A blue-ribbon group of American nuclear non-proliferation experts warns that Canada’s investment in new nuclear technology could lead to the spread of nuclear weapons and new threats to the environment.
“We write as U.S. non-proliferation experts and former government officials and advisors with related responsibilities to express our concern about your government’s financial support of Moltex — a startup company that proposes to reprocess CANDU spent fuel to recover its contained plutonium for use in molten-salt-cooled reactors.”
The warning came in the form of an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that was delivered on Tuesday and signed by the nine experts.
The group is spearheaded by Frank von Hippel, professor and senior research physicist at Princeton University; it includes Matthew Bunn, the Schlesinger professor of the practise of energy, national security, and foreign policy at the Harvard Kennedy School; and Thomas Countryman, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation.
“We understand your government’s motivation to support nuclear power and to reduce fossil fuel use but saving the world from climate disaster need not be in conflict with saving it from nuclear weapons. Also, like other reprocessing efforts, Moltex, even in the R&D stage, would create a costly legacy of contaminated facilities and radioactive waste streams, and require substantial additional government funding for cleanup and stabilization prior to disposal,” they wrote.
Rory O’Sullivan, CEO of Moltex North America painted a very different picture of his company’s experimental technology in an interview with World Nuclear News: “We are working to develop a technology that uses the fuel from the first generation of nuclear power to the next. This reduces the challenges associated with spent nuclear fuel, while expanding nuclear power to help Canada achieve its climate change objectives.”
The Trudeau government has invested $50.5 million in Moltex, and backs the company’s plan to build a 300 MW molten salt reactor in New Brunswick on the Bay of Fundy. Theoretically, it would then reprocess spent fuel from the Point Lepreau nuclear plant, which is set to be decommissioned in 2040.
The Moltex reactor belongs to a class of nuclear power plants termed small modular reactors or SMRs that generate small amounts of electricity in comparison with typical CANDU reactors.
Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan has said that Canada can’t get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 without nuclear as part of the equation, along with renewables.
Despite marketing its roll of the dice on Moltex as part of its war on climate change, Ottawa isn’t getting much love from environmentalists, or many other people. Three federal political parties, the NDP, the Bloc and the Greens; the Green Budget Coalition; and the Canadian Environmental Law Association all oppose the federal investment in small modular reactors. University of British Columbia professor of public policy and global affairs M.V. Ramana has levelled criticisms in these pages as well.
The critics contend that SMRs are costly, unproven and creators of toxic waste of their own. From a practical point of view, it is hard to make the case that SMRs will be crucial in the battle against climate change, since they won’t come off the drawing board for years, if ever. Former Green Party leader Elizabeth May says that opting for experimental SMRs is just another way of delaying real action on global warming.
One who has closely followed and opposes the two experimental SMR reactors planned for New Brunswick, the ARC-100 and the Moltex SSR, is Dr. Susan O’Donnell, an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick. O’Donnell is also the primary investigator of Raven, a research team based at the university dedicated to highlighting rural environmental issues in the province.
O’Donnell points out that Moltex has never built a nuclear reactor before. In fact, only two molten salt reactors have ever been built — 50 years ago. Neither of them produced electricity. One of them lasted four years before shutting down, the other, just 100 hours.
On the environmental side, O’Donnell says that SMR pollution or a serious failure could lead to “disasters and no-go zones.”
On the non-proliferation front, she denounces the plan to broadly “export” the Moltex technology, assuming it ever gets up and running.
“What we have learned from Canada’s role in making India a nuclear power is that one of the dangers of the Moltex proposal is its plan to export the technology. We’re exporting bomb-making capacity,” she told The Tyee.
O’Donnell has pushed for public consultations to help develop a national radioactive waste policy. Last Aug. 13, she made an offer to the federal minister of natural resources to have the Raven project organize such a public consultation in New Brunswick. It would be online because of the pandemic, in both official languages, and would include Indigenous nations and rural communities. Minister O’Regan responded two months later, on Oct. 30, turning her down.
“Strangely, he cited the pandemic, even though our offer clearly stated the consultation would be virtual,” the professor said.
O’Donnell’s take on the Moltex project is backed up by Allison Macfarlane, former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The specialist in the storage of nuclear waste told the CBC in January that the molten salt technology is totally unproven with respect to viability, costs and storage risks.
“Nobody knows what the numbers are, and anybody who gives you numbers is selling you a bridge to nowhere.... Nobody’s been able to answer my questions yet on what all those wastes are, and how much of them there are, and how heat-producing they are and what their compositions are,” Macfarlane said. She is now the director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at UBC.
But the Trudeau government does have allies at the provincial level for its nuclear ambitions. The governments of New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta have all signed a memorandum of understanding to develop SMRs, which means promoting them.
They are excited about the promises by Moltex that it will be able to produce clean energy at a low cost by recycling something that everyone wants to get rid of — the three million spent fuel bundles in Canada that the government still doesn’t know how to dispose of safely and permanently.
The U.S. experts made clear to the PM in their letter that they are not convinced by the company’s assertions. They want the Trudeau government to convene a high-level review of both the non-proliferation and environmental implications of Moltex’s reprocessing proposal. Key to that proposal is including “independent international experts,” before Ottawa makes any further investments in support of the Moltex proposal.
The earliest projects to reprocess nuclear waste extracted plutonium to make nuclear weapons. The letter signees worry Canada’s new generation of reactors will afford the same opportunity to anyone who buys them.
“Our main concern is that, by backing spent-fuel reprocessing and plutonium extraction, the government of Canada will undermine the global nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime that Canada has done so much to strengthen. Canada is a founding member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which was established in 1974 in response to India’s misuse of a Canada-supplied research reactor and U.S.-supplied reprocessing technology to acquire the plutonium needed for its first nuclear weapons.”
The reprocessing of nuclear waste was “indefinitely deferred” in the United States by president Jimmy Carter in 1977 after India tested its first nuclear weapon. At the time, the Americans discovered that several other countries including Brazil, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan were all surreptitiously headed down the same nuclear weapons path that India had taken. Of that group, only Pakistan managed to get the bomb.
The U.S. experts who signed the letter to Trudeau also rejected the claim by Moltex that by using spent fuel from older Canadian CANDU reactors, its reactor would reduce the long-term risk from a deep underground radioactive waste repository.
The Trudeau government promised it would base its major policies on science. It’s time for the public consultation, far from the greasy paws of lobbyists, and with the best minds that can be brought to the table.
This is a letter to take to heart.