Canadian activists are fighting Ottawa's plans to bring 50 tons of weapons grade plutonium into Canada from the United States -- and another 50 tons from Russia -- over a period of 25 years.
The scheme is intended to give Canada's beleaguered nuclear industry a boost by using the plutonium as mixed-oxide ("MOX") fuel in the electricity-generating reactors of Ontario, while making the plutonium less usable for bombs. Proponents of the plan portray it as a "swords into ploughshares" initiative. Opponents say otherwise.
The U.S.-Canada MOX plan calls for an initial shipment of up to 600 grams of plutonium from the U.S. nuclear research complex at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to a research reactor at Chalk River, Ontario, where a test of MOX fuel's viability for use in Canada's "CANDU"-style reactors will be conducted.
The shipment was scheduled for late last year, then moved to March or April of this year, but it has now been rescheduled for August or September. A flood of Canadian protests last fall to the U.S. Department of Energy had an effect: the U.S. Justice Department ordered DOE to analyze potential "transboundary effects" in case of a transportation accident. This caused a considerable delay. (The DOE had previously identified a credible accident scenario that would release plutonium to the environment in a form that can be inhaled -- the most dangerous type of plutonium exposure.)
Now Canadian groups are asking help from their American counterparts to stop this "MOX initiative" dead in its tracks. Authorities on both sides of the border are very skittish about public opposition; an outcry on both sides of the border late this summer and this fall could very well deliver the death blow to the entire plan.
U.S. nuclear plants are also considering use of MOX fuel. According to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, "The Department of Energy has obtained expression of interest at one time or another from 18 utilities offering 38 reactors for burning plutonium as MOX. Not all are currently interested, but the situation is fluid."
The plutonium problem
In a nutshell, plutonium is a problem because only a few kilograms are needed to make a powerful nuclear weapon. A well-equipped group can make a nuclear weapon if they can get the required plutonium. For this reason, handling, transporting, and storing plutonium all pose great security risks. Not having access to plutonium, Iraq has tried to build a nuclear weapons capability through the much more difficult process of producing highly enriched uranium from scratch.
- Plutonium is dangerous when inhaled, but it does not give off penetrating radiation; this means it can be stolen, hidden, and smuggled across borders with relative ease, either in a pure form or as MOX fuel. Encouraging traffic and commerce in plutonium greatly increases the chance of it falling into criminal hands.
- The CANDU-style fuel "bundles," each about the size of a fireplace log, are particularly easy to steal.
- Proponents argue that using plutonium in reactors will eliminate the need for its long-term secure storage. This is untrue. The plutonium remaining in the used fuel can be as much as two-thirds the original amount. The used fuel is a mixture of plutonium, uranium, and fiercely radioactive fission products that provide a formidable radiological barrier, making the plutonium harder to steal or to extract for use in bombs. However, the intense radioactivity of the fission products wears off after a century or two, while the plutonium remains essentially unchanged for thousands of years. Thus the radiological barrier is only a temporary one, and the long-term "secure storage" problem is not resolved.
- The same radiological barrier to theft and conversion can be provided more quickly and cheaply by mixing plutonium with fission products directly in a liquid solution. The resulting mixture can be "glassified" -- cast into radioactive glass logs weighing two tonnes each -- all within a tight security net and with very little transportation or handling of weapons-usable plutonium. After the radioactivity of the fission products wears off, the glass logs can be remelted and additional fission products added as needed. This same remedial action cannot be taken with used fuel.
- If Canada or the United States starts using plutonium-based MOX fuel in civilian reactors, a dangerous precedent will be set, in effect legitimizing the use of plutonium as the nuclear fuel of the future. Other countries are only too eager to push ahead with their own plutonium fuel programs, and they will use our example as justification: Japan, France, India, Russia, Germany, and England already anticipate using plutonium-based MOX fuel on a large scale. If they have their way, world commerce in plutonium will become commonplace. This will not eliminate plutonium, but institutionalize it; the associated problems would thus be perpetuated. This is clearly the wrong way to go.
Other MOX Problems
The immobilization option -- mixing plutonium with highly radioactive fission products and making it difficult to handle by casting it in two-ton glass logs -- achieves all of the necessary objectives in dealing with weapons plutonium and avoids most of the problems associated with the MOX initiative. There is really no reason, aside from nuclear industry self-interest, to use MOX plutonium fuel.
- The Canadian MOX initiative will require that Ontario's nuclear reactors be operated for another 25 years at least. Already eight of these reactors have been shut down because of excessive corrosion and routine disregard of good safety practices on the part of both managers and workers. We should not foreclose the option of shutting down the remaining reactors, if necessary.
- All MOX production technologies generate dust that raises concern for worker safety due to plutonium inhalation.
- Producing MOX fuel from plutonium extracted from warheads is difficult and dangerous, because of the extreme toxicity of plutonium. It has only been done on a laboratory scale. To do it on an industrial scale presents a number of technological, security, safety and environmental challenges and will require the construction of a new factory somewhere or completion of a partially built factory in Hanford, Washington.
- MOX fuel costs much more than traditional uranium fuel to produce, an estimated US $500 million for the fifty tonnes that could eventually be shipped to Canada from the United States. An even greater expense could be the modifications that may be necessary for the recipient reactors.
- While not technologically exotic, substitution of MOX for traditional fuels can cause a number of reactor safety problems. For an industry already wracked by such problems on an ongoing basis, this a significant concern. Here are some examples:
- "The rate of fission of plutonium tends to increase with temperature. This can adversely affect reactor control and require compensating measures. The problem is greater with MOX made with weapons-grade plutonium than that made with reactor-grade plutonium."
- "Neutrons in reactors using plutonium fuel have a higher average energy than those in reactors using uranium fuel. This increases radiation damage to reactor parts."
- "Plutonium captures neutrons with a higher probability than uranium. As a result, a greater amount of neutron absorbers are required to control the reactor."
- "The higher proportion of plutonium in the fuel would increase the release of plutonium and other transuranic elements to the environment in case of a severe accident . . . "
From Energy and Security (no. 3, 1997), published by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, www.ieer.org, (301) 270-5500.
- The potential for a spontaneous fission reaction involving MOX fuel necessitates special transportation equipment and onsite storage containers, as well as unprecedented security measures.
Plutonium is named after Pluto, the God of Hell. People on both sides of the US/Canada border will be raising hell in the next few weeks or months in various ways.
Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., President,
Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility,
cp 236, Station Snowdon, Montreal, QC, H3X 3T4 Canada.
The CCNR is an enthusiastic supporter of the
Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout (CNP),
412-1 Nicholas St, Ottawa, ON, K1N 7B7, Canada.
Kristen Ostling, CNP coordinator: (613) 789 3634
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