOX disposition in the land of a "trusted third party," the nature of the Canadian-American relationship is such that Moscow would have to expect Ottawa to grant Washington access to Russian as well as U.S. spent MOX fuel if the United States were to turn to Canada in extremis. Nor is a perfect solution any easier to find when we shift the emphasis from nuclear disarmament to non-proliferation. There are already some 1,200 tonnes of civil plutonium in the world[57] and, as indicated, it can take only a few kilograms to make a nuclear weapon. Immobilizing or for that matter irradiating up to 150 tonnes of weapons plutonium is not going to take us far in reducing the global threat of nuclear proliferation unless we subscribe strongly to the singular danger posed by leakage from the Russian custodial system. But it will take us some distance in strengthening the international nuclear non-proliferation regime against criticism that nuclear-weapons states are failing in their obligation to disarm. In the circumstances, there is no choice but to try to do one's best. Immobilization is undoubtedly the best disposition alternative for purposes of disarmament and non-proliferation alike. It is also estimated by proponents to be more than 30 percent cheaper to implement than reactor disposition, and to require substantially less time both to begin and to bring to completion.[58]

Most everything done by the United States for nuclear non-proliferation and against the spread of plutonium-based civil nuclear technology over the past two decades is consistent with a choice for immobilization as the preferred disposition option today. But while U.S. capabilities to make and consume civil MOX fuel as they existed in 1977 were not subsequently developed, neither were they dismantled. The United States currently lacks a commercial capacity for plutonium reprocessing and MOX fuel manufacture, but it retains the potential to acquire one. As to U.S. nuclear utilities, they are saddled with a combined debt of some $70-billion (Ontario Hydro's debt alone being in the order of $30-billion Canadian), and are faced with large new losses as deregulation gives consumers new choices.[59] Still, some of the 110 U.S. light-water reactors using enriched uranium are now ready or could be converted to burn MOX fuel for weapons-disposition purposes.[60] Were the U.S. government to relax its opposition to plutonium fuel-cycle technology, elements of the nuclear industry could seize the opportunity to enter the cycle at midstream with advanced technology funded from the government's obligation to ensure disposition of the U.S. weapons plutonium excess.

Now, in declaring reactor use to be a principal option for disposition, the Clinton Administration has opened to door to a fundamental reappraisal of U.S. preferences in the matter of nuclear non-proliferation. New perspectives and new interests have evidently been brought to bear. Indeed, in announcing the framework for selection of U.S. disposition options, the Department of Energy indicated there was significant commercial interest in the use of weapons MOX in U.S. reactors.[61] Chief among the U.S. proponents is Commonwealth Edison (Chicago), the largest nuclear utility in the country, and Duke Power, the second largest.[62] British Nuclear Fuels, Cogema (France), and Belgonucleaire are said to be lobbying actively for reactor use.[63] Arrayed against reactor use and for immobilization in the public debate that may come are arms controllers including elements of the federal bureaucracy, health advocates, environmental and nuclear-watchdog non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Among the NGOs are Greenpeace International, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, the Military Production Network, the Nuclear Control Institute, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Public Citizen, the Safe Energy Communication Council, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.[64] The stakes in the debate are high.

As of today, the Administration still holds broadly to the established view on plutonium fuel-cycle issues. As stated in the December 1996 announcement of U.S. disposition options,

Pursuant to this decision, the United States policy not to encourage the civil use of plutonium and, accordingly, not to itself engage in plutonium reprocessing for either nuclear-power or nuclear explosive purposes, does not change. Although under this decision some plutonium may ultimately be burned in existing reactors, extensive measures will be pursued... to ensure that federal support for this unique disposition mission does not encourage other civil uses of plutonium or plutonium reprocessing.[65]

Still, for the United States -- the lead state in the international system -- to opt even in hedged and qualified form for MOX reactor burnup already begins to move the world more rapidly down the slope to heavier reliance on the fuel cycle and to the dangers that await there.

Whereas the United States has until now sought to maintain a divide between military and civil plutonium use, in Russia the two have long been fused in the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom). Responsible for all aspects of nuclear weapons and civil nuclear energy production, Minatom is today faced with vastly more than the need to dispose of the Russian Federation's excess weapons plutonium. It must also achieve the conversion of a military-dominated, dual-purpose, and state-run industry into one dedicated very largely to civil purposes. Minatom is also burdened with a dependent population of over a million employees and their families, a decomposing nuclear weapons production and custodial capacity of enormous proportions, and a critical lack of capital for conversion and custody alike.[66] But beyond all this there lies Russia's determination to make the transition to plutonium-based civil nuclear technology, first employing MOX in existing light-water reactors and then moving to faster reactors based on more advanced designs.[67] Minatom further seeks to develop new reprocessing as well as MOX fuel fabrication capability. At present, however, Russia reprocesses only some 2.5 tonnes of civil plutonium annually, in part for foreign clients.[68] It also uses MOX only for experimental purposes at the Chelyabinsk-65 (Ozersk) and Kransoyarsk-26 (Zheleznogorsk) sites, these being only partially completed MOX fuel plants for breeder and pressurized-water reactors whose construction was cancelled in 1991 owing to lack of funds.[69]

The Russian Federation is therefore on a collision course with the United States over the plutonium fuel cycle. It stands at the threshold of a transformation in its civil nuclear affairs. If pursued, the transition will take many years to complete and will provide major business opportunities for those prepared to assist. Where the particular problem of excess weapons plutonium is concerned, reactor use and not immobilization is Russia's first choice. Though it is not totally out of the question for the United States to purchase Moscow's assent to an Immobilization-Only solution (Table 1, cells 1 and 2), it would require not only a vast outlay of funds but acceptance of Russian application of these funds to the acquisition of plutonium fuel-cycle technology from Europe.

Consistent with the principles that underlie the Immobilization-Only option, the United States recently offered to finance and assist in the construction of a MOX fuel plant in Russia, provided that it was employed exclusively for the disposition of surplus weapons plutonium and not for civil MOX fuel production as well.[70] This condition the Russians refused to accept. Now the United States is seeking Russian assent to the proposition that facilities built with Western assistance for weapons plutonium disposition would not be used for civil fuel fabrication and power generation until disposition was complete. At that time, final decisions would be taken on whether the spent fuel "should go directly to geologic disposal, as the U.S. prefers; or should eventually be reprocessed to recover separated plutonium, the current preference for Russia."[71] While it is conceivable that Russian attitudes toward immobilization could change if the G-7 were united in support of the U.S. view, other members of the G-7 have ideas of their own on Russia's transition to closed-cycle technology.

Whereas economic and non-proliferation considerations have moved the United States against the plutonium fuel cycle, MOX use is well established in Europe and in Japan. Roughly 24 tonnes of plutonium is separated annually in Europe from spent fuel of German, Japanese, and in lesser measure other origin (Belgium, France, Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom).[72] This is done at reprocessing plants in France (by Cogema, at La Hague), and the United Kingdom (by British Nuclear Fuels, at Sellafield).[73] What with the travails of the Siemens MOX fuel fabrication facility at Hanau in Germany, Belgium (Belgonucleaire at Desel) in conjunction with Siemens became for a while the European leader in making MOX for light-water, pressurized-water, and breeder reactors in Belgium, France, Germany, and Switzerland.[74] Significant capacity for MOX fuel manufacture is now held by France (the MELOX plant at Marcoule, and also at Caradache), and is planned in Britain (at Sellafield) with possible Siemens participation.[75] Spent fuel, reprocessed plutonium, and MOX fuel are also transported freely by road, ship, and air within Europe, and between Europe and Japan without exceptional security precautions or incidents save for repeated protests over Japanese shipments and the recent turmoil over rail transport of high-level vitrified waste and spent fuel to Gorleben in Germany.[76] Consistent with wider processes of European unification, the overall pattern is of one of increasing transnationalization of the European nuclear industry.

Though the use of plutonium is inevitably controversial, Europe has to be called uninhibited when it comes to the plutonium fuel cycle. For Russia, today's Europe offers not only technology and know-how, but an alternative to reliance on the United States both in the disposition of its weapons plutonium and in the development of its civil nuclear industry. To Europe, Russia's nuclear need offers a major market at a time when the civil use of plutonium is lagging relative to its accumulation. Seimens has thus been active in promoting a German role in the construction of a Russian MOX fuel fabrication plant for disposition of the Russian weapons plutonium surplus.[77] British Nuclear Fuels, with Belgonucleaire, has also offered MOX fuel fabrication assistance to Russia.[78] Now, France and Germany are actively discussing a proposal with Russia to build a pilot plant at Ozersk capable of producing 1.3 tonnes of weapons plutonium MOX annually, beginning in 2001 or not long thereafter. As opposed to the U.S. offer that was turned down, France and Germany are interested in providing a facility that is not constrained to manufacture weapons MOX alone. Key European G-7 members are thus working counter to the immobilization option, for reactor disposition in Russia, and for a role in Russia's plutonium fuel-cycle development.

In view of the Russian, French, and German interest in closed-cycle technology, it has to be said that in mid-1997 the outlook is dim for G-7 agreement on Immobilization-Only as the preferred international means of disposition. Where then does Canada stand?

The answer is that in its support for Canadian-based reactor disposition, the government of Canada is lending its good offices to the forces arrayed against immobilization and plutonium fuel-cycle restraint. Indeed, the Canadian government all but favours the civil use of plutonium and sees no nuclear proliferation problem here that cannot be contained. The policy is stated as follows:

Canada's nuclear non-proliferation position does not preclude the possibility of engaging in the commercial use of plutonium provided that effective technical, institutional and safeguard measures are in place to address proliferation risks. Canadian CANDU operators have taken commercial decisions not to use plutonium fuel cycles mainly because of the cost advantage of natural uranium fuels.[79]

The effect of this position is to foreclose official discussion of immobilization, even as an initial preference after which the CANDU MOX alternative might follow as a fall-back option. It is to obviate the thought of Canada doing whatever it might to underwrite the Immobilization-Only option in the U.S. public debate. On the contrary, it is consistent with the view that the United States is now solidly committed to a "two-track" policy of reactor use and immobilization,[80] when the U.S. debate has yet to be joined. The Canadian government position is furthermore to rely on international safeguards against proliferation, when safeguard requirements themselves would be radically reduced under conditions of immobilization relative to those attending the proliferation of civil plutonium use. Above all, the effect of the government view is to support preferences for reactor disposition in Russia, Europe, and within the United States. And how else might it be when Ottawa gives its qualified support to an initiative of the Canadian nuclear industry without first screening the proposition for its wider public interest?

In my view, Immobilization-Only should be Canada's first preference for disposition unless and until it can be shown that it is definitely not workable internationally. Having pre-emptively chosen to favour what is an inferior position in terms of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, the Canadian government ought now to reconsider its attachment to reactor use. Canadians, for their part, ought to seek a review of the commitment. Nor should the outcome of a review be seen as a foregone conclusion on behalf of immobilization. Depending on events, especially the course of U.S. debate over the next year and more, Canadians could well find that resistance to the spread of civil plutonium use is so heavily breached as to deny Immobilization-Only as a viable option. If so, they would need to ask whether the CANDU MOX option might be modified to make it more consistent with the underlying premises of immobilization. But before getting to this question, the value of an intervening alternative would have to be weighed.

NEXT: MOX Experience, Part 3

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