Briefing Note on "Parallex Project"
to Import Weapons Grade Plutonium
Atomic Energy of Canada Limited
is proposing to bring 50 tons of weapons grade plutonium into Canada from
an U.S. nuclear weapons program and another 50 tons from Russia over a
period of 25 years. Since using the plutonium as part of the fuel load
for a nuclear reactor would make the plutonium less usable for bombs, the
proponents portray it as a "swords into ploughshares" initiative. However,
other options, such as the "immobilization" alternative (see below) are
a much preferred to the MOX option for handling plutonium extracted from
bombs by environmental and peace groups in all three countries.
An initial shipment of 120
grams of plutonium from Los Alamos and a similar amount from Russian was
announced on September 2, 1999 by the Department of Energy in the U.S.
and the Departments of Natural Resources and of Foreign Affairs and International
Trade in Canada. The shipment from New Mexico was to enter Canada at Sault
Ste. Marie and travel to Chalk River via Highway 17; the shipment from
Russia is to arrive at the port in Cornwall, where it will be unloaded
and sent by truck to Chalk River. A limited public notice and consultation
program was held by Transport Canada in the fall of 1999 on the transportation
and emergency response plans for the route from Sault Ste. Marie to Chalk
River and Cornwall to Chalk River. Overwhelmingly, the public response
was negative, with First Nations, municipalities and community organizations
expressing opposition to the proposed import and transport routes, and
identifying major deficiencies in the plans.
On January 14, the first
shipment of American plutonium was flown by helicopter from Sault Ste.
Marie to Chalk River, despite Transport Canada's statements in October
that transportation by flight was illegal in Canada, and that an acceptable
container had not yet been developed. Several organizations are challenging
the legality of that action.
Here are the issues in a
Plutonium is a nuclear explosive;
only a few kilograms are needed to make a powerful nuclear weapon, and
any well-equipped group can make such a weapon if they have the plutonium.
For this reason, storing, transporting, and handling plutonium all pose
great security risks.
Plutonium is dangerous when
inhaled, but it does not give off penetrating radiation; this means it
can be stolen, hidden, and smuggled across borders with relative ease --
whether in a pure form or as MOX fuel.
Nuclear proponents argue that
"burning" plutonium in a reactor will "eliminate" the storage problem.
But the plutonium is not eliminated, as the plutonium remaining in the
used fuel is about 2/3 of the original amount. The storage problem doesn't
disappear; it's just different.
Plutonium in used nuclear fuel
is hard to get at, at least for a century or two, because of the intense
penetrating radiation of the fission products. So spent fuel does provide
a "radiological barrier", making the acquisition of "separated" (uncontaminated)
plutonium difficult -- but not impossible.
The same radiological barrier
can be provided quicker and more cheaply, by mixing plutonium with fission
products directly. The mixture can be "glassified" -- cast into radioactive
glass logs weighing two tons each -- all within a tight security net and
with very little transportation or handling.
Since plutonium has a half-life
of 24,000 years while most fission products are gone within a few centuries
the radiological barrier is only a temporary one. However, glass logs can
be remelted and additional fission products added as needed; the same remedial
action cannot be taken with used fuel.
If Canada or the U.S. starts
using plutonium-based MOX fuel in civilian reactors, a dangerous precedent
will be set, in effect legitimizing the use of plutonium as the nuclear
fuel of the future. How can other countries be prevented from following
Many countries -- Japan, France,
India, Russia, Germany, England, even Canada -- already anticipate using
plutonium-based MOX fuel on a large scale in future. Such a development
would not eliminate plutonium, but institutionalize it; the associated
problems would thus be perpetuated.
The Canadian MOX initiative
will require that Ontario's nuclear reactors be operated for another 25
years at least. Already 8 of these reactors have been shut down because
of excessive corrosion and routine disregard of good safety practices.
The immobilization option --
mixing plutonium with highly radioactive fission products, and giving the
mixture a physical form which is difficult to handle, such as two-ton glass
logs -- achieves all of the stated objectives while avoiding most of the
problems associated with the MOX initiative.