Fueling the Nuclear Arms Race

~ and How To Stop It ~

by Gordon Edwards, Ph.D.

Gordon Edwards is one of the founders of the
Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.

He teaches mathematics at Vanier College in Montreal.

June 1985
Vol. VI, No.2

Special Non-proliferation Section

Table of Contents

  • Nuclear Gunpowder

  • Highly Enriched Uranium

  • Separated Plutonium

  • Canadian plutonium know-how
    and the Indian bomb

  • Canada's reactor customers

  • Bilateral safeguards: "Good faith?"

  • Shipments of Spent Fuel
    from Chalk River to Savannah River

  • Direct Military Use of Canadian "Depleted" Uranium

  • Indirect Use of Canadian "Depleted" Uranium:
    a safeguards loophole

  • Conclusion

  • Nuclear Gunpowder

    Without uranium, there would be no nuclear weapons of any description. Just as slavery cannot exist without a slave trade, so the nuclear arms race cannot exist without a uranium trade. And, from the very beginning of the nuclear age, with the possible exception of one or two years, Canada has always been the world's largest exporter of uranium.1

    Much of this Canadian uranium has been used to build nuclear weapons. Canada supplied uranium for the U.S. Manhattan project, which produced the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. For 20 years after Hiroshima, almost all of Canada's uranium was sold under military contracts for the fabrication of nuclear weapons by the United States and (to a lesser extent) Britain. In 1959, 12,000 tonnes of uranium were exported, compared with 8,000 tonnes in 1984, making uranium Canada's fourth most important export that year, after wheat, pulp and lumber; it was almost all for bombs. However, no new military contracts for Canadian uranium were signed after 1956.2

    The last shipment of uranium to the US explicitly intended for military purposes was in 1966. The last shipment of uranium to the UK explicitly intended for military purposes was in 1972. Since that date, all uranium exported by Canada is supposed to be used for peaceful purposes only, but in actual fact Canada has no effective control over this dangerous material once it leaves our borders. There is good reason to believe that some Canadian uranium is still ending up in nuclear weapons. The evidence for this will be discussed later.

    In any event, uranium has only two important commercial uses: nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors; yet these two uses are by no means mutually exclusive. Uranium used to fuel a reactor for research or for electricity production will also produce plutonium as a by-product. At any future date, the by-product plutonium contained in the spent fuel can be recovered and used to manufacture nuclear weapons. Thus, by selling nuclear reactors and uranium around the world, Canada has helped to make widely available the essential materials from which all nuclear weapons are fabricated: uranium and plutonium.

    It is often said that building an atomic bomb is not very difficult. In principle, this is true, although, there are many complications. It is fair to say, however, that the greatest single difficulty in building an atomic bomb lies in obtaining one of the two strategic nuclear materials (highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium) from which such a bomb can be fabricated. The Hiroshima bomb was made from highly enriched uranium, while the Nagasaki bomb was made from plutonium.

    The Hiroshima bomb , "Little Boy"               The Nagasaki bomb , "Fat Man"             

    These two replicas were photographed by Robert Del Tredici          

    Building the bombs was relatively easy compared to the major technical difficulties involved in obtaining the two nuclear explosive materials: highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Canada helped the United States to overcome these obstacles.

    Highly Enriched Uranium

    Natural uranium is a blend of two different types (or "isotopes") called uranium-235 and uranium-238. Uranium-235 is a nuclear explosive whereas uranium-238 is not. It is not possible to build an atomic bomb using natural uranium, because the concentration of uranium-235 (less than one percent) is far too low to allow for an explosive nuclear chain reaction. In order to construct a uranium bomb it is first necessary to separate the uranium-235 atoms from the uranium-238 atoms -- a difficult, expensive, energy-intensive process. Uranium-235 and uranium-238 are chemically identical and therefore cannot be separated by chemical means. The process of painstakingly separating the two isotopes of uranium is called "uranium enrichment."

    Highly enriched uranium (HEU, usually over 90 percent uranium-235) is considered a "strategic nuclear material" because it can be used to make atomic bombs, although uranium of much lower enrichment (anything above 20 percent) can also be used for this purpose. Low-enriched uranium (LEU, less than twenty percent) and natural uranium (less than one percent) are not strategic nuclear materials; such materials cannot be used directly as a nuclear explosive.

    Only a handful of countries have the capability to produce weapons-grade uranium -- namely the five nuclear weapons states (US, UK, France, USSR, and China) and a very few others (including South Africa and Pakistan). Typically, a uranium enrichment plant covers many acres of land and uses as much energy as a large city. Such plants are large and sophisticated; they cannot be hidden from aerial surveillance.

    Aerial View of the Portsmouth Enrichment Plant (U.S.A)
    photo by Robert Del Tredici

    Separated Plutonium

    Uranium-235 is the only substance in nature from which an atomic bomb can be made. Plutonium -239 is also a nuclear explosive, but it does not occur in nature. It is created inside a nuclear reactor. Most atomic bombs nowadays use plutonium rather than highly enriched uranium as the primary nuclear explosive.

    If natural uranium or low-enriched uranium is placed inside a vessel called a "nuclear reactor" and surrounded by a substance called a "moderator", a sluggish chain reaction can be achieved. Energy is released by the splitting of the uranium-235 atoms. Meanwhile, some of the uranium-238 atoms are slowly transformed into plutonium-239 atoms by the absorption of stray neutrons. Thus, the uranium-238 -- which is not a nuclear explosive -- is "cooked" into plutonium, which is a nuclear explosive.

    Because plutonium is chemically different from uranium, it is in principle much easier to obtain pure plutonium than it is to obtain pure uranium-235. The separation can be achieved chemically, in a special plant called a "reprocessing plant."

    Canadian plutonium know-how and the Indian bomb

    During World War II, at a secret laboratory adjoining the Université de Montréal, a team of Canadian scientists worked under the direction of European scientists to discover more efficient methods for producing and separating plutonium. This effort was part of the US Manhattan project. By 1944, Canadian plutonium research had progressed to such a point that the decision was made (in Washington D.C.) to build the Chalk River nuclear complex in Ontario. There the first heavy water reactors were built: the most efficient plutonium-producing reactors in the world. For more than two decades after Hiroshima, virtually all of the plutonium produced by the Chalk River reactors was sold to the Americans and to the British for military purposes.

    A pilot reprocessing plant for separating plutonium was also built at Chalk River. Because of the deadly radiation fields surrounding the spent nuclear fuel, and the complicated chemistry resulting from the presence of hundreds of radioactive contaminants, reprocessing is a difficult and dangerous operation. In 1950, a chemical explosion at Chalk River killed one man and injured three others. In 1953, the Chalk River reprocessing plant was shut down. Since then, the reprocessing done in Canada has been on a laboratory scale.3

    Nevertheless. the knowledge and experience gained by their scientists at Montreal and Chalk River gave both Britain and France a head start in their own nuclear weapons programs. indeed, all of the pilot work for the Windscale reprocessing plant (now called Sellafield) in Northern England was carried out at Chalk River. Building on the Canadian experience, England and France quickly earned a worldwide reputation for advanced expertise in plutonium reprocessing technology which persists to this day.

    When India acquired a clone of the Chalk River NRX reactor from Canada in 1956, it used that reactor in exactly the same way that Canada had used the original: to produce plutonium for bombs. In the intervening years, between 1956 and 1974, Indian scientists spent a good deal of time at Chalk River, where they asked many questions about plutonium and its metallurgy: questions having no known civilian application.4

    Canada had a reputation not only for supplying the best plutonium-producing reactors, but also for having some of the best available information on plutonium.

    Canada's reactor customers

    In 1969, Canada sold another carbon-copy of the NRX to Taiwan. After the Indians exploded their atomic bomb in 1974, the Americans discovered that Taiwan had already built a clandestine reprocessing plant. Taiwan, like India, was dangerously close to having a nuclear weapons capability. The Americans insisted that the Taiwan reprocessing plant be dismantled, or all financial and military aid from the US would be terminated. The plant was dismantled.

    Pakistan also acquired a reactor from Canada -- a CANDU electricity-producing nuclear power plant, purchased in 1959. As early as 1967, Ali Bhutto stated that Pakistan must embark on a program to develop its own atomic bomb. In 1972, a team of Pakistani experts was assembled to produce a nuclear weapon. By 1975, Canada had broken off its nuclear cooperation agreement with Pakistan because the government of Pakistan would not guarantee that plutonium produced in their CANDU reactor would never be used as a nuclear explosive. (Frustrated in its efforts to acquire a reprocessing plant from France, the Pakistani government has since embarked on a program to acquire uranium enrichment technology.)

    Meanwhile, in 1974 and 1975, Canada was busily negotiating the sale of CANDU reactors to Argentina and South Korea -- two brutal military dictatorships, both of which were clearly interested in developing a nuclear weapons capability.

    In June 1975, General Park warned the Washington Post that South Korea would have to develop its own nuclear weapons if American support were ever to falter. That same month, Newsweek reported that he had ordered the Korean Defense Development Agency to begin research on atomic weapons. Meanwhile, Park was attempting to buy a reprocessing plant from France, and the actual contract was signed early in 1975. As in the case of Taiwan, American pressure was brought to bear and Park was made to cancel his plans to acquire a plutonium separation plant.5

    The Argentinean generals were not so dependent on the US. They not only refused to ratify the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Treaty of Tlatelaco (which would keep nuclear weapons out of Latin America), but their spokesmen publicly stated on several occasions that Argentina reserved the right to develop nuclear weapons whenever it chose to do so. Despite the horrendous civil rights record of the Argentinean regime, despite the obvious military intentions of the generals, despite the fact that Argentina had built not one but two reprocessing plants for plutonium recovery, Canada continued to deal with the Argentineans and tried to sell them a second CANDU reactor. Canada even lost money on the deal.

    Bilateral safeguards: "Good faith?"

    In justifying Canada's overseas trade in nuclear reactors and uranium, the Canadian nuclear industry and the Canadian government have leaned very heavily on the provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and on "bilateral safeguards" whereby our nuclear trading partners solemnly promise not to use nuclear materials or technology supplied by Canada for the purpose of creating an explosive nuclear device.6

    It has often been noted that these safeguards are unenforceable, and that the inspection procedures and "bookkeeping" requirements are ineffective unless there is good faith between the two parties. In other words, if a country wants to cheat, it can do so. If it wants to violate the safeguards, it can do so. And, of course, if one government decides to abide by its commitments under these bilateral agreements, there is no guarantee that all future governments will do the same. Sooner or later, some government may choose to renege on these promises. Such a government will find itself with all the materials essential to the fabrication of nuclear weapons, cheerfully supplied under the provisions of the very bilateral agreements which they have since chosen to violate.

    Why should a government choose to violate these bilateral agreements? There are many reasons. Such a government may observe that the superpowers have not lived up to their own obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which are to halt and to reverse the nuclear arms race; in short, to achieve complete nuclear disarmament. For its part, Canada has failed even to accuse the superpowers of breaking the provisions of the NPT. Thus the NPT is seen by many as an exercise in hypocrisy, justifying the nuclear weapons states in building more and more weapons while depriving other countries of the option to do so. This type of double standard reveals a cynical lack of any genuine moral concern, and therefore the provisions of the NPT may not necessarily be considered morally binding on any other country either.

    Moreover, it is certainly not lost on the other nations of the world that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are the five nuclear weapons states. Thus the possession of nuclear weapons goes hand in hand with political power and prestige in the modern world. If Ronald Reagan can justify the enormous US nuclear arsenal as purely defensive, then surely the same rationale can be used by any other nation. Indeed, if nuclear weapons are simply a deterrent, then why shouldn't every nation have them? On the other hand, NATO policy is to use nuclear weapons in the event that a conventional conflict cannot be contained by conventional means. Why shouldn't other nations also have the option of using nuclear weapons as a "last resort"? How can a weapon or policy be portrayed as "moral" for one party but "immoral" for another party?

    The situation is further complicated by the fact that Canada has often engaged in nuclear trades with countries which have refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty : Argentina, India, Pakistan, South Africa. When Prime Minister Trudeau embarked upon his Peace Initiative, which called for strengthening of the NPT, his government continued to sell uranium to France and tried to sell a nuclear reactor to Turkey, both countries which have refused to sign the NPT. It is difficult to take Canada's commitment to the NPT seriously.

    Canada's reliance on "good faith" as a mean to ensure that Canadian nuclear technology will not be used for military purposes is self-deceptive and, under the circumstances, immoral. This is particularly the case when one considers the nature of the regimes which have been our principal customers. A few additional case studies may serve to underscore the point.

    Shipments of Spent Fuel from Chalk River to Savannah River

    For decades, Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories has purchased highly enriched weapons-grade uranium from the USA for use in the NRX reactor. The spent fuel is then returned to a military plant at Savannah River, South Carolina, where the unused uranium-235 is recovered and used in military reactors to produce plutonium and tritium for H-bombs. This traffic is in direct violation of the Nuclear Co-operation Agreement between the US and Canada, first signed in 1955 and amended several times since, which forbids the use of Canadian-supplied nuclear materials for nuclear weapons purposes. Yet the traffic continues.

    When the issue was raised publicly in 1982, and again in 1984, nuclear authorities from AECL and AECB insisted that the uranium which is recovered from spent fuel is recycled in the U.S. for civilian purposes. This is untrue. Canadian nuclear authorities also told reporters and concerned citizens that the uranium is not Canadian property and must be returned to the U.S. under the terms of a leasing arrangement. This is also untrue. The stuff belongs to AECL.7

    Canadian nuclear authorities have been quick to point out that the uranium in the spent fuel returned to the US is actually less useful to the military program than the fresh fuel that is purchased by Canada in the first place. This is true but irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that these shipments violate both the letter and the spirit of the Nuclear Co-operation Agreement which exists between the US and Canada, and sets a very dangerous precedent for our other nuclear co-operation agreements with other countries around the world.

    Direct Military Use of Canadian "Depleted" Uranium

    Let us consider another example of Canada's questionable behaviour vis-à-vis the use of Canadian nuclear materials in the production of nuclear weapons.

    As mentioned earlier, Canada is the world's largest exporter of uranium. About 85 percent of the uranium mined in Canada is exported. In addition, Canada has one of the largest uranium refineries in the world, located at Port Hope, Ontario, and owned by the Canadian government. Not surprisingly, a great deal of uranium from South Africa and Australia comes to Canada to be refined (and then re-exported).

    The result is an enormous traffic in uranium, almost all of it exported from Canada in the form of "uranium hexafluoride" -- a very volatile and dangerous chemical compound. The immediate destination for this "hex mix" is invariably one of the world's very few commercial uranium enrichment plants, which are located in the US, or in France or Britain, or in the USSR. These uranium enrichment plants serve a dual purpose : they produce nuclear fuel for civilian reactors (low-enriched uranium for most nuclear power plants, highly enriched uranium for some research reactors), and they also produce the highly enriched uranium needed for the weapons program. There is no physical distinction between "atoms for peace" and "atoms for war"; all the uranium hexafluoride is blended together, heated to about 125 degrees Fahrenheit to turn it into a gas and then enriched.

    Elaborate "bookkeeping" methods are used to ensure that "on the whole", Canadian uranium is not being used for weapons. In other words, the "deposits" of Canadian uranium going into the enrichment plant should be balanced by the "withdrawals" of enriched uranium for civilian purposes. In this way, it is argued that Canadian uranium is not contributing to the nuclear weapons program (even though it is "piggy-backing" on a military production line and thereby lending the entire process a peaceful veneer).

    However, the "deposits" do not balance with the "withdrawals". In order to produce one pound of low-enriched uranium (at, say, 3 percent U-235), about seven pounds of natural uranium (in the form of hexafluoride) are required. Thus six pounds of uranium -- mostly uranium-238 -- are discarded. In order to achieve a higher concentration of U-235, even larger quantities of U-238 have to be discarded. This cast-off uranium-238 is called "depleted uranium". It is never inspected, nor is it subject to any explicit safeguards. It is regarded as "non-strategic material".

    Depleted Uranium Containers ~ Not Subject to Inspections or Safeguards
    photo by Robert Del Tredici

    Canadian depleted uranium is not physically separated from depleted uranium of non-Canadian origin; it is all added to a common stockpile, except in the case of the USSR. When the USSR enriches Canadian uranium for a civilian customer (located in Finland or Sweden or Spain, for example) the Canadian government requires that the depleted uranium left over from the enrichment process must not remain in the Soviet Union. Thus the Soviets are forced to send the depleted uranium, along with the enriched fuel, to the customer. The reason for this is that depleted uranium has important military uses.

    The two principal military uses for depleted uranium are:

    (a) as "target rods" in military reactors, where the depleted uranium is used to breed the plutonium which is later used in the triggers for H-bombs;

    (b) to fabricate metallic components of the H-bombs themselves, so that -- upon detonation of the H-bomb -- the U-238 atoms are "split" or "fissioned" by the intensely energetic neutrons produced by the fusion reaction.8

    About fifty percent of the explosive power of every H-bomb is due to the fissioning of U-238 atoms in the metallic components made of depleted uranium. If that U-238 is removed, the resulting bomb is called a "neutron bomb": producing much less blast, but giving off far more energetic neutrons (thus killing people while leaving structures intact). It is fair to say that half of the explosive power of the world's nuclear arsenals is due to depleted uranium; yet this material is considered by the Canadian government to be of no real strategic significance.

    When I asked an official from Canadian External Affairs to explain why Canada is unconcerned about depleted uranium, he answered that "there is so much of the stuff lying around that it's not worth worrying about." This underscores once again the double standard implicit in the NPT and in the safeguard agreements that Canada has signed with other countries. These prevent nuclear "have-not" nations from getting their own nuclear weapons; they are not intended to hinder the nuclear "have" nations from building as many H-bombs as they want to. The reason why depleted uranium is considered "non-strategic" material is because it cannot be used directly to make a bomb unless one already has a nuclear weapons capability; one must first know how to make plutonium triggers for H-bombs!

    Thus depleted uranium is considered to be of little use to a nuclear "have-not" nation, except as a possible target material for breeding plutonium -- which brings us to our next topic.

    Indirect Use of Depleted Uranium: a Safeguards Loophole

    Because uranium is about twice as heavy as lead, it has certain non-essential uses; for example, depleted uranium can be used in a counterweight in airplane gyroscopic systems. It can also be used as coating for ordinary bullets to make them much more penetrating, or to armor-plate tanks. The production of uranium-coated bullets is being actively pursued by several companies in Canada. Because depleted uranium is treated as a non-strategic material, it is much easier to acquire than highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium, or even reactor fuel.

    In 1981 four Israeli jets bombed the OSIRAK nuclear reactor near Baghdad in Iraq. The Israelis claimed that the Iraqis were planning to build an atomic bomb using plutonium produced in the reactor, after separating the plutonium from the spent fuel in an underground laboratory. The French reactor was to be fuelled with highly enriched uranium supplied from France, but France argued that this HEU fuel -- a strategic nuclear material -- would be carefully accounted for by means of on-site inspections to ensure that Iraq could not use the weapons-grade uranium for weapons purposes.

    There is, however, a dangerous loophole in this system of safeguards. The Iraqis could, when the inspector is not around, insert "target rods" made of depleted uranium into the reactor, allowing the depleted uranium to soak up neutrons and produce plutonium. These target rods would be withdrawn before the inspectors returned, having bred the plutonium needed for a nuclear weapon without anyone being the wiser.

    As it happens, just about a year before the OSIRAK reactor was bombed, Eldorado Nuclear Limited was involved in a bizarre transaction involving depleted uranium in a deal set up by a West German firm. American authorities became extremely curious as to why Eldorado was engaged in producing metal rods made of depleted uranium for some unspecified "customer" overseas. Investigation showed that Iraq was the ultimate destination for these depleted uranium rods. US officials blew the whistle, and the AECB stopped the transaction.9

    This example simply illustrates the possibilities that exist for bypassing the existing safeguards. Slugs of depleted uranium could also be used in a CANDU reactor to breed plutonium when the inspectors aren't around, using the CANDU's unique feature of "on-line refuelling." In many ways, this would be simpler than recovering the plutonium from the irradiated CANDU fuel itself, although the latter option is also a possibility.


    As Pierre Elliott Trudeau observed in 1978, addressing the United Nations First Special Session on Disarmament, we humans have it within our power to suffocate the nuclear arms race by cutting off the vital "oxygen" on which it feeds. Trudeau was referring to the two so-called "strategic materials" from which all nuclear weapons are fabricated: highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium. Indeed, if enrichment plants and reprocessing plants were outlawed around the world, it would not be possible to produce the strategic nuclear materials from which new nuclear weapons can be made. These plants are so large and conspicuous the it is quite possible to verify by aerial surveillance that such plants are not being built or operated anywhere in the world. This would put an end to the traffic in strategic nuclear materials.

    It would then be technically possible to remove the strategic nuclear material from the existing warheads and render them useless for nuclear weapons use. In the case of highly enriched uranium, this would involve mixing the U-235 back in with the U-238; in the case of plutonium, it would require mixing the separated plutonium back in with the high level radioactive wastes. These materials would still exist, but they could not be made available for weapons use without building and operating one of the "forbidden" facilities: either an enrichment plant or a reprocessing plant.

    Because of the development of new technologies, such as the laser enrichment of uranium, the above measures may not be sufficient in the long term to prevent the construction of nuclear weapons. I therefore believe that the only real security lies in abolishing the uranium trade altogether.10

    This, of course, means foregoing nuclear power as an energy source. Given what we know about the disadvantages of nuclear power, this may not be a sacrifice at all, but a blessing. But even if it were somewhat of a sacrifice, it seems a small price to pay to keep alive the dream of a nuclear-disarmed world -- a world which will remain livable for our children and our grandchildren.

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    End Notes

    1 Uranium Division, Energy Mines and Resources, Ottawa.

    2 Energy Mines and Resources, Nuclear Policy Review Background Papers ,  (1981). [BECW1]

    3 Eggleston, Canada's Nuclear Story ,  (1965).

    4 Anderson, From Saha to Baba ,  (1975).

    5 Weissman and Krosney, The Islamic Bomb ,  (1981).

    6 External Affairs, Canada's Nuclear Non-proliferation Policy ,  (1985).

    7 US General Accounting Office, letter to R.L. Ottinger from J.D. Peach, Document B-217124, December 13, 1984.

    8 Glasstone et al., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons ,  (1980).

    9 Personal communications from US and Canadian officials.

    10 Most radioisotopes used in medicine, agriculture and industry do not depend in any essential way on the uranium trade; they can be produced in cyclotrons and in various other types of accelerators (in the absence of nuclear reactors).

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