Canadian Coalition
for Nuclear

Regroupement pour
la surveillance
du nucléaire

Plutonium, anyone?

By Gordon Edwards

reprinted from the Spring 1995 issue of
The Ploughshares Monitor
published by Project Ploughshares

In the post-Cold War era, nuclear arsenals are being taken apart, piece by piece, but the problem remains -- what to do with the pieces themselves? As Gordon Edwards explains, plutonium, the primary explosive in most nuclear bombs, loses very little of its deadly potential after it has been taken out of nuclear hardware. He argues that Canada must sponsor a wide-ranging debate on how to handle this extremely toxic substance, and that we should not permit our publicly-owned and tax-subsidized nuclear industry to jostle for position in a "plutonium economy."

AECL's Current Proposition

Large numbers of nuclear warheads are now being dismantled in the United States and in Russia, and Canada is toying with the idea of importing fifty or more tons of the leftover plutonium to fuel Ontario Hydro's Bruce reactors. At least, that's the proposition Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) has presented to the US Department of Energy.

As yet, there has been no substantial public discussion or political debate in Canada. However, plutonium is far too deadly a substance, and a "plutonium economy," as it is known, far too nightmarish a prospect for the government to proceed with the project merely on the advice of AECL.

The AECL proposal, if implemented, would not reduce the threat of theft or diversion of plutonium for military use; it will in fact exacerbate the problem. Further, the AECL proposal does not reflect a desire to rid the world of plutonium, once and for all; rather, it represents an attractive opportunity for AECL to get into the plutonium business itself in a big way, and lead the world ever closer to a plutonium economy.

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The Dangers of Plutonium

Plutonium is a man-made element. It is an inevitable byproduct of any nuclear reactor fueled with uranium. During operation, some of the uranium atoms are transmuted into plutonium atoms.

Once separated chemically from the rest of the irradiated fuel, plutonium is a powerful nuclear explosive. In 1945 it devastated Nagasaki. Since then, it has become the backbone of the world's nuclear arsenals. Plutonium is the primary explosive in nuclear warheads and in most other nuclear weapons. Even the largest, most destructive bombs depend upon a plutonium "trigger" -- a miniature Nagasaki-type bomb -- to raise the temperature to 50 million degrees to ignite the nuclear fusion reaction, the main force of the bomb.

Thus, an essential aspect of dismantling nuclear warheads is removing the primary nuclear explosive, plutonium. Once the plutonium triggers are gone, these weapons of mass destruction are useless, as they can no longer be detonated. They are transformed into high-tech junk. May they rust in peace.

But: what to do with the leftover plutonium? As long as it's still available, nuclear warheads can be re-assembled or smaller, Nagasaki-like, atomic bombs can be constructed.

A significant danger is the risk of plutonium being acquired (stolen or bought) by a well-equipped terrorist group, criminal organization, or national government with militaristic ambitions. Any such organization can fabricate an atomic bomb, using a grapefruit-sized piece of plutonium, without undue difficulty or expense.

This glass ball represents the amount of plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb.
Photo by Robert Del Tredici

Once plutonium becomes an article of commerce, it will be impossible to keep it out of the hands of terrorists or criminals. What dangerous or valuable commodity have we ever prevented from being stolen? Money? Gold? Diamonds? Heroin?

In such a "plutonium economy", privacy and human rights would have to be violated on a large scale. Thousands of ordinary workers would have to have their lives scrutinized to try to prevent plutonium theft: what are their political views? who are their friends? are they vulnerable to blackmail?

As Sir Brian Flowers, a well-known British nuclear physicist, wrote in 1976 in the UK Royal Commission Report entitled "Nuclear Power and the Environment,"

The unquantifiable effects of security measures that might become necessary in a plutonium economy should be a major consideration in decisions on substantial nuclear developments. Security issues require wide public debate.

There are other reasons to fear a widespread plutonium economy, for plutonium is deadly in more ways than one. A person who inhales just a few milligrams of plutonium -- a barely visible speck -- will die in a matter of months due to massive fibrosis of the lungs as delicate lung tissues, bombarded by alpha radiation, develop scar tissue , choking off oxygen to the blood. Death follows from a kind of internal asphyxiation.

A person inhaling a few micrograms of plutonium -- one one-thousandth of the amount described in the previous paragraph -- is likely to develop a fatal lung cancer 10 or 20 years after exposure, as some of the cells damaged by alpha radiation begin to multiply uncontrollably. In beagles forced to inhale comparable amounts of plutonium, the incidence of lung cancer was 100 per cent.

Plutonium metal is extremely combustible -- and is subject to spontaneous combustion. The most expensive fire in US history was a plutonium fire that spontaneously broke out in 1958 at Rocky Flats, where plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons are made. Over 90 per cent of the tiny aerosol particles of plutonium produced by such fires are of respirable size -- ideal for entering the lungs and lodging there.

Even without an atomic bomb, a desperate group could kill many thousands using a plutonium incendiary device.

In view of plutonium's deadly properties, it is understandable that some peace activists are inclined to favour AECL's proposal to burn weapons-grade plutonium in CANDU nuclear reactors. At first sight, it seems a rather clever way of getting rid of the stuff for good.

Would that it were so.

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Canada and the Plutonium Economy

Most nuclear proponents, including those in AECL, have a long-standing love affair with plutonium. They see it as the fuel of the future. They do not favour the irretrievable burial of irradiated nuclear fuel, because it contains "valuable plutonium." Eventually, they would like to recycle plutonium, blending it with uranium to make a "mixed oxide" fuel called MOX -- and, incidentally, producing more plutonium in the process.

The Western European nuclear weapons states, Britain and France, are in the business of separating plutonium from irradiated fuel as a service for other countries. Japan, for example, has sent irradiated fuel to France for reprocessing and then had the separated plutonium returned for use as a nuclear fuel. For this Japan needed Canada's permission, because the uranium fuel from which the plutonium was produced came from Canada in the first place. Canada requires its nuclear "clients" to obtain Canadian consent before separating, transporting, or using plutonium from nuclear fuel of Canadian origin.

By condoning the international transport of plutonium, it appears that Canada, rather than wanting to get rid of plutonium, just wants a piece of the action.

In the absence of any meaningful public debate on nuclear policies in Canada, the nuclear industry has grown used to writing its own ticket. That's why Jean Chrétien, like previous Prime Ministers, is acting like a CANDU sales agent. And that's why Finance Minister Paul Martin, like his predecessors, refuses to eliminate or even trim subsidies to the nuclear industry. The government of Canada generally does what it is "advised" to do by AECL et al.

But not always. In 1977, top AECL executives urged senior civil servants in Ottawa to go forward with plutonium, offering the following rationale:

"The separation and use of plutonium is a long-range job requiring careful planning and research. . . . We are already late in starting to bring this new energy source on stream in the critical last decade of this century."
Ross Campbell, AECL Chairperson

"Authorities all over the world are proceeding with understandable caution in the face of the bad name undeservedly attached to plutonium. . . . But plutonium is an extremely useful material and we will be dealing in it."

John Foster, AECL President

Ottawa did not then follow AECL'S advice, because the Carter Administration had just launched an international campaign to halt commercial plutonium reprocessing all over the world, to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities.

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Fallacies in the AECL proposal

Twenty years ago AECL spokespersons publicly scorned the Carter initiative as quixotic, but failed to nudge Canada toward a plutonium economy. Now the tables have turned. Because of the huge amounts of surplus plutonium now available, AECL now sees an opportunity to do what it has long dreamed of doing -- using plutonium as a fuel in CANDU reactors. This time, the agency is attempting to sway the federal government by presenting the deed as a public service to all of humanity: helping to rid the world of surplus plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons.

Yet, this proposition is faulty for a number of reasons.

  1. Using plutonium as a nuclear fuel does not eradicate it. Some plutonium remains in the irradiated fuel -- and more is created during the operation of the reactor. In all, only one-half to two-thirds of the total original amount is eliminated.

    True, the plutonium in irradiated fuel is less accessible for weapons use because it is mixed with highly radioactive fission products, also produced during the reactor's operation. But it is entirely possible to achieve the same effect (mixing plutonium with fission products) without running it through a reactor, while maintaining a much higher degree of security.

  2. Using plutonium as a reactor fuel sets a very dangerous precedent; if Canada can do it, why can't everyone else? Canada's support for burning plutonium, added to its de facto support of the international transport of plutonium, would send a dangerous signal to the rest of the world, by appearing to condone -- and even encourage -- the plutonium economy.
  3. Moving plutonium out of the tight net of military security into a civilian domain is ill-advised. In 1974, the Harvard Law School published an article entitled "Policing Plutonium," which argued that if plutonium were to become an article of commerce the US Constitution would have to be rewritten because constitutional guarantees of basic human rights could not be honoured. Better to keep the plutonium in a high security area, mix it with fission products, and "glassify" the resulting mixture to immobilize it.
  4. The opportunity for theft is proportional to the traffic; the more plutonium is handled and transported, the more likely it is that some of it will fall into the hands of criminals. Whatever problems exist now will only be exacerbated by an increased international flow of plutonium. Canada should reconsider its position on plutonium transport in general.
  5. Canada does not have a policy favouring the complete elimination of plutonium production -- else it would not condone the Japanese use of plutonium as a fuel. Nor does Canada have a policy favouring the complete elimination of nuclear weapons -- else it would support the World Court Project to declare nuclear weapons illegal under international law. Until Canada has formulated mature and mutually consistent policies in these areas, implementing AECL's proposal to burn excess weapons plutonium in CANDU reactors would be little more than a half- hearted act of tokenism.

The Canadian government cannot afford to take the question of plutonium lightly. It should sponsor a wide-ranging public debate on the kind of nuclear policies that Canada should adopt for the 21st Century -- and should stop relying on its own nuclear industry as its sole source of advice.

[ "Letter to the editor" + Dr. Edwards' reply ]

. . . back to TABLE OF CONTENTS

Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., is a mathematician, a consultant, and an activist. He teaches mathematics at Vanier College in Montreal, has acted as a consultant for governmental and non-governmental agencies across Canada, and is President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. He and his group actively support the Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout.

[ The Dangers of Encouraging Plutonium Use ]
[ Bomb Makers Speak Out Against Plutonium ]

[ Message to Jean Chrétien ]

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