Environment

Debating the CANDU option

Should Canada process plutonium?

MARK NICHOLS May 6 1996
Environment

Debating the CANDU option

Should Canada process plutonium?

MARK NICHOLS May 6 1996

Debating the CANDU option

Environment

Should Canada process plutonium?

It is one of the world’s most toxic substances: inhaling even a tiny fragment of plutonium can bring death within months. Because it is also a devastating explosive, plutonium was one of the main ingredients in bombs and missiles manufactured during the Cold War. Now, with the United States and Russia committed to dismantling much of their nuclear weaponry, both countries are grappling with the question of what do with the plutonium. It is an urgent issue because of the nightmarish possibility that terrorists or renegade governments could use stolen plutonium to make nuclear weapons. As it happens, Canada has a proposal that could help the U.S. and Russian governments out of their nuclear dilemma: why not burn the plutonium in CANDU reactors? The idea has set off a heated debate, with environmentalists claiming that Ottawa’s real

motive is to find a new rationale—and cash—for Canada’s flagging nuclear industry. “It’s a total scam,” says Steve Shallhorn,

Greenpeace Canada’s campaign director. “There’s no legitimate reason why Canada should get involved in burning plutonium in its reactors.”

The Canadian plan is one of several methods currently under consideration in Washington for disposing of about 37 tons of surplus American plutonium. And Prime Minister Jean Chrétien promoted the idea during a meeting of world leaders held in Moscow last month to discuss nuclear security on the 10th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear acci-

dent—the explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl reactor. At the meeting, Russian officials agreed to study the possibility of burning some of their plutonium in Canadian reactors. ‘The plutonium has to be destroyed,” said Chrétien, “and a lot of

people believe that our CANDU reactor is the best way to do it.”

The Moscow meeting had barely ended when there were further ominous reminders of the risks involved in operating nuclear power plants. On April 20, Ontario Hydro, the publicly owned power utility, began shutting down all eight reactors at its Pickering electricity-generating plant, just east of Toronto, after inspectors spotted a faulty valve in a backup safety system. In an unrelated accident five days earlier, 1,000 litres of radioactive tritium leaked into Lake Ontario from a heat exchanger on one of the Pickering reactors. Ontario Hydro officials said that the leak posed no threat to the public.

Some environmentalists maintain that the plan to process plutonium in CANDUs is fraught with hazards because Ontario Hydro plans to use obsolescent reactors that would otherwise be retired. Hydro officials say the reactors are in good working condition. Other critics foresee massive security and safety problems if weapons-grade plutonium is brought into the country. Canadian officials have an answer to that objection, too: before it reaches Canada, they say, U.S. and Russian plutonium would be combined with refined uranium to form a less volatile substance called MOX (for mixed-oxide fuel) that is relatively safe and easy to handle.

Washington is further along in the process of deciding how to dispose of its plutonium—and Canadian officials hope the U.S. decision will lead to a multimilliondollar contract for burning MOX in Ontario reactors. In a July, 1994, submission to the U.S. department of energy, the federally backed Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and Ontario Hydro proposed that MOX could be processed in two of the eight reactors at Hydro’s Bruce generating station, 200 km northwest of Toronto. Experts say the CANDU is particularly suited to the task. The reason: unlike most other reactors, CANDUs can be fuelled while they are running. “The on-line fuelling capability,” says Ron Oberth, business development manager for Ontario Hydro’s nuclear division, “means that we can feed in MOX in a way that optimizes reactor performance.”

Critics of the scheme say that despite its swords-into-plowshares billing, one of the main objectives of the Canadian proposal is to keep the Bruce reactors in operation. Both units will need about $500 million worth of repairs by the middle of the next decade, and a plutonium contract could help pay the bills. Beyond that, environmentalists argue that public disillusion-

ment with nuclear energy and poor overseas sales of CANDU reactors have left Canada’s nuclear establishment searching for a new justification. “At a time when we should be heading towards a phasing out of the nuclear industry,” says Andrew Chisholm, a spokesman for the Ottawabased Sierra Club of Canada, “they’re looking for anything that will extend the life of old reactors and keep the industry going.” The Canadian proposal is just one of the options being studied in Washington. Among the others: plutonium could be burned in U.S. reactors or sealed in glass or ceramic material and buried in heavily guarded sites. According to Dave Nulton,

an official in the U.S. department of energy, a decision is expected by the end of the year—and “there is no preferred alternative as yet.” If the CANDU plan is selected, a full-scale environmental review would have to be held in Canada. But even if the Bruce reactors begin processing MOX some time in the next century, that will not get rid of all the plutonium. As much as a third of it would survive in the spent fuel and become part of the problem Ottawa faces in finding a safe repository for the 1,400 tons of nuclear waste already generated by the CANDUs.

MARK NICHOLS