Energy Probe’s Sept 1997 Submission to US Dept. of Energy

Norman Rubin
Energy Probe
August 17, 1997

Dean Triebel
U.S. Department of Energy
Tel: 505-665-6353

To the U.S. Department of Energy:

I am writing on behalf of Energy Probe concerning the “Parallex Project”, which involves the fabrication of weapons-grade plutonium into reactor fuel (“MOX”) at Los Alamos, and transport of said fuel to Chalk River, Ontario, for testing in an experimental reactor. We understand that the “test burn” is a precursor for the possible eventual large-scale importation of plutonium MOX fuel for use in CANDU nuclear reactors over a period of two or three decades. In particular, we refer to the preliminary Environmental Assessment prepared by the U.S. Department of Energy on the Parallex Project.

Energy Probe is the largest of Canada’s environmental groups that focuses on energy and nuclear issues, and has taken a decades-long interest in issues concerning nuclear energy and nuclear weapons proliferation. We also corresponded with the Department of Energy (June 6, 1966) in response to the Draft PEIS on the Storage and Disposition of Weapons-Usable Fissile Materials.

In that correspondence, we cautioned the U.S. Department of Energy not to assume that official Canadian Government approval of “the CANDU Reactor Alternative” is based on either full assessment of the program’s potential impacts, or full public discussion in Canada of those potential impacts. We call attention to your response to our comments (Final PEIS, Comment Response Document, Volume IV, Part A, pp. 3-196 through 3-202). In that response you state:

“. . . In addition, according to the Canadian Government, implementation of the CANDU Reactor Alternative would be subject to Canadian Federal and Provincial policies and regulations and would require health, safety, and environmental assessments before issuance of a Canadian license. (See the letter from the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC, dated June 6, 1996, reproduced in this CRD.)”

In that letter, signed by Brian Morrisey, the Embassy’s Minister-Counsellor, Economic and Trade Policy, the final paragraph reads as follows:

“If the DOE selects Ontario Hydro CANDU reactors for the plutonium disposition program, implementation would be subject to Canadian federal and provincial policies and regulations. These would include detailed, satisfactory assessments of health, safety, and environmental aspects before issuance of an Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) operating license to Ontario Hydro for the use of MOX fuel. We expect that the public reviews included in the AECB assessment process would focus on issues such as the safe and secure transportation of MOX fuel from the international boundary as well as matters specific to the reactor site.”

We do not believe that the promised “public reviews” will approach the level of democratic public scrutiny that this paragraph would suggest to a U.S. (or indeed a Canadian) reader. Indeed, past AECB “public reviews” on important licensing decisions have generally been completed in the course of an hour or two, giving five or ten minutes for the presentation of each independent analysis, followed (usually immediately) by the decision of the Board. In the case of the Parallex Project, including the proposed December shipment of MOX fuel to Chalk River, Ontario, we do not believe that even this level of “public review” has taken place or is anticipated. We believe that common decency in international relations, concern for the environment of a neighbouring state, the U.S. National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), and the Presidential Executive Order requiring your Department to implement the principles of environmental justice in your review process, all require that Canadians must be accorded the right to a meaningful public review and assessment before the proposed shipment for the Parallex Project can proceed.

As you know, one of the credible scenarios described in the preliminary Environmental Assessment prepared by the U.S. Department of Energy on the Parallex Project involves a traffic accident resulting in the release of plutonium oxide particles to the atmosphere and subsequent inhalation of such particles by members of the public. This scenario has not been taken seriously, or publicly reviewed, in Canada. We believe a full-scale environmental assessment process must be initiated so that the details of this analysis can be critically scrutinized and alternative scenarios studied.

It is noteworthy that the preliminary EA does not specifically discuss security measures or armed guards for the transport of plutonium fuel, other than to describe a tamper-proof on-board satellite tracking system for the trucks. However, it is apparent that any attempt to hijack the shipments by force of arms could have both direct and indirect environmental consequences, and is, we believe, just as credible as the other accident scenarios discussed in the EA. Such scenarios must be included in a comprehensive environmental assessment.

Furthermore, we note that most credible assessments of the security requirements of shipments of weapons-plutonium MOX (including notably that of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) suggest that they be handled to “The Stored [Nuclear] Weapons Standard”. It would appear that the proposed shipment would not meet that standard, in part because it does not anticipate the use of safe secure transport (SST) vehicles for the MOX export. Full discussion of this issue must be included in a comprehensive environmental assessment.

We are also concerned that the largest impact of this “test of feasibility” has not been assessed adequately at all, on either side of the border between our countries. Specifically, we believe that there is a crucial non-proliferation danger even in merely demonstrating the feasibility of using MOX fuel in CANDU reactors. CANDU reactors are operated in India, Pakistan, South Korea, Romania and Argentina, each of which have or have had an active program to develop nuclear weapons. China is about to buy two CANDU reactors. Non-Canadian CANDU operators can be expected to seize on this demonstration in Canada as a precedent to justify their own use of plutonium. The likely result is the further spread of weapons-usable plutonium in civilian nuclear power programs around the world. More than a decade ago, the U.S. government intervened to prevent the same Canadian agency, AECL, from sharing plutonium-use technology with the South Korean nuclear establishment, on legitimate anti-proliferation grounds. If even moderately successful, the proposed test of feasibility — whether or not full-scale implementation follows — will give comfort and encouragement to precisely those forces within South Korea (and other CANDU client states) that still wish to proceed towards full plutonium use.

In Canada, seven CANDU reactors are slated for shutdown due to a poor “safety culture”, manifested in sub-standard practices, sloppy management and a huge backlog of safety-related maintenance problems. The reactors to be shut down include the Bruce A reactors which were selected by AECL as the best candidates for eventual use of MOX fuel. This calls into question the judgment of AECL officials, the wisdom of consigning MOX fuel to AECL without any independent oversight, and the reliability of Ontario Hydro and AECL to fulfill the terms of any proposed plutonium disposition agreement. (Indeed, we believe that the same “safety culture” problems most likely apply as much to AECL as to Ontario Hydro.) We therefore believe that this test is at least premature, and is likely to prove useless, as it will not lead to successful disposition even if the test succeeds.

As stated in the EA, “environmental assessment of activities conducted in Canada would be the responsibility of the Canadian government”. However, there has been no environmental assessment process initiated in Canada. In fact, there has been no public process of any kind to involve the Canadian parliament or the Canadian population in approving, disapproving, or otherwise commenting on this project. For U.S. authorities to approve the project under such circumstances would inevitably lead to strong public opposition within Canada, as well as violating the spirit and (we believe) the letter of U.S. law. We urge the DOE to request the Canadian government to conduct an environmental assessment in parallel with your own.

cc. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, fax: 613-941-6900

Norman Rubin Senior Consultant, Borealis Energy Research Association Director of Nuclear Research and Senior Policy Analyst, Energy Probe 225 Brunswick Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M5S 2M6 Canada


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