Canada OKs Import of Russian Plutonium by Air

By Neville Judd

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, September 22, 2000 (ENS) - Weapons grade plutonium fuel will be flown from Russia to a nuclear laboratory in northern Ontario after the Canadian government approved an emergency response plan on Thursday.

The shipment's schedule and route will be kept secret.

Now groups campaigning to stop the flight on safety grounds are concerned the public will not be informed of the mixed oxide fuel's arrival, even after the fact. Groups such as Greenpeace claim that plutonium is unsafe for transport for safety and security reasons and should remain in Russia to be turned into glass or ceramic logs - a process known as vitrification.

protest

Last year Greenpeace toured Central and Eastern Canada alerting communities to the possible shipment of plutonium through their communities. Now the shipment will arrive by air. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace Canada)
The United States and the Russian Federation have each declared about 50 metric tons of weapons plutonium surplus to their defence needs. The Canadian government has agreed to examine the concept of using Canadian CANDU reactors to make electricity from mixed oxide fuel (MOX) derived from U.S. and Russian surplus weapons plutonium.

Tests will involve irradiating three experimental CANDU fuel bundles, containing laboratory produced MOX fuel fabricated with plutonium derived from weapons. The goal is to assess the suitability of CANDU MOX fuel for rendering weapons derived plutonium permanently inaccessible for use in nuclear weapons.

A MOX shipment from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico was flown to Canada in January amid much protest. A coalition of groups sued Transport Canada claiming that the government ruled out air transport and then flew the plutonium at the last minute, without prior public notification or consultation.

That suit has since been dropped because Transport Canada agreed to a longer public consultation for the second shipment, due from the A.A. Bochvar Institute in Moscow. That consultation period ended September 15 and yesterday, Transport Canada announced its approval of the emergency response assistance plan.

The final plan submitted by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited explains how the government owned company would assist in the event of an accident with the material to be shipped.

The shipment will contain 528 grams of weapons derived plutonium contained in 14.5 kilograms of ceramic MOX fuel pellets housed inside 28 Zircaloy seal-welded metal tubes.

The original plan had to be revised after Transport Canada asked AECL to describe how it would deal with the plutonium fuel powder escaping into the environment. That led to the public consultation period being extended by two weeks.

scientist

A scientist at work at Chalk River's lab site. (Photo courtesy AECL)
On September 12, the Toronto based Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) wrote to Transport Canada on behalf of several groups raising what it called serious deficiencies in the plan, principally the lack of information on cleanup. It asked for a further extension to the plan's public consultation period.

John Read, director general of Transport Canada's Dangerous Goods Directorate replied two days later that cleanup is not part of an emergency response assistance plan. "The fire department does not clean up the site of a fire," wrote Read. "Similarly, an emergency response assistance plan operates to remove any immediate threat to public safety but does not address cleanup and restitution of an accident site."

CELA legal counsel Theresa McClenaghan who wrote the letter said that in light of Read's reply and Transport Canada's approval for the plan, further legal avenues to prevent the shipment are limited. "In theory, there's always the possibility of judicial review but whether we will pursue that given the limited time, I don't know," said McClenaghan.

She fears that under new regulations, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which regulates transport of radioactive material with Transport Canada, could keep the shipment's arrival secret.

"I'll be contacting Transport Canada in the next few days to find out if this is the case," said McClenaghan.

Sierra Club of Canada policy advisor Andrew Chisholm told ENS that the emergency response plan crafted by AECL raises more questions than it answers. "In the long term though we are concerned that Canada will become a repository for nuclear waste and that similar shipments will come from other areas," he said.

AECL spokesman Larry Shewchuk denied information surrounding the shipment's arrival would be kept secret. "I have a draft press release sitting on my desk waiting to be sent to media outlets as soon as the shipment arrives," said Shewchuk.

Shewchuk added that the emergency response plan does deal with cleanup, although just briefly. "A radiological assessment team accompanies the shipment, and in the event of an accident it would have the cleanup responsibility. If the tubes got out of the container and if - unfathomable as it may be - the MOX pellets got out of the tube, well, the guys would put on rubber gloves and pick them up."

Shewchuk said the radioactivity of the pellets is so weak it cannot penetrate paper, nor could it penetrate skin. He added that the containers used to package the MOX shipment have been through tests similar to those for the black boxes that protect flight data recorders.

Citing expert testimony from Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Washington, DC based Nuclear Control Institute, the Sierra Club maintains accidental release of plutonium fuel powder is still possible.

"It is known that the container chosen by AECL can be destroyed by a severe impact, such as that caused by an aircraft accident," said Sierra Club spokeswoman attorney Elizabeth May. "The ceramic fuel pellets would be partially pulverized by such an impact, and can become almost completely pulverized by exposure to fire in the presence of oxygen for as little as 30 minutes."

fuel cycle

The nuclear fuel cycle. (Photo courtesy BNFL, Cogema and ORC)
Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, said, "Full face respirators, plastic body suits and double rubber gloves for AECL personnel are for the first time described as mandatory, but there is no training program outlined for teaching firefighters, medical personnel, and other emergency responders how to use this kind of equipment. Nor is there any indication of how to prevent the inadvertent spread of plutonium contamination during the disrobing operation."

AECL plans to transport the Russian fuel to Canada by chartered aircraft from Moscow, transiting via a military airport in either Trenton, Ontario or Bagotville, Quebec en route to the Chalk River Laboratories site in Chalk River, Ontario. The MOX fuel will be transported from the military airport directly to Chalk River by helicopter.

Transport Canada expects to publish a report on its decision and on the comments received during public consultation by mid-October.

The Canadian government's emergency response plan is online at: http://www.tc.gc.ca/tdg/en/mox/erap1.pdf

Footnote The shipment of Russian MOX fuel samples arrived safely in Chalk River, Monday (September 25).