To Maclean's Magazine :

1998 June 4

To the Editor, Maclean's Magazine:

A couple of recent comments on the subject of the Indian atomic explosions ("Is Canada to blame?", June 4) deserve comment:

Kristen Ostling of the Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout notes that nuclear bombs can be made with plutonium, "a byproduct of the CANDU". This simplification overlooks the fact that so-called "weapons-grade" plutonium, the kind used in nuclear weapons (including India's), is radically different from "reactor-grade" plutonium, the kind found in spent power-reactor fuel like that generated at CANDU plants. Reactor-grade plutonium is highly inefficient as a bomb material, requiring greater complexity, expense, and the violation of strict international treaties, with far less potential, than the weapons-grade variety. No country has thus taken this route to weapons production, and it is noteworthy that even India, with the world's second-largest fleet of heavy-water power reactors, and even being a non-signatory to the international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, generated its weapons plutonium in a dedicated non-power reactor, like "anyone else".

An unattributed comment states that "Canada has also trained its CANDU partners in how to handle tritium produced by the reactor - a substance crucial to the development of thermonuclear weapons." This comment, echoed by many anti-nuclear activists in the media, is quite misleading, in that tritium is NOT a required component of thermonuclear weapons, or so called "hydrogen bombs". These weapons typically use a material called lithium-deuteride, which internally creates a mixture of deuterium and tritium at the moment of detonation. Tritium, as an externally-supplied substance, is useful in "boosted" fission weapons, which have yields a thousand times less than hydrogen bombs. This, combined with the fact that tritium is routinely generated around the world without the help of heavy-water power reactors like CANDU, makes the CANDU link to thermonuclear proliferation much less significant than nuclear opponents are currently claiming.

There are a number of analysts in Canada that could have supplied a balanced counterpoint to your spokesmen from the nuclear industry in your article; choosing only to quote people dedicated to the demise of Canada's nuclear power industry was a bit short of fair journalism, in my view.


Jeremy Whitlock