TORONTO — CANADA'S nuclear industry is pushing hard to get the government to permit plutonium extracted from American and Russian missile warheads to be used in commercial nuclear reactors in Canada, Canadian and US experts say.
News reports in Canada earlier this week cited unnamed senior government sources as saying Prime Minister Jean Chretien had given his blessing to the idea and would push it in talks with the United States and other industrial powers at the G-7 summit talks April 19-20 in Moscow.
A spokesman for the prime minister's office denies Mr. Chretien has made any decision on plutonium use, telling the Monitor it is just "one option" under serious consideration.
Groups in Canada and the US have reacted strongly to the report that Canada may soon embrace the commercial use of plutonium. Less than 18 pounds of plutonium is needed to make a Nagasaki-size nuclear bomb.
The US has long opposed the civilian use of plutonium, fearing the emergence of a global "plutonium economy" in which the bombmaking material becomes traded commercially and tight security is impossible to enforce. To prevent plutonium falling into the wrong hands, every American president since Gerald Ford has opposed the use of it in civilian reactors. That policy would have to change, however, if the US decides to ship plutonium to Canada.
"We're very concerned about the precedent it would set for the rest of the world if Canada gives its stamp of approval for plutonium use," says Steven Dolley, research director of the Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington-based public-policy think tank. "We don't want to see it used in civilian reactors because we think it is impossible to safeguard."
"Canadian and US endorsement of the plutonium economy is the big issue," adds Gordon Thompson, a reactor physicist and director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies in Cambridge, Mass. "Canada is regarded as a good citizen in the world. Anything it does carries a legitimizing aura."
Canadian officials see it differently. "Canada has a long-standing policy of encouraging the nuclear powers to disarm," says Ted Thexton, director of the nuclear-energy division of Canada's Department of Natural Resources. "If the use of our reactors turns out to make a valuable contribution in turning swords to plowshares, we of course would want to look at that possibility seriously."
About 100 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium from Russian and American missiles will be stockpiled for disposal under arms-control agreements. One proposed plan for disposing of it would be to contaminate the plutonium to make it unusable and encase it in glass logs for burial. Another plan calls for using the plutonium as fuel in reactors, then burying the residue. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), the government-owned builder of nuclear plants, and Ontario Hydro, the nation's largest nuclear utility, are lobbying the US Department of Energy (DOE) to chose this option.
Many options under review
The US has weighed options as far-ranging as launching plutonium into space in a rocket. That plan didn't make the cut. But at least 10 other options are under review. A presidential decision is unlikely until sometime after the US elections this fall.
Under the Canadian proposal to DOE, modified-oxide plutonium fuel would be packaged into fuel rods in the US and shipped 54 times a year to the Bruce A nuclear station in Ontario, 180 miles northeast of Detroit on the shore of Lake Huron.
The transport of the fuel and its use in Canada's heavy-water reactors "should not create any new environmental, safety, or health concerns in Canada," says a statement by the companies in the DOE's draft environmental-impact statement released last month.
Canada's heavy-water reactors would be a good choice to "dispose" of the plutonium because they would be more efficient in using it up and would need few if any reactor modifications, officials at Ontario Hydro, AECL, and the Canadian government say. US light-water reactors can process plutonium, but would require more modification.
Help for ailing nuclear plant
What do the AECL and Ontario Hydro get out of the bargain?
Mr. Grava says Ontario Hydro will save a little on its fuel bill. On the other hand, AECL would get to show off its technology. Aided by Prime Minister Chretien, AECL has pushed reactor sales to Indonesia, China, and Latin American countries. Thus a hidden motive, critics say, might be to help sell reactors abroad, although a company spokesman denied it.
But the main rationale, according to Canadian critics, is that it would permit Ontario Hydro to finance a longer life span for its ailing Bruce A facility, a four-reactor complex with one reactor already mothballed because of design problems too expensive to fix. The Bruce A plant is 19 years old, with a design life of at least 40 years. But the only sure way to keep the reactors going 25 more years is by funneling in cash, they say.
"The plutonium program just provides a new source of money to feed the Bruce A plant," says Tom Adams, a researcher with Energy Probe, a Toronto research group specializing in energy and environmental issues.
Mr. Adams also says that running weapons-grade plutonium through the Canadian reactors doesn't really dispose of it. According to Grava of Ontario Hydro, under the Canadian proposal 50 tons of US plutonium would be used by the Bruce A reactors over a 25-year period. He admits that about half of the plutonium would remain after the fuel rods were used up. The highly radioactive remains would be buried, he says.
Canadian officials say that if Canada does decide to permit plutonium use at Bruce A and its sister plant, Bruce B, it will not expand that use to other Canadian reactors.
Unlike the US, which would presumably give Canada plutonium for nothing and sustain the costs of converting the plutonium into fuel, Russia regards its plutonium as a natural treasure. It would want payment.
"We're interested in doing the right thing," says Mr. Thexton of Canada's Department of Natural Resources. "It has to be done in a way that meets all Canada's safety requirements."