Pierre Elliot Trudeau banned the extraction of plutonium from used nuclear fuel in Canada. Yesterday Justin Trudeau lifted the ban under a smokescreen of Orwellian doublespeak.
On March 18 in Saint John, the federal government handed $50.5 million in taxpayer funds to a private company from the UK, Moltex Energy, to develop a technology that proposes to extract plutonium from used nuclear fuel from the Point Lepreau reactor on the Bay of Fundy.
During the announcement, presenters including Premier Higgs referred to the technology as “recycling,” despite the fact that less than one percent of the material in the used nuclear fuel will be available as fuel for the Moltex reactor. Experts on nuclear waste have raised alarms about the process, pointing out that the process will create new, toxic liquid radioactive waste streams that will be very difficult and expensive to manage.
Federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan has also referred to the plutonium plan as “recycling” used fuel, and New Brunswick Minister of National Resources and Energy Development, Mike Holland, has been promoting the idea. The innocuous “recycling” label for the dirty and dangerous process aligns with the federal and provincial government agreement to brand nuclear power as a “clean technology.”
Plutonium is the primary nuclear explosive material in the world’s arsenals of nuclear weapons. However, plutonium can also fuel nuclear reactors, and the nuclear industry in Canada has never lost sight of its dream of using plutonium as fuel in this country. Now the industry is developing its fantasy in New Brunswick.
A derivative of uranium that does not exist in nature, plutonium is one of the many radioactive materials created inside every nuclear reactor fuelled with uranium. In New Brunswick, the used fuel from the existing Point Lepreau CANDU reactor is stored on-site in secure temporary and aging concrete silos.
Extracting the plutonium from Point Lepreau’s used fuel rods is a key component of the design for one of two experimental nuclear reactors for New Brunswick. In the design, the extracted plutonium would be transformed into fuel for the new reactor. New Brunswick’s plutonium plan is a marked departure from current practice in Canada.
Countries that extract or separate plutonium from used nuclear reactor fuel – either for military or commercial use – require special oversight from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Only a handful of countries do it commercially: the UK, France, India, Japan and Russia. China is expected to commercialize the process by 2025. Adding Canada to this list would be a milestone in international relations. And yet New Brunswick is planning to do it, without any Parliamentary debate.
The link between nuclear weapons and nuclear power is strong but rarely acknowledged. The first nuclear reactors were built not to produce electricity but rather to produce plutonium for bombs. From 1945 to 1965, Canada made plutonium at Chalk River and sold it to the U.S. military for use in bombs.
In 1974, India exploded its first atomic bomb using plutonium created in a Canadian nuclear reactor, a gift from Canada. Several years later, extracting plutonium from used nuclear fuel was banned by the Carter administration in the U.S. and the first Trudeau administration in Canada. South Korea and Taiwan were likewise forbidden (with pressure from the U.S.) to do it.
Why did both the U.S. and Canada ban this “recycling” scheme? It is highly dangerous and polluting to “open up” the used nuclear fuel in order to extract the desired plutonium; and extracting plutonium creates a civilian traffic in highly dangerous materials that can be used by governments or criminals or terrorists to make powerful nuclear weapons without the need for terribly sophisticated or readily detectable infrastructure.
The New Brunswick design is owned by Moltex Energy, a start-up UK company with an office in Saint John. The New Brunswick government gave Moltex $5 million in 2018 to develop its design. In 2020, the federally funded Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) funded Moltex to conduct fuel research with the University of New Brunswick, and two federal departments kicked in another $50.5 million to the project yesterday.
The Moltex design includes a nuclear reactor and a plutonium separation facility. The experimental process is called “pyroprocessing.” The process would dissolve the Point Lepreau reactor’s used fuel in very hot molten salt, separate the plutonium and other fissionable elements using electrodes, and transform it into new fuel for its proposed nuclear reactor.
The U.S. has prevented South Korea from using this same technology for many years because of the very real danger of stimulating further nuclear weapons proliferation.
Should Canada be leading the way towards undoing the global non-proliferation regime, which is already shaky and in danger of disintegration?
Canada needs to have a clear policy, debated in Parliament, on extracting plutonium from used nuclear fuel. We could follow the logic of Canada’s work to achieve a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty that would ban the production of plutonium for weapons use. Since all plutonium can be used for weapons, banning reprocessing of all kinds would be advisable.
Interestingly, the second nuclear reactor design proposed for New Brunswick also raises nuclear weapons proliferation concerns. In 2018, New Brunswick also gave $5 million to a U.S. company, ARC Nuclear, also with an office in Saint John, to develop its technology at Point Lepreau. In February this year, the New Brunswick government announced another $20 million to the ARC company to develop its design. The first $5 million of this latest gift was handed to ARC without any strings attached, according to Minister Holland.
The ARC-100 design proposes to use uranium enriched to 10.1%, 12.1% and 17.2% levels – all at the same time. These levels of enrichment are unusually high, rarely seen in any reactor in North America. Canada’s uranium industry cannot supply enriched uranium of any kind. Uranium enrichment is a very “sensitive” technology.
When Iran announced recently that it was enriching uranium to 20% the whole world expressed alarm because of nuclear weapons proliferation concerns. The Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated under Obama, trashed under Trump, and now possibly resuscitated under Biden, binds Iran to not enrich uranium beyond 3.67% – similar to the enriched fuel used in American reactors.
But the ARC promoters do not limit themselves to uranium enriched to unusually high level, they also claim that they may choose to use plutonium extracted from American nuclear waste, or even to make use of the explosive fissile materials removed from dismantled nuclear warheads.
That latter claim brings to mind the debacle in 1996, when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien offered to import weapons plutonium from Russia and the U.S. to “burn it up” in CANDU reactors at the Bruce nuclear station in Ontario. AECL was very keen on this as it had lost a bid in 1977 to build a reprocessing plant in Canada for the purpose of “recycling” plutonium from CANDU used fuel.
At the time, the idea of bringing in weapons grade plutonium from Russia and the U.S. inspired a national protest with significant media coverage, public meetings in many Canadian cities, and a lawsuit in U.S. federal court. The protests were successful in stopping the CANDU plutonium-burning scheme.
And now extracting plutonium and maybe importing plutonium is being proposed again, in New Brunswick.
To date, there has been no public consultation, no Parliamentary debate, indeed no open democratic process whatsoever for New Brunswickers or all Canadians to learn about the facts and implications of New Brunswick’s plans and to decide if Canada should go down this path.
We urge Parliament to give this plutonium extraction plan informed debate and ongoing oversight. Until that happens, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs should immediately press the pause button, to give everyone time to stop and think.
An earlier version of this article was published in French in l’Acadie Nouvelle.
Dr. Susan O’Donnell, a researcher specializing in technology adoption and environmental issues, is the leader of the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Dr. Gordon Edwards, a scientist, nuclear consultant and President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, is based in Montreal.