December 3, 2020
Published as an Op Ed by the Hill Times at this link: WWW.HILLTIMES.COM/2020/12/03/CANADA-RE-ENTERS-NUCLEAR-WEAPONS-BUSINESS-WITH-SMALL-MODULAR-REACTORS/274591
Canada Re-enters the Nuclear Weapons Business with SMRs
Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan is expected to announce within weeks his government’s action plan for development of “small modular” nuclear reactors (SMRs).
SMR developers already control the federally-subsidized Chalk River Laboratories and other facilities owned by the crown corporation, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL). Canada is now poised to play a supporting role in the global nuclear weapons business, much as it did during World War II.
Canada was part of the Manhattan project with the U.S. and U.K. to produce atomic bombs. In 1943 the three countries agreed to build a facility in Canada to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Researchers who trained at the Chalk River Laboratories went on to launch weapons programs in the U.K. and France. Chalk River provided plutonium for U.S. weapons until the 1960s.
Canada’s Nuclear Schizophrenia describes a long tradition of nuclear cooperation with the United States: “For example, in the early 1950s, the U.S. Navy used Canadian technology to design a small reactor for powering its nuclear submarines.” C.D. Howe, after creating AECL in 1952 to develop nuclear reactors and sell weapons plutonium, remarked that “we in Canada are not engaged in military development, but the work that we are doing at Chalk River is of importance to military developments.”
The uranium used in the 1945 Hiroshima bomb may have been mined and refined in Canada. According to Jim Harding’s book Canada’s Deadly Secret: Saskatchewan Uranium and the Global Nuclear System, from 1953 to 1969, all the uranium mined in Saskatchewan went to make U.S. nuclear weapons. Canada remains the world’s second-largest producer of uranium. North America’s only currently operating uranium processing facility is owned by Cameco in Port Hope, Ontario.
Canada built India’s CIRUS reactor, which started up in 1960 and produced the plutonium for India’s first nuclear explosion in 1974. Canada also built Pakistan’s first nuclear reactor, which started up in 1972. Although this reactor was not used to make weapons plutonium, it helped train the engineers who eventually exploded Pakistan’s first nuclear weapons in 1998.
In 2015 the Harper Government contracted a multi-national consortium called Canadian National Energy Alliance – now comprised of two U.S. companies, Fluor and Jacobs, along with Canada’s SNC-Lavalin – to operate AECL’s nuclear sites, the main one being at Chalk River. Fluor operates the Savannah River Site, a South Carolina nuclear weapons facility, under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Jacobs also has contracts at DOE weapons facilities and is part of a consortium that operates the U.K. Atomic Weapons Establishment.
Joe McBrearty, the president of the consortium’s subsidiary that operates Chalk River and other federal nuclear sites, was a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine commander and then chief operating officer for the DOE’s nuclear laboratories between 2010 and 2019.
All three consortium partners have investments in SMRs and are ramping up research and development at AECL’s Chalk River facility. Some SMR designs would use uranium enriched to levels well beyond those in current reactors; others would use plutonium fuel; others would use fuel dissolved in molten salt. All of these pose new and problematic weapons proliferation risks.
Rolls Royce, an original consortium partner that makes reactors for the U.K.’s nuclear submarines, is lead partner in a U.K. consortium (including SNC-Lavalin) that was recently funded by the U.K. government to advance that country’s SMR program.
A military bromance: SMRs to support and cross-subsidize the UK nuclear weapons program, says “Industry and government in the UK openly promote SMRs on the grounds that an SMR industry would support the nuclear weapons program (in particular the submarine program) by providing a pool of trained nuclear experts, and that in so doing an SMR industry will cross-subsidize the weapons program.”
The article quotes a 2017 Rolls Royce study as follows: “expansion of a nuclear-capable skilled workforce through a civil nuclear UK SMR programme would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability.”
The SMR connection to weapons and submarines could hardly be clearer – without SMRs, the U.S. and U.K. will experience a shortage of trained engineers to maintain their nuclear weapons programs.
With the takeover of AECL’s Chalk River Laboratories by SMR developers, and growing federal government support for SMRs, Canada has become part of a global regime linking nuclear power and nuclear weapons.