As published in The Toronto Star, May 7, 2010
by Paul McKay
With the clandestine nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran drawing deserved condemnation at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review in the United Nations, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged a leadership role for Canada in devising a diplomatic exit strategy from the perils of proliferation.
The reason is physics. Every time uranium is fissioned inside a nuclear reactor, the deadly element plutonium is created. Aptly named after the Greek god of the underworld, only a plum-sized sphere weighing eight kilograms is needed to make an efficient atomic bomb.
India used plutonium created in a donated Canadian reactor to make its first bomb in 1974. Pakistan followed suit in 1998, and is now using a Candu knock-off to make plutonium and hydrogen bomb materials.
But the danger is not confined to rogue states. A “dirty” plutonium weapon might require 20 kilograms, but can be delivered by a single-engine Cessna, suicide SUV or backpack bomber on a bicycle.
Moreover, with a half-life of 24,000 years, plutonium is effectively immortal. It is also virtually indestructible.
Laudably, Canada has pledged $1 billion to help secure Cold War plutonium stockpiles. But last year, Saskatchewan uranium exports totalled 7.3 million kilograms. When fissioned in any reactor of any make, model or purpose, this will transmute into some 19,000 kilograms of plutonium, or enough for 2,300 warheads annually. This exported uranium also contains 52,000 kilograms of the bomb ingredient uranium-235, or enough to make 2,600 warheads annually.
During the next decade, if Canadian uranium exports continue at the same pace, enough plutonium and uranium-235 will be dispersed across the planet to potentially make 50,000 atomic bombs — almost double the existing warheads many world leaders and citizens now desperately seek to abolish.
This is a fact of physics. No Canadian prime minister, no premier of Saskatchewan, no scientist, no citizen can alter this deadly dynamic: Fissioned uranium turns into plutonium. If this happens inside a Candu reactor, the plutonium production rate is about 2.5 grams per kilogram of uranium — among the highest of all commercial reactor models. The Candu’s unique online fuelling system also makes plutonium diversion harder to detect, and can be covertly manipulated to produce higher purity plutonium.
Nuclear power currently provides just 5 per cent of world energy demand. Doubling that portion to only 10 per cent would require the construction of some 450 new nuclear reactors. The combined 900 reactors would consume some 120 million kilograms of uranium annually, and produce enough plutonium to make 14,000 warheads each year. For decades.
No one not blinded by self-interest would knowingly court this calamity, or prescribe nuclear reactors as the alternative to our carbon-imperilled Earth. While reactors do not emit carbon, they produce a different, equally ominous security threat in plutonium and uranium-235, as well as intensely radioactive, latently lethal wastes that will remain a threat to the biosphere for hundreds of centuries.
Despite belated, growing alarm about growing world stockpiles of fissile fuels, Ottawa continues to sell uranium as a commodity no less benign than wheat, wood or potash, and pitch reactors that are also plutonium production machines. Yet as leaders in North Korea and Iran well know, uranium and plutonium are as innately conjoined as fire and smoke, or the twisted double helix of DNA. And, like India and Pakistan, they have used the guise of the peaceful atom to achieve their military ends.
By promoting a nuclear export policy that gives primacy to closing current sales while assuming future world security is irrelevant, Ottawa is promoting a form of commerce without conscience.
Paul McKay is an investigative reporter and author of the recently published book: Atomic Accomplice: How Canada Deals in Deadly Deceit.