In April 1996, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien went to Moscow to attend a G7 summit meeting on nuclear security issues. There he signed an agreement indicating that Canada approves in principle the idea of using plutonium extracted from Russian and American nuclear warheads as fuel for Ontario Hydro's Bruce "A" nuclear reactors. This was done without benefit of parliamentary debate or public consultation.
The Canadian public has a right to be consulted and a need to be educated on this issue. Atomic Energy of Canada Limited and Ontario Hydro have been working very hard behind the scenes for over two years to have this proposal approved by Canadian and American authorities. In 1996, AECL even applied to US authorities to start bringing ex-warhead plutonium to Chalk River for testing; permission was recently granted by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Why should the Government of Canada be accepting the advice of the Canadian nuclear lobbyists without presenting the plan to Canadians or their elected representatives for approval or refusal, and without providing any forum for a responsible public debate?
The Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility has prepared the following statement as a briefing document for Canadian citizens. We urge all Canadians to become involved in this debate, which could have far-reaching implications:
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Table of Contents
"Spent" Nuclear Fuel :
Containing 80 Percent of the World's Plutonium
Accounting for 20 Percent of the World's Plutonium
The Plutonium Economy
CCNR Policy Conclusions
PlutoniumPlutonium is a man-made element. It is created inside all operating nuclear reactors, from the smallest research reactor to the largest power reactor. It has several important properties:
- Plutonium can be used to make atomic bombs.
A few kilograms of plutonium is enough to make a bomb that can destroy a city. The only other material used for this purpose is highly enriched uranium, but plutonium is more commonly employed. Indeed, most of the world's nuclear warheads use plutonium as the primary nuclear explosive.
- Plutonium is a potent radiological poison.
Just a few milligrams of plutonium, if inhaled, will cause death within months due to massive fibrosis of the lungs. Much smaller amounts can cause fatal lung cancer years later. Plutonium contamination of soil and property is notoriously persistent, difficult and costly to deal with.
- Plutonium can be used as fuel for nuclear reactors.
Many nuclear power advocates -- especially those in Japan, France, Russia and India -- regard plutonium as the preferred nuclear fuel of the future, because they anticipate that uranium supplies will eventually run out. Ottawa has explicitly kept open the option for the Canadian nuclear industry to begin using plutonium routinely as a nuclear fuel at some future date.
"Spent" Nuclear Fuel :Because plutonium is man-made, we know exactly where it is to be found. Eighty percent of the plutonium existing in the world today is locked up in the highly radioactive spent fuel routinely produced by nuclear reactors.
80 Percent of the World's Plutonium
Such "spent fuel" is intensely radioactive, giving off penetrating gamma radiation so powerful that it will kill any nearby unshielded human within a short period of time. The intense radioactivity of spent fuel is due to the presence of dozens of materials called "fission products" which -- unlike plutonium -- give off deadly doses of highly penetrating radiation.
Contrary to popular belief, plutonium itself is not "too hot to handle", despite the fact that it is highly toxic. Plutonium gives off only a non-penetrating kind of radiation called "alpha radiation" which -- while extremely damaging and deadly inside the body -- is relatively harmless outside the body.
Thus it is the presence of "fission products" in the spent fuel that acts as a potent radiological barrier, making it very difficult for anyone to steal, transport, use or hide the plutonium as long as it is accompanied by all those fission products. Moreover, plutonium cannot be extracted from the intensely radioactive spent fuel without the use of a reprocessing plant : a robotically-run factory which chemically separates the plutonium from fission products. Reprocessing plants are not easy to build, to operate -- or to hide.
In the short term, therefore, there is no doubt that spent fuel offers a good deal of protection against any but the most well-equipped organizations from getting at the plutonium. But the longer it is out of the reactor, the less radioactive spent fuel becomes, and the more accessible the plutonium within the spent fuel becomes.
The reason for this is elementary: plutonium lasts for thousands of years, whereas most of the fission products disintegrate almost completely (due to radioactive decay) over a period of several decades. As time goes by, there is less and less need for elaborate shielding, and eventually, it becomes possible to carry out the necessary chemical processing in a basement or a garage.
Thus the penetrating radioactivity of the spent fuel offers, at best, a temporary protection -- on the order of several decades -- against those wishing to obtain the plutonium contained within. In the long run, it offers no adequate radiological barrier to prevent would-be bomb-makers decades or centuries hence from accessing the plutonium and using it to build nuclear weapons. In particular, it does not offer a permanent solution to the problem of what to do with the plutonium that is removed from dismantled warheads.
Separated Plutonium:Some countries -- notably France, Russia and Britain -- routinely reprocess spent fuel in order to chemically separate the plutonium from the other radioactive materials in the spent fuel. This is done for military purposes, to obtain the plutonium needed for bombs; but it is also done for civilian purposes -- to obtain the plutonium that may eventually be utilized as nuclear fuel.
20 Percent of the World's Plutonium
As a result, at present, twenty percent of the plutonium in the world exists in a separated state -- without the presence of the intensely radioactive fission products that constitute such a formidable short-term barrier in the case of spent nuclear fuel. Once the plutonium has been separated from these other elements, it can then be stolen, transported, used or hidden with relative ease, because, in modest quantities, plutonium does not give off very much penetrating radiation: not enough to kill -- or be easily detected -- at even a rather short distance.
Nuclear TerrorismThe existence of separated plutonium poses a major security risk of global proportions, because any well-equipped national or subnational group can make a devastatingly powerful nuclear weapon from just a few kilograms of separated plutonium of any kind. Such a nuclear weapon could be made to fit in the trunk of a car and be detonated by remote control.
The National Academy of Sciences reports that such a weapon, make from any kind of plutonium, would have an explosive force of at least one thousand tons of TNT, and a radius of destruction at least one- third that of the Hiroshima bomb. As US Presidential security advisor Paul Nitze remarked some years ago, "In a few years, we could wake up and find Washington DC gone, and not even know who did it."
A small amount of plutonium would also suffice to make a radiological weapon of terrifying effectiveness, by disseminating plutonium into the atmosphere, in respirable form, in sufficient concentrations to kill many thousands of people. The use of such a radiological weapon would also result in extensive radioactive contamination of a kind that is particularly difficult, dangerous and costly to deal with.
The Plutonium EconomyIt turns out that less than half of all the separated plutonium in the world is in the hands of the military. The other portion -- more than half of the total -- is in the hands of electrical utilities wishing to use plutonium as a fuel for commercial nuclear reactors on an on-going basis -- indefinitely into the future, for hundreds of years to come. This scenario is described as "The Plutonium Economy".
Moreover, the civilian stockpiles of separated plutonium -- in such countries as Japan, France, Britain, India, and Russia -- are growing much faster than the military stockpiles. Evidently, if separated plutonium is a threat to global security -- and it most certainly is -- then the greatest threat of all comes from the planned commercial use of plutonium.
Security IssuesIf experience teaches us anything, it surely should convince us that all items which are commercially traded will eventually end up in the hands of criminals. Can we think of anything -- gold? diamonds? money? heroin? -- that is immune from theft? Should we believe that plutonium can be produced in a factory, packaged and handled by dozens of people, shipped across continents and oceans, fabricated into fuel, and transported to civilian reactors, without any loss or theft along the way?
Remember that until it is irradiated in a nuclear reactor, plutonium fuel is not very radioactive; thus it can be stolen without elaborate radiological protection being required. And once this material is stolen, it is inevitable that nuclear terrorism will sooner or later be attempted, either for financial gain (holding an entire city hostage) or for fanatical political reasons.
CCNR Policy ConclusionsThe Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility believes that the only way to prevent such a development is to completely halt the production of separated plutonium of any kind, whether civilian or military, and to forego the commercial use of plutonium altogether. If Canada starts using plutonium as fuel for nuclear reactors, others will take that as a signal that they may do likewise, and we are well on our way towards a global plutonium economy. Thus, instead of eliminating the security problems associated with plutonium, we will be institutionalizing those problems and perpetuating them. The CCNR believes that this is exactly the wrong thing to do.
It is also important to realize that when plutonium is used as nuclear fuel, it is not entirely destroyed. Between half and two-thirds of the plutonium is fissioned, and therefore destroyed, but one-third of the original plutonium still remains in the spent fuel, and additional plutonium is created in the reactor, so that the net reduction is only about half. Half of ten thousand nuclear weapons is still far too many; thus reducing the plutonium stocks by half -- although gratifying in some ways -- does not qualitatively alter the plutonium problem.
The CCNR believes that excess weapons plutonium should NOT be subjected to civilian traffic, nor used as fuel for civilian reactors, but that it should be immobilized and guarded under a very strict security regime which is truly international in nature. It should be made as inaccessible as possible for theft or for use as weapons material; this may include mixing it with highly radioactive materials to create a radiological barrier, and transforming it into chemical and physical forms which are difficult to access (e.g. because of the sheer bulk, and because of the host material's stubborn resistance to dissolution or chemical breakdown). Meanwhile, political pressure should be brought to bear to STOP the production of plutonium worldwide, and research should focus on methods of destroying ALL of the plutonium stocks in the world in a permanently satisfactory fashion.
[ The Dangers of Encouraging Plutonium Use ]
[ Bomb Makers Speak Out Against Plutonium ]
[ Plutonium Sub-Directory ]
[ Short Directory ] [ COMPLETE DIRECTORY ]
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