Meltdown over disarmament
(Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series
examining a controversial plutonium experiment)
Ottawa to test
to aid world peace
~ but others not so sure ~
Dressed in a rumpled tweed blazer and knit pullover, Michigan dairy farmer James Reilly approaches the podium like a southern preacher.
His voice starts low and builds quickly to a crescendo as he backs up and spits out a hellfire sermon of grassroots environmentalism.
"This is the most valuable part of Planet Earth. We've got all the resources ... we've got everything," the 71-year-old Brown City resident says of the Great Lakes Basin.
Reilly is opposed to transporting plutonium-based fuel through Michigan and across the border into Canada, an initiative being pushed by the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
Reilly doesn't know the prime minister, but that didn't stop him from driving more than five hours from his home near Port Huron -- across the St. Clair River from Sarnia -- to speak at a public forum Oct. 6 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
"This is renewal for the industry and for the stockholders," he says. "Until we can handle the waste, or eliminate it, I don't buy it."
Reilly is a member of a group he claims helped get the Sarnia/Port Huron border crossing off a list of seven possible plutonium routes after a ground swell of public opposition
Reilly and his partner, Ray Cumbow, told those present they could achieve the same if they keep pressure on their political leaders.
The Soo forum was part of a tour by federal government departments and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd representatives who met with municipal councils in Northern Ontario to discuss the transport of a test sample of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel destined for a research reactor at Chalk River.
MOX is a blend of three per cent plutonium oxide and 97 per cent-uranium oxide formed into ceramic pellets about the size of foam earplugs.
The fuel rods will be transported in specially-designed shipping containers -- resembling oil drums -- that are routinely used for nuclear materials.
A tractor-trailer carrying the MOX fuel is expected to enter Canada by late November. A second shipment from Russia will arrive by ship at CornwalL
Midway along the 2.6-kilometre International Bridge between the Soo and its Michigan counterpart is ground zero.
Once past that point, Canada commits itself to a test burn using plutonium from dismantled U.S. and Russian warheads, a foreign policy initiative the Chretien government is selling as a contribution to world peace.
But in small towns, cities and native reserves along the 615-kilometre Northern Ontario route, critics wonder if they are pawns in a much larger and insidious plan.
Native leaders along the Highway 17 corridor have threatened "full resistance" that could include civil disobedience to try and stop the shipment.
"This is the traditional territory of our people," says Anishinabek Nation Grand Chief Vernon Roote. "Once again, the North is being affected by circumstances we had no control over, with no benefits accruing to our people, only risk."
Across the border, Verna Lawrence, mayor of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., makes no bones about where she stands.
"They don't want plutonium going through our town," she says of the community's 15,000 residents.
She argues the U.S. Department of Energy selected the Sault border because "it's the route of least resistance," -- a fact she refers to as "population politics."
"But I got news for them. We're going to kick ass big time," the crusty mayor told The Nugget.
North Bay environmental activist Brennain Lloyd raises three key concerns --
- safety and security dangers surrounding transport;
- the initial test is simply laying the groundwork for "a grander production" to recycle 100 tonnes of MOX fuel; and
- the lack of prior consultation with affected communities.
"In the face of all evidence and mounting opposition from independent observers both in Canada and internationally, it's astounding that the government is pushing this plan," said Lloyd, of the environmental coalition Northwatch.
Several municipalities across the provincial map -- including Windsor, Sarnia, Cornwall, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and Thessalon -- were swift to pass resolutions condemning the controversial shipments and demanding "meaningful and thorough" public hearings.
But North Bay councillors held off, saying they did not yet have enough information to make a decision, and hoped a briefing with federal officials would provide some answers.
Less than a week after the session, council adopted a lengthy resolution by a 9-to-2 vote.
Among the objections in the comprehensive, 767-word motion were the lack of prior consultation with municipalities along the route, the absence of public hearing and the risk of "accident, terrorist attack or miscue."
Neighbouring North Himsworth Township and West Nipissing soon followed suit.
The 13,000-member Ontario Police Association has also raised serious concerns over the health and safety of front-line police officers along the plutonium routes.
"We have already heard about the potential for civil disobedience, the concerns of a nuclear mishap and the fact that Canada is a haven for terrorism," says Paul Bailey, association administrator.
"Our police personnel are the front-line people who will have to deal with this plutonium and they don't have the training or equipment," Bailey says.
Similar concerns have been raised by the International Association of Firefighters, which worries about firefighters arriving at the scene of an accident and not being aware of the contents or how to deal with them.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy publicly announced the proposal to test burn MOX fuel at AECL's reactor last summer, even though the project had been in the works for about five years.
"The MOX fuel test is a step forward in getting rid of nuclear weapons, and the government of Canada is committed to decreasing the number of nuclear weapons in the world," Axworthy said.
But critic Gordon Edwards says any attempt to commercialize the use of nuclear weapons-based MOX fuel will actually lead to weapons proliferation and increase the chances of theft.
It's also a way to boost what he calls a faltering Canadian nuclear industry.
"The main motivation is to give them something to do for the next 25 years. But apart from that, it makes CANDU (Canadian-designed reactor) marketable overseas ... that it can use plutonium fuel as well as uranium fuel," says the president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.
AECL and Ontario Hydro -- now Ontario Power Generation -- completed several studies, with help from American and Russian experts, to evaluate the feasibility of using MOX fuel in Canada's CANDU reactors.
However, Ontario Power Generation has since said it is not actively working on the project, and documents suggest the nuclear-bomb material is too costly to burn in the province's reactors.
The next step involves a small-scale test when 10 kilograms of MOX encased in zirconium alloy pins about half-a-metre long -- called fuel elements -- will be burned in AECL's research reactor.
The tests will take between two to three years to complete.
The agencies involved are satisfied the shipments are safe, says Brian Moore, director of the nuclear energy division of Natural Resources Canada.
"MOX fuel is not highly explosive, it's not radioactive and in solid, compressed form, it's extremely stable. It cannot burn, ignite or spill and it is not soluble in water." says Moore
The elements will be assembled into a fuel bundle at the Chalk River facility.
The Parallex (parallel experiment) Test involves two shipments -- one from a U.S. laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., and the second from the Bochvar Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia
Each sample contains about 120 grams of plutonium oxide.
The test will determine the operating performance of MOX fuel using weapons-derived plutonium. The option is one way for the United States and Russia to convert the material from nuclear arsenals into fuel to use in generating electricity in CANDU reactors.
So far, Canada and Switzerland are the only two nations to "step up to the plate" to express their willingness to participate, says David Cox, AECL's manager of fuel development.
"As a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, Canada has a role to play in achieving the goal that surplus weapon plutonium be rendered inaccessible for weapons purposes," adds Ann Pollack of Foreign Affairs.
"For these reasons, the Canadian government decided, in principle, to consider the use of MOX fuel in CANDU reactors to help in the dispositioning of surplus plutonium."
But Pollack emphasized the initiative is "a test only" at this point. "The final decision is a separate activity and is some time away."
Nor has Canada been asked to consider a full-fledged program, adds Moore. "Canada's only commitment at this point in time is to carry out the performance test."
Further, any such program would have to meet federal and provincial health, safety, transport, security, environmental assessment and protection requirements, including the opportunity for public input under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
Under escort by security and radiation teams, the transport will travel along the Highway 17 corridor to Chalk River, passing through Sturgeon Falls, North Bay and Mattawa.
AECL refuses to divulge the exact date.
The shipment is also awaiting approval from Transport Canada, which is assessing the transportation and emergency response plans filed by AECL.
Plutonium: Peace or Profit?
A Special Report by
Carla Ammerata and John Size.
MOX project seen as Canada's contribution to global arms control
The world has stared into the abyss of nuclear Armageddon since the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan in 1945. As part of the global community, Canada hasn't been a babe lost in the nuclear woods.
It was this country's plutonium that helped Britain develop its nuclear arsenal.
Canada, particularly North Bay, was a base for American-operated nuclear weapons, whether launched from aircraft or the surface-to-air Bomarc missile designed to detonate amid incoming Soviet bombers.
The government of John Diefenbaker secreted missiles and warheads along the railways.
Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd has sold its much-touted CANDU reactors to South Korea, China and India, one of the world's newest declared nuclear weapons power.
Now, Prime Minister Jean Chretien wants Canada to burn mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel derived from dismantled U.S. and Russian warheads in its reactors to reduce stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium as disarmament agreements between the two former Cold War foes come into force.
In 1996, AECL and its Russian counterpart agreed to conduct a feasibility study of burning MOX fuel, a ceramic pellet consisting of 97 per cent uranium oxide and three per cent plutonium oxide, in CANDU reactors.
That April, Chretien ratified the plan at the G-8 Moscow Nuclear Safety and Security Summit and stated all countries should do what they could to promote nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
He argued by agreeing to test the performance of MOX fuel, "we are taking a step toward the elimination of nuclear weapons without compromising Canadian health, safety and the environment."
This view was reiterated by Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy in a letter to The Nugget several weeks ago.
"The use of MOX fuel in nuclear power plants provides the greatest assurance of reducing the risk of theft and proliferation posed by surplus weapons-grade plutonium stockpiles, since the remaining plutonium cannot easily be used ever again in nuclear weapons," Axworthy stated.
At this point, consultants, experts, politicians and environmentalists part company.
The all-party Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs unanimously rejected the idea of burning MOX fuel in Canada in a report filed with the federal government last December, calling the option "totally unfeasible."
"The federal government decided not to heed that advice," says Reform party MP Bob Mills, committee vice-chairman.
"It's annoying to us as opposition, but it's downright disgusting for those members of the Liberal caucus," he says.
The committee believed there is insufficient research to make a balanced decision.
"There weren't answers to a lot of questions -- everything from transportation to the threat of terrorist activity," Mills says.
"But for me, one of the biggest reasons was you can only burn about half of it. The other half becomes waste. In effect, we're becoming a garbage dump."
He suggests building a MOX fuel reactor in Russia so they can burn their own plutonium.
"You can't tell me the Americans don't have a method of disposing of it. They're doing it to get the Russians to do it" he says.
The question Canadians should ask is "Why should we take that responsibility and that risk when we didn't create the problem?" Mills says.
Douglas Fraser, executive director of the Canadian Council for International Peace and Security, sees the issue differently.
"We feel badly the government has not had a very good explanation about this," he says.
In fact, Axworthy's staff brushed off requests by The Nugget for an interview and simply read from prepared text when questioned.
"We think there's a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance and we fault the government for allowing that to happen," Fraser says.
The MOX project is a major contribution to arms control and there's a significant role Canada can play, he says.
Fraser's organization, a non-governmental policy research institute dealing with international security issues, supports the initial MOX tests at AECL's Chalk River laboratories.
"We should go through with the test so that people have a better handle on the economic issues and the safety issues and go from there," he says.
Canada has been active in non-proliferation and disarmament initiatives, "and as a non-weapons state we can generally hold our head up high," says Canadian Nuclear Association president Murray Stewart in a telephone interview from Hawaii.
"Certainly, we are supportive of what the federal government is trying to do. I think it's a logical thing to do," he says.
The association represents the interest of utilities, uranium producers and other related industries, labour groups and government agencies and promotes the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
"What the government is doing here ... is helping the world get rid of this stuff. This is very much in line with its policies through the decades," Stewart says.
But a 1997 independent report headed by arms control expert Franklyn Griffiths opposed the Candu MOX initiative.
The report recommended the proposal "be consigned to oblivion" because it would impose substantial security, safety, financial and governance costs on Canadians and Ontarians in particular, the University of Toronto professor says.
As for nuclear disarmament, the initiative holds "little or no promise of making the world a safer place" because Russia and the U.S. are determined to retain the potential to resurrect their Cold War strategic arsenals, the report stated.
In other words, Canadians would pay the bill for burning, transporting and perhaps manufacturing MOX fuel but plutonium would continue to be stockpiled.
Enter Gordon Edwards who says the entire initiative is simply a clever ploy by the Canadian nuclear industry to kickstart its sagging fortunes.
He says there's collusion between the federal government and its nuclear arm at AECL.
"I do believe this entire operation is a smoke-screen. Claims that this is to achieve nuclear disarmament is a sham. They want to undertake this for completely different purposes," says the president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and a mathematics professor at Vanier College in Montreal.
But an AECL spokesman says Canada's role in the initial test is as a "neutral third party" to bring together the two Cold War foes who still distrust each other.
The test has more to do with a "show of good faith" than it does with profit, says David Cox, manager of fuel development at Chalk River.
The contract to test the MOX in AECL's reactor is worth several million dollars paid for by the U.S. Department of Energy.
That won't make a difference in AECL's pocket, says Brian Moore, director of the nuclear energy division of Natural Resources Canada.
But Edwards says creating a commercial MOX industry is a way to keep the nuclear industry afloat and the government is going to "great lengths" to achieve that without a mandate from Canadians.
It also makes the $2-billion CANDU reactor easier to market considering countries like Japan, France, Germany and England are already using civilian plutonium MOX fuel in their reactors, he says.
Nuclear technology is fundamentally flawed because it was sold as a clean and cheap source of energy. But over the long term it has proven to be anything but, he says.
Highly radioactive waste is the byproduct and governments have been agonizing over where to put it. One plan is to bury it in the Canadian Shield.
Eight CANDU reactors out of 20 owned by Ontario Power Generation have been idled because of structural and safety problems and may require as much as $10 billion in repairs.
"Until Canada starts thinking about phasing out nuclear power, we're going to have more hair-brained ideas like importing MOX to keep the industry going," Edwards says.
Despite the opinions of experts and no mandate from the Canadian public, the government is pushing ahead with the proposal that Edwards refers to as "Jean Chretien's baby."
But perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the plan to Edwards is the potential to commercialize the use of MOX fuel using weapons-grade plutonium.
"Canada would be contributing to a global move toward a plutonium economy," he says.
Transporting the fuel to reactors around the world will make it easier for criminal elements to get their hands on the material as well, he says.
Russia regards plutonium as a national treasure and would want to use it in its reactors.
It's a more likely scenario Russia would only have one production line in a MOX plant for Canadian reactors and would sell the fuel, Edwards says.
The rest would be for its own use, essentially using Western countries to subsidize its own plutonium initiatives, he says.
"It institutionalizes and commercializes the use of plutonium. That means never getting rid of plutonium, just recycling it for generations to come," Edwards says.
The federal government has promised full public hearings if it decides to pursue a full-scale MOX initiative once the test of 10 kilograms of fuel is complete, probably in two to three years.
[ The Dangers of Encouraging Plutonium Use ]
[ Bomb Makers Speak Out Against Plutonium ]
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Bruce Surette, a research scientist at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.'s Chalk River facility, holds a fuel bundle similar to one containing plutonium from dismantled warheads that will be assembled at the laboratory for a test burn later this fall. JOHN SIZE, THE NUGGET