Plutonium flown over Canada

Surprise shipment via helicopter sparks anger from environmentalists and community leaders


The Globe and Mail; With a report from Martin Mittelstaedt and Canadian Press

Saturday, January 15, 2000

Toronto -- A surprise shipment of U.S. plutonium flew over Northern Ontario yesterday, causing alarm among community leaders and environmentalists who had fought to keep the material off Canada's highways.

"I felt duped and deceived. The government had never mentioned air transport," said Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Steve Butland, who expected that the shipment would have been blocked by protesters had it moved by land.

"I don't know the repercussions if it blows up in the air and falls down on people."

Mr. Butland said he found out about the shipment only when the chief of police called him at 10 a.m. His counterpart in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., was also angry that no local officials received notice.

Although U.S. regulations prohibit plutonium shipments by air, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. loaded a drum containing a small amount of bomb-grade plutonium onto a helicopter in Sault Ste. Marie yesterday morning. The shipment to AECL's research reactor in Chalk River, Ont., is part of a plan to test recycling of bombs into reactor fuel.

"We knew the shipment was imminent, but we didn't know which day. What was completely surprising was the way it came, by air," said Steve Shallhorn, Greenpeace campaign director, who called a hasty news conference in Toronto yesterday after a tip from Michigan Greenpeace activists.

The air transfer went well and the plutonium arrived safely yesterday morning, AECL spokesman Larry Shewchuk said. The original plan was to truck 119 grams of the material along Highway 17 through a number of Northern Ontario communities.

A statement released yesterday by AECL said that the original plan to transport by road "was modified to air transport by the government of Canada" and that the container used "met all regulatory and security requirements."

Mr. Shallhorn said the fuel was shipped in a container about the size of an oil drum that is considered unsafe for air transport because it can only take an impact of 45 kilometres an hour. Air transport of the fuel was initially ruled out by Transport Canada, but later approved.

"Flying plutonium is just irresponsible and reckless," Mr. Shallhorn said.

He said U.S. regulations prohibit air transport because of the potential for scattering radioactive materials in a crash.

The fuel tubes included pellets of uranium as well as plutonium that was removed from nuclear warheads at the U.S. laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., and shipped by truck to northern Michigan. The fuel's performance will be tested in a Candu reactor.

"The theory is you can break down bomb warheads and use them in power reactors," Mr. Shallhorn said. "Greenpeace is against the whole concept. The government is claiming this is about disarmament but it's about getting Canada into the plutonium business."

None of Canada's Candu reactors use plutonium, an enriched material that can be used in nuclear weapons. Canadian reactors use low-level uranium fuel.

Greenpeace is worried the program could lead to proliferation of bomb-grade material in countries that have Canadian reactors, including India, Pakistan and China, which have nuclear-bomb programs.

Because there are no plutonium laboratories in Canada, the success of the Chalk River test, known as Parallex, would require building a new nuclear laboratory and would create a waste problem, Mr. Shallhorn said.

Chalk River will also be getting shipments of Russian bomb plutonium next spring. Plans call for the plutonium to be loaded into a ship in St. Petersburg and carried up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Cornwall, Ont. Greenpeace has been running a long-term campaign against the use of plutonium in any form. The group believes plutonium from warheads

should be encased in glass to make it unusable and put into safe, long-term storage.

Although AECL has tested such fuel before, it was the first time it had handled fuel from the United States. It was the first weapons-grade plutonium that the AECL will test. Specifically, the fuel was MOX, a mixture of 3 per cent plutonium oxide with 97 per cent uranium oxide.

Mr. Butland said he expects that such a shipment is unique. The Americans have rejected using Canadian reactors to burn large amounts of stockpiled plutonium because they have enough commercial reactors to do the job domestically at a lower price than shipping to Canada.