To the Editor, Peace and Environment News:

The subject of destroying weapons-grade Plutonium in CANDU nuclear reactors was approached in two manners in your Feature Supplement, July/August 1997 issue. Robin Collins ("Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Proliferation: Sober Second Thoughts") has taken the tim e to investigate both sides of the issue, and accordingly presents a fairly balanced account. The Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout, on the other hand, presents a shallow and one-sided argument ("Weapons Plutonium Opposed for Fueling CANDUs"), perhaps expect ed from a source with such a moniker. I wish to address the latter's points, which I summarize below, one by one.

  • The import of Plutonium-bearing (MOX) will add to Canada's nuclear waste problems, and is not a true "swords to ploughshares" initiative since more plutonium is created as the fuel burns in a nuclear reactor.

    There will be very little new plutonium created in the MOX fuel, and that which is present to begin with will be denatured by changing the ratio of isotopes within the fuel - decreasing the amount that is useful for weapons, and increasing the amount that is detrimental for weapons. This is the fundamental concept behind the program. The mix of plutonium that is left will be highly unsuitable for weapons-use, and the nature of the spent fuel will be similar to spent fuel currently produced in CANDU reac tors. Since the MOX fuel will replace the fuel normally used by these reactors, the net effect is simply the destruction of weapons-grade Plutonium (with free fuel). Readers should note that CANDU reactors already burn Plutonium, since over half of the energy generated by a CANDU fuel bundle is produced by Plutonium in the fuel as it nears the end of its stay in the reactor.

  • The MOX initiative will "prop up" an ailing Canadian nuclear industry.

    Here we have the agenda of The Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout - the destruction of the nuclear industry. This mandate drives their entire position on MOX burning, for what could be worse than having global peace associated with nuclear energy? Accordingl y, suggestions are made that the reactors will be operated unsafely and in the face of more economical, environmental alternatives. Unless an unforeseen technology emerges in the next 25 years, nuclear power will be the economical, environmental alternat ive. There are no more rivers to dam, and passive technologies like solar and wind are impractical for baseload supply in our climate. Even the most vociferous anti-nuclear groups pay lip-service to renewable sources while touting the so-called environm ental benefits of natural gas (a benefit, only, if nuclear power is removed from the scene).

  • Plutonium poses an undue health risk that must be avoided. The 600 grams to be "test-burned" at Chalk River Labs could, if evenly dispersed, kill about three-quarters of the Canadian population.

    Plutonium is a toxic element. Nobody knows that better than the nuclear employees who work with the material on a daily basis. However, both natural gas and automotive gasoline are also toxic substances, and I have no qualms about burning them in my hou se and car. Why? Because they are properly handled and contained. The same argument holds true for Plutonium. Encased in ceramic fuel and handled with all the care deserving of a toxic, radioactive material, Plutonium will not pose an undue health ris k to the population. The cheat that it could kill millions "if evenly dispersed" is transparent. Why not ban hydro power, since the water held in a single reservoir could drown the world's population, if evenly dispersed? Furthermore, what about the to ns of Plutonium that have been released to the atmosphere since the inception of weapons testing? Surely there is enough there for "micrograms" to be deposited in every lung on earth? Clearly, mitigating factors are at work, and with nuclear power the first mitigating factor is safe handling. Chalk River Labs has been testing advanced fuels, including Plutonium, for decades.

  • The security measures required will compromise the civil liberties of Canadians, since MOX fuel will be an attractive target for terrorists.

    There is no doubt that the MOX shipments will require significant security measures, but the terrorist attraction is not practical. Minute quantities of Plutonium will be present in each fuel bundle, requiring the theft of hundreds of bundles and subseq uent chemical separation in a state-of-the art facility. There are better places to target weapons-grade Plutonium, starting with the stockpiles of the stuff that lie around the world today (and hence the need for final disposal). The civil liberties an gle is another transparent ruse, since routine exercises with comparable security are conducted annually in Canada, and I doubt most citizens are aware of their existence.

In summary, the article by The Campaign for Nuclear Phaseout is too heavily influenced by an ulterior agenda to be of any relevance in the debate over weapons-grade Plutonium disposition. If by nothing else, this fact is made clear by the lack of alterna te suggestions for dealing with the stockpiled Plutonium, let alone a comparison of relative merits. Surely we can't leave this stuff lying around, and surely making electricity (at free cost to Canadians) is making the best of an ugly situation. I sugg est that the CNP is not only ill-equipped to rationally approach this issue, they are uninterested as well.

Jeremy Whitlock