To The Toronto Star (published 99/10/29) in response to an article on Canada's weapons-plutonium MOX proposal:

1999 October 16

To the Editor, The Toronto Star:

Thomas Walkom hits the nail on the head ("Noble or Nutty?", October 16) when he describes plutonium as "the stuff of nuclear nightmare, for there are few substances more chilling...", and his article shows how a nightmarish dread can be nurtured by misconceptions and irrational thought. Some of his most glaring examples bear correcting, for the MOX debate is only just getting underway in this country:

Your readers may be surprised to learn that plutonium is not as remote a beast as Mr. Walkom portrays. Contrary to his suggestion, the "minuscule" amount of plutonium created routinely in CANDU reactors accounts for about one-quarter of the electrical energy consumed in the province of Ontario each day. CANDU was designed to generate about half of its energy from plutonium (and since half of Ontario's electricity supply is nuclear, this chalks up one-quarter of the supply to the "gun-metal gray, radioactive metal").

Although plutonium is a highly toxic material worthy of respectful handling, Mr. Walkom's claim "sniff plutonium and you die" is as factually incorrect as it is rhetorically effective. Like any toxic material, plutonium presents a range of risk dependent upon the dose in question, and there are literally hundreds of documented cases of workers inhaling significant plutonium doses, and very clearly not dying - even fifty years later. Concern is valid, but fear-mongering is unwarranted and counter-productive.

Mr. Walkom strongly implies that India used Canadian-designed power reactors to create the plutonium for its 1974 atomic bomb. In fact, India created its plutonium then as now - in a dedicated plutonium production reactor designed for producing much more than "minuscule" quantities of the material. The distinction is important but often misunderstood, largely because the Indian production reactor in question was also of Canadian origin. It is important to note that the proliferation was not due to power reactor usage.

Mr. Walkom repeats a common criticism that we will be saddled with "tonnes of plutonium waste" from a full-scale MOX project. This argument overlooks the fact that the MOX fuel simply replaces the "regular" supply of nuclear fuel for the CANDU reactors in question. And rarely does the argument concede, as it rightfully should, that the MOX fuel will in fact produce up to 70% LESS waste compared to regular fuel. There is therefore a net benefit to Canadians from all of this.

But even more to the point, I wonder how those who oppose taking "other people's garbage", even for the greater good of weapons material destruction, feel about Canada sending young soldiers to protect human rights in foreign lands, or sending food and money to aid those less fortunate outside our borders? Is our good will only good as long as our backyards are kept pristine?

Finally, it amazes me that observers like Mr. Walkom are not impressed by the fact that CANDU reactors can destroy "only" 50% of the plutonium, while others like Dr. Franklyn Griffiths scoff at the small amount of total plutonium available, compared to what's out there. Surely the destruction of any amount of weapons plutonium is a worthy endeavour, and if we can make electricity while doing so, while generating 70% less nuclear waste (and no air pollution), I say let's keep this idea on the table.

Instead, opponents suggest we put all of our eggs into the only other viable basket - the immobilization of weapons plutonium with fission products, and indefinite storage under high security. Unfortunately, this leaves the plutonium at 100% inventory and 100% weapons-grade virtually forever - eternally retrievable through the simple process of remelting the glassified blocks. Burning the plutonium has its drawbacks as well, but at least it permanently destroys a large fraction of the material and leaves the rest in a denatured, substandard grade. The U.S. DOE feels that we should hedge our bets and keep both options open, and I and others (including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) agree.

What's more, CANDU reactors have the potential to destroy up to 94% of the fissile plutonium fed into it, using advanced fueling technology now under development by AECL. I am proud to be part of an industry that can offer this kind of contribution to the world's disarmament efforts, and I hope we can avoid a precipitous political decision at this point that would kill the potential for this contribution. Hopefully, Mr. Walkom and others now realize that there is more to this story than first perceived.


Jeremy Whitlock, Ph.D.