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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 41, November 1999

Canada Plutonium Plan In Doubt

Canada's offer to burn US and Russian surplus weapons-grade fissile material in commercial reactors appears to be in serious difficulties. On 15 November, the US Energy Department stated that, although it still intended to ship around 120 grams of material to Canada for a trial feasibility study, it did not anticipate having to transfer any more of the material and planned instead to dispose of its surplus stocks entirely within the US. According to a Greenpeace press release issued the same day, the announcement "effectively kills the program," which many environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists have criticised on both safety and non-proliferation grounds. However, according to US Energy Department official Laura Holgate, also speaking on 15 November: "This is all in the sprit of our non-proliferation mission...to help Russia dispose of [its] surplus plutonium as rapidly as possible. The shipment from Los Alamos remains part of how we get that done. ... The question is how to help Russia get rid of the plutonium it cannot dispose of in its own reactors. There is a very short option list of how to do that and the Canadian reactor option is on that list..."

A brave face was also put on developments by Canada's Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy: "[The US] see this as a back-up or complementary procedure if necessary... [T]here is the question of Russian nuclear warheads as well down the road. .... We need to show we are still committed to nuclear disarmament: this is one way."

The trial project will be conducted at the Chalk River research facility in Ontario. The trial is designed to see if the mixed-oxide (MOX) material - 97% uranium dioxide, 3% plutonium - can be safely and efficiently burnt in Canadian Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactors. According to Norm Rubin, of the environmentalist group Energy Probe, speaking on October 31: "The worst thing about the test is that it will prove the feasibility of something [which] nice, intelligent people don't want to prove. If you prove that the CANDU is really good at using plutonium fuel, there are nasty, intelligent people who would love to make nuclear weapons under the peaceful camouflage."

Editor's note: In December 1998 the Canadian Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Policy recommended the government reject the idea of burning MOX fuel in Canada. In July 1999 the government responded to the Standing Committee's recommendations: "The Government does not endorse this recommendation... As the CANDU MOX option is viewed internationally as a feasible option and could make a valuable contribution to the disposition of weapons plutonium, thereby promoting continued dismantling of nuclear weapons, the Canadian Government's agreement in principle to consider a CANDU MOX option reflects a responsible Canadian position to meet the goals stated by the SCFAIT report. The Government does not consider there are sufficient grounds to justify abandoning the possibility of using MOX fuel in Canadian reactors as a means to reduce proliferation risks from weapons plutonium being declared surplus to defence needs in the USA and Russia." Submitted to the House of Commons by the Canadian Government on April 19, 1999. (see Disarmament Diplomacy Issue No. 33, Issue 36 & Issue 40).

Reports: Canada plan called blueprint for nuclear instability, Reuters, October 31; Canada to test US and Russian plutonium disposal, Reuters, November 15; US vows to ship plutonium to Canada, Associated Press, November 15.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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