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)

How investment in SMRs supports “defense nuclear programs”

1. Rolls-Royce, 2017, ‘UK SMR: A National Endeavour’,…

“The indigenous UK supply chain that supports defence nuclear programmes requires significant ongoing support to retain talent and develop and maintain capability between major programmes. Opportunities for the supply chain to invest in new capability are restricted by the limited size and scope of the defence nuclear programme. A UK SMR programme would increase the security, size and scope of opportunities for the UK supply chain significantly, enabling long-term sustainable investment in people, technology and capability.

“Expanding the talent pool from which defence nuclear programmes can draw from would bring a double benefit. First, additional talent means more competition for senior technical and managerial positions, driving excellence and performance. Second, the 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. This would free up valuable resources for other investments.”

Canada re-engages in the Nuclear Weapons Business with SMRs

December 3, 2020


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).

O'Regan putting nuclear 'front and centre' raises eyebrows, industry hopes  - The Hill Times
 Minister of Natural Resources delivering a keynote speech to the Canadian Nuclear Association. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

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.

Opinion: A new global treaty bans nuclear weapons. But why didn't Canada  sign? - The Globe and Mail