Isn't MOX one way
to phase out plutonium?

an exchange of correspondence
between GE of CCNR and DH

August 17 2000

Dear GE:

Isn't MOX one way to phase out plutonium?

Should we not be in favour of it?

Or is that too subversive a thought?



GE's Reply:

MOX is not a way to phase out plutonium; MOX is a way to commercialize plutonium, which is why Russia wants to do it. And, I suspect, it is a big part of the reason why AECL wants to do it.

In the early 1990s, when the Americans first faced the problem of what to do with excess weapons plutonium, they asked the US National Academy of Sciences to look at the question. The NAS 1994 report pointed out there is no way to eliminate plutonium -- all you can do is make it a bit harder to access.

Originally, the US Government wanted to simply "immobilize" all the surplus plutonium. That means mixing it with high-level liquid radioactive wastes, of which there are millions of gallons left over from the bomb program, and then solidifying the mixture as large, highly radioactive glass logs weighing about 2 tons each.

According to the NAS, this process provides the same security, for the same reasons, as converting the plutonium into spent fuel in a nuclear reactor: since two-thirds of the plutonium remains in the spent fuel....

Russia, however, did not want to immobilize their plutonium. The Russians regard plutonium as a highly valuable resource, and have always wanted to use it to power their domestic nuclear reactors but could not afford to do so since MOX fuel is 4-7 times more expensive than uranium fuel. The dream of the "plutonium economy" in which plutonium from civilian reactors is recycled as fuel in an endless loop has long been the ultimate desire of many (I would say most) nuclear proponents.

But the "plutonium economy" scenario was examined in the late 1970's by the Flowers Royal Commission in Britain, the GESMO Hearings in the US, (Generic Environmental Statement on Mixed Oxide Fuel) and many other US reports, and it was touched on in many other reports including the 1978 Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning Report, "A Race Against Time."

At that time, the nuclear industries in many countries -- including AECL in Canada -- were lobbying very hard to get civilian plutonium recycling established in their respective countries. But the Carter Administration blew the whistle on the entire concept, pointing out that proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities would be virtually impossible to prevent if tons of plutonium were circulating in the civilian economy on a regular basis. A few kilograms are enough for a national or sub-national group to make an atomic bomb.

So the Carter Administration outlawed civilian plutonium reprocessing in the US, and tried to get that ban extended worldwide. Very reluctantly, the German and British and French pulled in their horns -- they had been aggressively marketing reprocessing technology to places like Korea, Pakistan, Brazil, Argentina, and the mid-East, and they agreed to stop selling the technology under US pressure and in the wake of the Indian 1974 atomic bomb test using plutonium obtained by reprocessing spent fuel from a civilian research reactor (a gift from Canada).

By 1980, it was generally acknowledged that creating a world-wide traffic in plutonium would make the proliferation of nuclear weapons extremely difficult to control, because of the lack of "timely warning" between diversion (of plutonium) and producing an atomic bomb.

A recent study by Sandia Labs, commissioned by the US Department of Energy's Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, pointed out that four men could, in four weeks, separate out enough plutonium from MOX fuel to make a Nagasaki type atomic bomb. All the other components of the bomb can be obtained from regular "hardware" outlets, there are no restricted parts other than the plutonium, so the bomb can be built ahead of time waiting for the plute to be put in it.

So now it appears that Russia wants its moribund nuclear industry to have a new lease on life, and they see an opportunity to get hard western currency to set up the infrastructure in Russia to produce MOX fuel, which can subsequently be used to recycle civilian plutonium in perpetuity. Needless to say, this does not "solve" the plutonium problem, but merely compounds it by institutionalizing it and perpetuating it.

Even in the short term, circulating MOX fuel in the Russian civilian economy will make the prospects for theft or diversion of plutonium worse, not better. The only thing less secure than the Russian military nuclear establishments are the Russian civilian nuclear establishments.

Meanwhile, worlwide, the stockpiles of separated civilian plutonium are larger than the stockpiles of separated military plutonium, and they are growing faster. The MOX proposal, if fully implemented over 25 years, would see a world in which the total stocks of separated plutonium are far greater than they are today, because plutonium is being produced and separated at a faster rate than it would be used as fuel. (Moreover, about 2/3 of the plutonium in the fuel is not destroyed but remains in the spent fuel -- but that's another question.)

The bottom line is this. The Canadian Government is not against the production, separation and stockpiling of plutonium. In fact, Ottawa gives explicit permission to countries like France and Japan to produce, separate and stockpile plutonium produced from Saskatchewan uranium.

If, in addition, Canada starts using MOX fuel in civilian reactors, and US does the same, it will be seen as a green light to the plutonium recycling advocates around the world. In particular, valuable data involving "plutonium-fuelled CANDU reactors" will undoubtedly encourage CANDU owners such as Korea, India, Pakistan, Argentina, Romania, to develop plutonium recycling in their own reactors.

Immobilization puts plutonium out of circulation, whereas MOX puts plutonium into circulation. Immobilization leaves plutonium under tight military security, which should be international in nature, whereas MOX puts plutonium into the civilian economy of potentially very many countries. If this is part of the scenario, then the MOX option does not make the world a safer place, but a far more dangerous one.

It is incredible that such important issues should be decided by a handful of non-scientists in the inner cabinet, acting on the advice of scientists who are almost all drawn from the nuclear establishment, without any democratic decision-making process whatsoever.

We are doing everything we can to wake up Canadians to the fact that the stakes are very high, and the risk of our governments being duped by an industrial lobby group (as they have been in the past by the tobacco industry, for example) is too great a risk to take. Democracy must prevail when the implications are so great.

I appreciate your interest in these issues and invite you to consult our web site at for more information on these matters.

Best regards,


P.S. In 1978, Dean Uffen, Head of the Queen's University Engineering Faculty, ex-Vice-Chairman of Ontario Hydro, and a member of the Club of Rome, testified to the Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning and the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Works that he fully endorses the Conclusion of the Flowers Report that

''The dangers of the creation of plutonium in large quantities in conditions of increasing world unrest are genuine and serious. We should not rely for energy supply on a process that produces such a hazardous substance as plutonium unless there is no reasonable alternative.''

Dean Uffen expressed himself as opposed to the use of plutonium fuel in CANDU reactors -- something which AECL was trying to put in place at that time.

August 17 2000

Dear GE:

I appreciate your thoughtful and informative response to my question. I do not in general support the "plutonium economy" any more than you do.

I guess my inability to be axiomatically opposed to taking Russian plutonium out of circulation via the MOX route rests on my inability to see a better way to separate the Russians from their plutonium. Perhaps I am being too pessimistic about alternative means of getting Russian plutonium out of harm's way?

Anyway, your message will help me in thinking about this challenging issue, and I am grateful to you for taking the time to respond.



GE's Reply:

The Canadian MOX initiative will NOT separate Russians from their plutonium. Most, and perhaps all, of the Russian plutonium will stay in Russia, and be recirculated in their civilian nuclear reactors.

If Canada gets a "piece of the action", it will simply serve to legitimize what the Russians are doing and encourage other countries that the "coast is clear" to start using plutonium fuel themselves.

Instead, Canada and US should be taking a stand AGAINST the production, separation and use of plutonium in the civilian economy. The Americans could BUY the Russian plutonium for under $2 billion (they already bought over $11 billion worth of weapons-grade uranium!!) and then they could immobilize it either in Russia, in Europe, or in North America.

The MOX initiative is an ominous and possibly sinister step because it creates the infrastructure for a subsequent plutonium economy, demonstrably reverses the historic US opposition to the civilian use of plutonium, and implicates Canada (and by extension Canada's clients) in the same way.

Have you read Franklyn Griffiths' report on our website?

Cheers, GE.

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