Small Modular Reactors and Proliferation /Tolerance of Nuclear Weapons

Gordon Edwards, January 12, 2021

Uranium enrichment is indeed a proliferation-sensitive technology as is clearly demonstrated by the Iranian situation. Even though, under the terms of the NPT and all other international accords, Iran has the right to enrich uranium to any degree that might be desired, for civilian purposes only, in practical terms the western powers do not at all trust Iran to exercise that right. So they are prohibited from doing so, even to the 20% (minus epsilon) level, which is what many of the proposed SMNR designs require.

Right up until the final shutdown of the NRU reactor at Chalk River, Canada was using weapons-grade uranium (>93%) targets for the production of technetium-99m generators for use in hospitals around the world, and I was told by an Iranian scientist in Salzburg that Iran wanted weapons-grade uranium for exactly the same reason – medical isotopes. All of this ignoring the fact that weapons-grade uranium is NOT needed for this purpose, whether in Canada or anywhere else, and in actual fact technetium-99m generators can be produced in a cost-effective manner without the use of a nuclear reactor of any kind, or even using uranium of any kind.

But – in the interests of a nuclear weapons free world – Canada should indeed be encouraging the international / multinational control (or oversight) of ALL enrichment facilities.

But that is small potatoes. Canada claims the NPT is the backbone of its non-proliferation commitment, but India has not signed the NPT and has already developed a nuclear weapons capability beginning in 1974 with plutonium produced in a Canadian reactor (the CIRUS, a clone of the NRX). Whereupon Canada insisted there would be no more nuclear cooperation between Canada and India – but all the time, India remained a member of COG (the CANDU Owners Group) and went on to build more than a dozen CANDU “clones” without direct Canadian help (other than the fact that we sold them under very generous terms the original CANDUS that were the cookie-cutter models for all the others.  And then, under Stephen Harper, we resumed sales of uranium to India without any requirement that they get rid of their nuclear arsenal or even stop expanding it, and without signing the NPT. Which makes all the other countries who signed the NPT to have access to Canadian uranium and/or technology look like fools, because India got all the goodies without accepting the NPT responsibilities. Canada should stop selling uranium to India if the NPT is really so important.

But even that is small potatoes. Article VI of the NPT says that the “ official  nuclear weapons states USA, UK, France, Russia and China, must negotiate in good faith not only to eliminate nuclear weapons but to achieve general and complete disarmament (i.e. elimination of armies and an end to war).  Clearly, none of these nuclear superpowers are embarked on such a path, and until they do, Canada should refuse to sell uranium to any of them. Or at least should put constant pressure on the, to comply with Article VI. The fact that these things are not done indicates that Canada is only paying lip-service when it says that NPT is the basis for its non-proliferation policies.

PET told the UN General Assembly that if we want a world free of nuclear weapons, we must end the arms race – and we must begin with a strategy of suffocation, to choke off the vital oxygen on which it feeds, meaning the production of the two “strategic nuclear materials” which serve as primary nuclear explosives, i.e. weapons-grade uranium and weapons-grade plutonium.

These same considerations should apply when it comes to the extraction of plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel.  At the very least, there should be a requirement for such facilities (reprocessing plants) to be under international control just as enrichment plants should be under international control. Of course, better yet would be the abolition of reprocessing and uranium enrichment altogether, taking Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s 1978 “strategy of suffocation” to its ultimate limit. PET told the UN General Assembly that if we want a world free of nuclear weapons, we must end the arms race – and we must begin with a strategy of suffocation, to choke off the vital oxygen on which it feeds, meaning the production of the two “strategic nuclear materials” which serve as primary nuclear explosives, i.e. weapons-grade uranium and weapons-grade plutonium. However we now know that, for weapons purposes, ALL plutonium is “good” plutonium, so the division of plutonium into weapons-grade and non-weapons-grade is illusory. Ultimately, then, the strategy of suffocation means no nuclear reactors whatsoever.


Trinity (nuclear test) - Wikipedia
Trinity test of a plutonium bomb (Wikipedia)

Why is there so much plutonium at Chalk River?

October 25, 2020


Update April 29, 2022) five isotopes of plutonium are included in the inventory of radioactive materials destined for the NSDF if it is approved. Details here:


A consortium of private multinational corporations is proposing to create a giant mound of radioactive wastes at Chalk River, Ontario, less than a kilometer from the Ottawa River.  According to the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) the proposed mega-dump will house a rather large quantity of plutonium.

What is plutonium and why should we worry about it?

Plutonium is a human-made radioactive element that is created as a byproduct in nuclear reactors. The first reactors were built to produce plutonium for use as a nuclear explosive in atomic weapons. Plutonium can also be fabricated into fuel elements for nuclear reactors.

Plutonium remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years after it is created.  It comes in several different varieties or “isotopes”.  The most abundant varieties are plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,000 years; and plutonium-240, with a half-life of 6,600 years.  The half-life is the time required for half of the atoms to undergo radioactive disintegration. When a plutonium atom disintegrates it is transformed into another radioactive material, sometimes one with a much longer half-life.

All isotopes of plutonium are highly toxic. Even very small doses can lead to radiation-induced illnesses such as cancer, often resulting in death.

Why is there plutonium at Chalk River?

The decision to build the Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) was taken in Washington, D.C. in 1944.  Canada, Great Britain and the United States agreed to build the facility as part of an effort to produce plutonium for bombs.  In fact, plutonium produced at CRL played a role in both the US and UK nuclear weapons programs.

During the late 1940s, British scientists carried out all necessary pilot plant work at Chalk River to design their own large plutonium production plant at Windscale, England.  Plutonium produced at CRL arrived in England just months before the first British nuclear explosion took place in Australia in 1952.

For three decades, plutonium produced in Canadian research reactors was sold to the U.S. military to help finance the Chalk River Laboratories.  A reprocessing plant at Chalk River was built to extract plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel dissolved in nitric acid. It was shut down in 1954, but irradiated fuel containing Canadian plutonium was shipped to the U.S. until the mid-1970s.  In all, at least 250 kg of plutonium was sold to the U.S. for nuclear weapons and warheads.

Three buildings central to plutonium production are slated for demolition

Various facilities at CRL were used in the 1940s and 1950s to extract plutonium from fuels irradiated in the NRX reactor.  In 2004, environmental assessments were initiated governing the radioactive demolition of three such structures:

•       The Plutonium Tower, used in the late 1940s to extract plutonium from fuel   rods irradiated in the NRX reactor.

•       The Plutonium Recovery Laboratory, used between 1949 and 1957 to extract plutonium isotopes from enriched fuels irradiated in the NRX reactor.

•       The Waste Water Evaporator, used between 1952 and 1958 to process radioactive liquid wastes left behind from the plutonium extraction work. Decommissioning of this facility would include: removal, treatment and storage of plutonium-bearing liquid wastes and sludge in tanks, plutonium-contaminated process lines and equipment; decontamination and removal of process equipment and processing cells for handling plutonium; removal of building structures containing plutonium residues; segregation of solid wastes and transfer of these plutonium-contaminated materials to waste management facilities at CRL.

In December 2011 the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission gave the go-ahead for dismantling the first of these structures, the Plutonium Tower.  In 2012, changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act introduced by Stephen Harper’s government made it permissible to demolish radioactively contaminated buildings without any environmental assessment (EA).

To date, only the auxiliary buildings associated with the Plutonium Tower have been decommissioned, but the Tower itself is still standing.  And as far as the Plutonium Recovery Lab and Waste Water Evaporator go, neither has been decommissioned. All these decommissioning projects will be difficult, and will generate lots of long-lived, intermediate-level waste.

These buildings are just three examples of demolition projects that would produce plutonium-contaminated rubble likely destined for the proposed megadump. Chalk River scientists were keenly interested in testing plutonium as a reactor fuel.  Some three tonnes of plutonium-based fuel elements were fabricated at Chalk River using remote handling devices called gloveboxes. Such facilities would also result in plutonium-contaminated wastes when demolished.

The draft EIS estimates that total quantities of plutonium to be placed in the planned landfill-type facility would be measured in the trillions of Becquerels. A Becquerel is a unit of radioactivity, indicating that one radioactive disintegration is taking place every second. (Every radioactive atom eventually disintegrates, or explodes, giving off one or two subatomic projectiles called “atomic radiation”. All forms of atomic radiation — alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays, and neutrons–are damaging to living cells.)

Plutonium will inevitably leak into the Ottawa River (EIS)

The draft EIS indicates that after failure of the landfill cover, which is bound to occur at some point after abandonment, millions of Becquerels of each plutonium isotope would enter Perch Creek every year.  Perch Creek flows into the Ottawa River about 1 km away.

Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area

May 2017