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Nuclear Fuel ‘Recycling’ in New Brunswick Could Drive Weapons Proliferation, Analysts Warn

Two veteran safe energy campaigners are raising the alarm after the federal government announced a C$50.5-million subsidy to a New Brunswick company that wants to build a new 300-megawatt small modular nuclear reactor at the site of the current Point Lepreau nuclear station by the early 2030s.

“Pierre Elliot Trudeau banned the extraction of plutonium [PDF] from used nuclear fuel in Canada,” wrote University of New Brunswick researcher Susan O’Donnell and veteran scientist and nuclear consultant Gordon Edwards in a March 19 post for The Hill Times, also published by the NB Media Co-op. “Today, Justin Trudeau lifted the ban under a smokescreen of double talk.”

Moltex Energy Canada plans to “recycle” spent nuclear fuel from the existing facility and “reduce storage needs for existing used nuclear fuel,” The Canadian Press reports. The company says the federal subsidy will translate into 48 full-time jobs. But O’Donnell and Edwards say the notion of “recycling” doesn’t begin to describe the overwhelming hazards of a scheme to extract plutonium from the spent fuel rods at Point Lepreau.

“During the announcement, presenters repeatedly referred to the technology as ‘recycling’,” they write, even though “less than 1% of the material in the used fuel will be available as fuel for the proposed Moltex nuclear reactor. Experts on nuclear waste have raised alarms about the process, pointing out that the process will create new, additional toxic liquid radioactive waste streams that will be very difficult to manage.”

Yet “Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan has also referred to the plutonium plan as ‘recycling’ used fuel, and New Brunswick’s energy minister, Mike Holland, has been promoting it in his province. The innocuous ‘recycling’ label for the dirty and dangerous process aligns with the federal and provincial government agreement to brand nuclear power as a ‘clean technology’.”

O’Donnell and Edwards explain that plutonium, a human-made derivative of uranium “that does not exist in nature”, is best known as the main explosive material in the world’s nuclear weapons arsenal. “However, plutonium can also fuel nuclear reactors, and the nuclear industry in Canada has never lost sight of its dream of using plutonium as fuel in this country. Now the industry is developing its fantasy in New Brunswick.”

But the plan is a “marked departure” from current practice for Canada’s nuclear industry, and the few countries that currently run reprocessing facilities—for commercial or military use—are subject to “special oversight” from the International Atomic Energy Agency. O’Donnell and Edwards point at a strong historical link between civilian and military nuclear production, and recall the two reasons both Canada and the United States banned reprocessing in the first place: “It is highly dangerous and polluting to ‘open up’ the used nuclear fuel in order to extract the desired plutonium; and extracting plutonium creates a civilian traffic in highly dangerous materials that can be used by governments or criminals or terrorists to make powerful nuclear weapons without the need for terribly sophisticated or readily detectable infrastructure.”

They say the Moltex subsidy puts Canada in the position of “leading the way towards undoing the global non-proliferation regime, which is already shaky and in danger of disintegration.” At very least, O’Donnell and Edwards say the decision should be subject to “informed debate” in the House of Commons and ongoing regulatory oversight.

A business reporter at BNN Bloomberg quizzed Moltex CEO Rory O’Sullivan on the risks of weapons proliferation and environmental contamination in a video interview Friday. Past projects in other countries have produced “massive contamination, and that’s because of fuel reprocessing,” he said. “So New Brunswickers might have reason to be concerned here.”

“Look, this is an innovative project, and we have a lot to do to validate that it’s going to operate safely,” O’Sullivan responded. “That’s what the next four years is going to do…to make really sure we’ve absolutely covered every single risk that we could come up with.” The results of that work will go to the federal regulator “over the next four, seven, or even eight years,” he added.

But none of those details came to the surface in the official account of last week’s announcement.

“This investment will help develop and validate SMR technology, secure the establishment of the industry here in New Brunswick, and also establish a first-of-a-kind, world-class clean energy system that can be used in Canada but also around the world,” said Intergovernmental Affairs Minister and New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc.

“The best way to ensure that Canada, specifically New Brunswick, becomes a leader in advanced small modular reactor development is through continued engagement and partnerships,” said New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs. ” By investing in SMRs, not only are we supporting the development of local expertise but we are also helping to create a critical mass to attract the best talent, which will enable other companies in our province to grow. I am confident this technology could help us create a more prosperous and sustainable tomorrow for future generations.”

World Nuclear News reports on a Conference Board of Canada study that estimates job creation through SMR development from 2021 on.